THE WIFE OF BATH’S TALE
There was a Knight in King Arthur’s time who raped a fair young
maiden. King Arthur sent a decree out that the Knight must be brought to justice.
When the Knight is captured, he is condemned to death, but the Queen intercedes on behalf of the Knight and asks the King to allow her to pass judgment on the Knight.
The Queen asks the Knight, “What is the thing that most women desire?”
The Knight does not have an answer. The Queen releases the Knight, but commands him to return within one year with an answer.
The Knight spent this time roaming from place to place questioning
women. Some say they want wealth, others happiness, others to be gratified and flattered.
Everywhere he heard different answers. It is time for him to return to the Court and he is depressed for he does not have a good answer.
Outside the castle in the woods, he sees twenty four maidens dancing and
singing, but when he approaches they disappear as if by magic, and all that is left is an old hag. The Knight explains the problem to the hag and she is wise and may know the answer, but she would require
payment for saving his life. The Knight agrees.
The Queen asks the question again, and the Knight responds that women most
desire sovereignty over their husbands. All the women of the Court agree that this is a valid answer.
The Knight is acquitted.
The old crone enters saying that she supplied the answer for the Knight and
she now requests that he marries her. The Knight, in agony, agrees.
On their wedding night the hag is upset that the Knight doesn’t attend to
his new bride, but her ugliness and low breeding repulse him. She reminds him that her looks can be an asset because she will be a virtuous wife to him because no other men would desire her.
She asks him what he would prefer – an old ugly hag who is loyal, true and humble or a beautiful woman whom he would always have doubts about concerning her faithfulness? The Knight responds by saying that the choice was hers. The hag is pleased. She has won mastery over her husband, and she asks the Knight to kiss her. She says, “You will find me a fair and faithful wife”. The Knight turns to look at the hag again, but now finds a young and lovely woman.
They live blissfully ever after, the wife being in control.
This tale is not original, but Chaucer embellishes the storyline and makes
it one of the most unique of the Canterbury Tales.
Again there is a clear moral to the story and the reader must remember that
the narrator is an old hag telling a story about an old hag who dominates her husband.
The Wife of Bath is indeed a colorful character and her long introduction,
which provides details of her five marriages, adds substance to her actual tale.
The reader may wonder why she is on a Pilgrimage to Canterbury as she seems
to be at odds with most of her fellow travelers and also with the church, but she attempts to justify her position by quoting relevant passages from the Bible, in particular about Solomon having many wives.
She is in stark contrast to many of the subdued Pilgrims. She has
suffered hardship in her life and her five marriages have not all been successful, but she is a clear survivor and still enjoys life to the full.
This in itself is some justification for the way in which she has led her life, and she stresses the fact that she honored her marriage bed and never was unfaithful to her husbands.
It is hard to appreciate the constraints that women suffered in Medieval
times. They were regarded widely as second-class citizens and many of the more extreme churchmen regarded women as vessels of evil, there to corrupt man.
The church’s position on marriage was, therefore, that women should be kept under strict control to avoid temptation from the devil.
The Wife of Bath’s tale as written by Chaucer is there to refute this position.
We have a clear message via the Wife of Bath for the emancipation of women
in the Middle Ages.
One of the main points of the tale is, however, that a woman’s chastity
should not be violated and when this happens, the severest punishment is meted out.
That is why the Knight is initially sentenced to death for raping a young girl. Many people in Chaucer’s time might think that death was a better punishment than having a life dominated by a woman, which is the Knight’s final fate, even although she turns out to be a beauty.
The Friar now offers a tale about a Summoner, but the host disagrees with
this because there has already been unpleasantness between members of the party, and he doesn’t want the Friar to upset the Summoner.
However, the Summoner gives leave for the Friar to tell his tale, for he
knows one about a Friar.