3.1.1 The Wife of Bath's Prologue

The Wife of Bath's whip comes from her Prologue (cf. line 175); the other details are from the portrait in the GP:

  Upon an amblere esily she sat,
  Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
  As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
  A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
  And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.

(For a full view of the page on which this portrait appears in the Ellesmere Manuscript click here)


Short Summary:

Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, has been married five times and is ready for another husband: Christ never specified how many times a woman should marry. Virginity is fine but wives are not condemned; the Apostle said that my husband would be my debtor, and I have power over his body. Three of my husbands were good and two bad. The first three were old and rich and I picked them clean. One of my old husbands, emboldened with drink, would come home and preach against women; but I got the better of him. My fourth husband was young and he had a mistress. I pretended to be unfaithful and made him burn in his own grease. I already had my eye on young Jankin, pall-bearer for my fourth, and he became my fifth and favorite husband. He beat me. Once when he was reading aloud from his Book of Wicked Wives, I tore a page from his book, and he knocked me down (so hard I am still deaf from it). I pretended to be dying, and when he leaned over to ask forgiveness, I knocked him into the fireplace. We made up, and he gave me full sovereignty in marriage; thereafter I was kind and faithful, and we lived in bliss.

(Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful).


Contextual information:

The Wife of Bath's Prologue is in the genre of what one might call the "apologia," an explanation (and defense) of one's occupation and life -- in her case, marriage (weaving being a minor part of her life, at least insofar as it is presented here). Like the Pardoner and the Canon's Yeoman (to whose prologues this should be compared), Alisoun explains the tricks of her trade and defends a life style that might be shocking if it were not presented with such energy and (in her case, good humor).

To some extent, the prologue belongs in the tradition of the "old bawd," best known in English literature in the character of Juliet's nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Alisoun is by no means an old bawd, but her character owes something to that tradition, so rich in advice for would-be wicked wives, which began with Ovid's Dipsas, the old bawd in his Amores: The Bawd Dipsas, Amores (Bk. I, viii).

The best known descendent of Ovid's Dipsas is La Vielle ("the Duenna"), the old bawd in The Romance of the Rose (not in the part translated into Middle English; see the notes to the Wife of Bath's Prologue in The Riverside Chaucer for details of "borrowings"). The Duenna's long speech should be read in its entirety, to catch the spirit of her character, which differs in a variety of ways from that of the Wife of Bath: The Duenna's Speech in The Romance of the Rose.

Most of the anti-feminist material in the Wife of Bath's Prologue comes from Jankyn's "Book of Wicked Wives," (LINK) which he thinks is hilariously funny and which infuriates her. The longest entry in Jankyn's Book is from St. Jerome's Treatise Adversus Joviniamum, "Against Jovinianus", a vitriolic attack on one Jovinianus, of whom nothing is known beyond what Jerome tells us in his book.

Jovinianus maintained, among other doctrines that Jerome found damnable, that a virgin is no better than a wife in the sight of God and that fasting is no better than a thankful partaking of nourishment (and hence earned himself a later reputation as a glutton and devotee of pleasure -- see Summoner's Tale, line 1929).

It was Jerome's attack on marriage and the anti-matrimonial attack in Theophrastus' Golden Book of Marriage, which Jerome quotes, that most incensed the Wife of Bath; see the following selections from Against Jovinianus:

                Chastity Among Pagan Women
                Theophrastus' "Golden Book of Marriage"
                Why Men Should Not Marry

These texts and others (see the notes in The Riverside Chaucer) show some of the traditions on which Chaucer drew to create the Wife of Bath, but none of them account for the zest, merriment, and complexity of one of Chaucer's most fascinating characters.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale have elicited much in the way of critical commentary. The recommended text, The Wyf of Bath, ed. Peter G. Biedler, provides a convenient introduction to several modern approaches to this fascinating character. See also: Lee Patterson, "For the Wyves love of Bathe": Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales," Speculum, Vol. 58, No. 3. (Jul., 1983), pp. 656-695. Mary Carruthers, "The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions," PMLA 94 (1979), 209-22.

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (and the "marriage group") click here.