Ye herde I nevere tellen in myn age Upon this nombre diffinicioun. Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun, But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye, God bad us for to wexe and multiplye; That gentil text kan I wel understonde. Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde Sholde lete fader and mooder, and take to me. But of no nombre mencion made he, Of bigamy, or of octogamye; Why shold men thane speke of it vileynye?
The Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s most developed female character. Often, her voice stands in for the voice of all women of the time. As in many eras, Medieval women were judged not by their character but by their relationship—or relationships—to men. In this quote, the Wife of Bath directly addresses the double standard applied to men and women in relationships. The five men who married her all were permitted by god to ask her hand in marriage. So why should she be condemned for marrying each of them?
Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve! Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall. For sothe I wol nat kepe me chaast in al. Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon, Som cristen man shal wedde me anon[.]
The Wife of Bath, like many of Chaucer’s characters, can be shameless. In this part of her Prologue, she gleefully thanks God that she has had five husbands and declares that she will happily marry the sixth after the fifth dies. In these lines as in others, she praises marriage for its sexual pleasure, barely mentioning the Medieval value of courtly love or even affection or partnership.
Lordynges, right thus, as ye have understonde. Baar I stifly myne olde housbondes on honde That thus they seyden in hir dronkenesse. And al was fals; but that I took witnesse On Janekyn and on my nece also. O lord, the peyne I dide hem and the wo — Ful giltelees, by Goddes sweete pyne! — I For as an hors I koude byte and whyne. I koude pleyne, thogh I were in the gilt, Or elles often tyme hadde I been spilt.
This quote wraps up a long section of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in which the Wife of Bath details all the abuse she heaps on her husbands. She openly admits to using deception to get what she wants. She even claims that all women are natural liars. It remains unclear if Chaucer is portraying the Wife of Bath, or women as a whole, as deceptive or if the Wife merely plays the role of an entertaining scoundrel. The answer remains ambiguous, though given her contrast with the other female characters, the Wife of Bath seems to stand for no one but herself.
‘Thou standest yet’ quod she, ‘in swich array That of thy lyf yet hastow no suretee. I grante thee lyf if thou kanst tellen me What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren. Be war, and keepe thy nekke boon from iren. And if thou kanst nat tellen it anon[.]
The Wife of Bath’s tale concerns a knight convicted of rape who is sentenced by the queen to learn what all women want or face execution. This question represents the central mystery of the Wife’s tale. She herself has declared she wants sex, money, land, independence, and fun. Her story claims to say what all women want but in reality may only reveal what the Wife of Bath herself wants.
’My lige lady, generally,’ quod he, ‘Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee As wel over hir housbond as hir love, And for to been in maistrie hym above. This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille; Dooth as yow list, I am heer at youre wille In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne mayde, Ne wydwe, that contraried that he sayde, But seyden he was worthy han his lyf.
The Wife of Bath presents the final answer to the queen’s riddle: Women want to rule over the men in their lives. All the women present at the sentencing agree. This certainly falls in line with the Wife of Bath’s character. She illustrated in her long prologue the awful lengths she would go to manipulate her husbands. Her admission stands as a direct contradiction of the power structure between men and women in Chaucer’s time.
My lady and my love, and wyf so deere, I put me in youre wise governance. Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance And moost honour to yow and me also. I do no fors the wheither of the two; For as yow liketh it suffiseth me.
In the conclusion of the Wife’s tale, the knight follows his own advice. He sincerely allows the old woman to decide whether to remain old and faithful or young and unfaithful. Once he blesses her with her own choice, though, the woman chooses to be young and faithful. The moral of the tale seems to be that women will happily be loyal as long as it is their choice. However, the Wife of Bath herself offers no specific commentary on the story and its redeeming depiction of women.