It’s been a while since I have written a “Tales from Chaucer” post. This is where I write a summary of a tale from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and consider some of its main themes. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is arguably one of the more well-known tales, probably because it is such a great story. If you’re interested in reading it, or any other parts of The Canterbury Tales, there are some excellent resources available here that provide both the Middle English and modern English versions of the text.
The Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrimage of a large group of Londoners. As they march to Canterbury, they tell each other stories to entertain each other. These are Chaucer’s “tales” and actually make up the majority of the narrative.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is often said to be a part of “the marriage group”, as it considers the issues associated with love and marriage. It is also worth noting that while both “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale” depict a character called Alisoun, it is unlikely that this is the same woman. Apparently, this was simply a common name.
During the time of King Arthur, a lusty bachelor took it upon himself to rape a young girl. According to the customs of Arthur’s court, the man should have been condemned to die, but just as Arthur was about to pass this sentence, he heard outcries from the ladies in his court. Hearing their calls, he decided to allow them to decide between them what the man’s fate should be.
The ladies turned to the man and told him that he would only be permitted to live if, after a year and a day, he could tell them the one thing that every woman desired more than anything else.
Delighted with this decision, the man set out to answer the women’s question. He asked woman after woman, but they all gave him different answers and he began to worry that he would lose his life, after all. Then, one day, he discovered a very old, very ugly woman who promised to tell him what she desired, provided that he would return to her and do whatever she next asked of him.
The man eagerly agreed and returned to Arthur’s court with the answer he sought. He told the ladies that women desired, more than anything else, to have power over their husbands.
Guenevere and her ladies were astonished at the man’s answer, but they agreed that it was true and allowed him to keep his life. The man then returned to the old woman, determined to keep his promise to her. When he found her again, she announced that she wished to marry him.
The man, with no other choice open to him, agreed to the marriage. On their wedding night, however, he turned away from the woman and told her that she was too ugly and too poor for him. The woman argued that such things didn’t really matter, suggesting that it was a person’s actions that should measure their worth.
Realising the man’s sorrow, however, she offered him a choice: he could either have her old and ugly, but faithful, or have her young and beautiful, but with a tendency to be unfaithful. The man replied that it was not his decision to make and told her to make the choice. In giving her this choice, however, he grants her sovereignty over him, which is, according to Chaucer, what women want more than anything else. The woman transformed into a beautiful (and faithful) woman and they lived happily together for the rest of their lives.
Despite what you might be thinking, this story actually makes a lot more sense than some of Chaucer’s other tales, but there’s a lot going on in it, so let me unpack some of its themes for you. For me, the most interesting aspects of this tale are its genre, its prologue, and its similarities to a contemporary Middle English poem called “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle“.
Although it is generally placed into “the marriage group” by scholars, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is not necessarily a straight-forward love story. It is true that it centres around the marriage and eventual happiness of the bachelor and the old lady, but these occurrences seem to be lessons within a much bigger function. I should mention at this point that most of the stories in The Canterbury Tales tend to have morals; indeed, the Parson is scolded for attempting to tell a tale that doesn’t have a moral.
Personally, I view “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as a story about the bachelor’s personal development. At the beginning of the story, he is facing a death sentence for abusing and disrespecting a young woman. By the end of the tale, however, he gives the old woman what she desires most in the world: her freedom. He has learnt the importance of respecting women and, ultimately, he is rewarded with a beautiful, faithful wife.
Chaucer is clearly encouraging some sort of respect for women here, although how far this should be taken is debatable. It’s all very well to say that Chaucer was the feminist of his day, but remember that this was the Middle Ages. When the bachelor gives the old woman sovereignty, he is only really giving her the power to decide what happens to her own body, not power over himself or matters of the court.
The stories told in The Canterbury Tales are generally accompanied by prologues that depict members of the pilgrimage discussing each other’s tales. In the Wife of Bath’s prologue, they learn all about how the Wife of Bath, Alisoun, overcomes men, playing them off against each other and essentially dominating them. This is interesting because it isn’t really what happens in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”.
Whilst the idea of a woman being powerful is conveyed perfectly, the tale also makes it clear that she must be given this power by a man. This contradicts with how Alisoun describes overcoming her various husbands, as she didn’t wait to be told that she could steal from them, or that she could beat them after they beat her. Arguably, this contradiction suggests that Alisoun thinks she has a lot more power than she actually does; she presents her story as a message about female independence and strength, yet actually tells a story about the development of a man.
“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle”
This contemporary poem is also set in the time of King Arthur, and also asks the question: what is it that women most desire? Here’s a short summary of the poem:
Arthur is asked this question when he is attacked by the knight Sir Gromer Somer Joure, whose lands have been (according to him) seized by Sir Gawain. Upon returning to his castle, Arthur tells Gawain what happened and the two decide to search for the answer together. They ride in separate directions and ask the question to everyone they come to, but can’t reach a solid conclusion. Arthur then decides to return to the forest where he met Sir Joure and finds an old, ugly woman called Ragnelle. She tells him that she will answer his question if she is permitted to marry Sir Gawain. With Gawain’s consent, the deal is agreed upon and Arthur is told that women most want sovereignty (the ability to make their own decisions).
Arthur’s life is thus saved and the wedding goes ahead. On their wedding night, Sir Gawain decides to love Ragnelle as if she were a beautiful woman but, when he turns to her, sees that she really is a beautiful woman. She explains that she has been cursed to look ugly, but only in the day, and then gives him a choice: he can either have her beautiful at night or beautiful in the day. Gawain rejects this choice and grants Ragnelle the sovereignty to make her own decision. This response breaks the curse and Ragnelle’s beauty is restored. The two live happily together for the rest of their lives.
So, as you can see, this poem is fairly similar to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”. Unlike Chaucer’s version, however, it seems to focus only on appearance. Rather than offering Gawain either beauty of faithfulness, Ragnelle offers him different forms of beauty. It is also true that a primary focus of “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” appears to be not the relationship between Gawain and Ragnelle, but the relationship between Gawain and Arthur. There is no room in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” to discuss this brotherhood, as it doesn’t depict Arthur as a focal character. In both tales, however, it is clear that, regardless of whether it considers a woman’s power or not, it is really about men and their relationships with each other.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed my summary of this tale. If you did, please feel free to leave me a comment below – it’ll make my day!