In Arthur's day, before the friars drove away the fairies, a lusty bachelor of the king's court raped a young maiden. He is taken and condemned to die (such was the custom then) but the king, in deference to Queen Guenevere's pleas, allows the ladies to judge him. They tell him he can save his life only if a year and a day later he can tell them what it is that women most desire. He wanders long without finding the answer; he is about to return disconsolate when he comes upon an old and remarkably ugly woman. She says that if he swears to do whatever she will next ask him, she will tell him the answer. He agrees and returns with the answer: women most desire to have sovereignty over their husbands. Guenevere and her ladies are amazed; they grant him his life. The old woman then makes her demand: that he marry her. She will accept no less. On their wedding night; he turns away from her. She asks him what is the matter. He answers that she is old and ugly and low born. The old woman demonstrates to him that none of these matter -- especially noble birth, since true gentilesse depends on deeds rather than birth. She offers him the choice: he can have her old and ugly and faithful or young, beautiful, and possibly unchaste. He tells her to choose; he grants her the sovereignty. When he does so she turns into a beautiful maiden, and they live thereafter in perfect joy.]
(Students reading this tale for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful).
The Wife of Bath's tale is a brief Arthurian romance incorporating the widespread theme of the "loathly lady," which also appears in John Gower's Tale of Florent. It is the story of a woman magically transformed into an ugly shape who can be restored to her former state only by some specific action -- the feminine version of "The Frog Prince" in fairy tales. For example, the Lady of Sinadoune in the Fair Unknown romances is transformed into a serpent (in some versions with a lady's face) who can be transformed only by a kiss (see stanzas 175ff. in Libeaus Desconnus).
This is a feature retained in Gower's tale but not in Chaucer's. The Wife of Bath's tale in this respect belongs to those versions of the "Loathly Lady" story in which the lady herself controls the transformation, as in the fourteenth-century The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.
For further details on the theme of the "loathly lady," see the Riverside Chaucer, pages 872-873, and Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F, Bryan and Germaine Dempster. Chicago, 1941; New York, 1958.
Since Gower's Tale of Florent and the Wife of Bath's Tale closely resemble one another in plot (so much so that scholars have speculated that they employed the same source), a comparison with Gower's version is especially interesting: Gower's Tale of Florent.
There are two long digressions in Alisoun's tale -- the story of Midas' ears and the pillow lecture on gentilesse. The tale of Midas is her version of the story told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses; he tells both the story of Midas' golden touch and the story of his ass's ears. The Wife of Bath uses only the second, with characteristic changes. See: Ovid's Tale of Midas.
The lecture on true nobility reflects a variety of sources, since her position is that of most moralists in Chaucer's time. See the Parson's Tale (e.g., lines 460-465) for the usual position of the Church on this question. Chaucer names Dante among his authorities, including Dante's Convivio, which treats the problem in Tractate IV: selection from The Convivio.
Though the Wife of Bath's tale has the form of the traditional tale of the "Loathly Lady," it also embodies some surprising traces of the courtly tradition: It illustrates the transforming power of love, which (according to Andreas Capellanus makes the beloved beautiful and the lover virtuous:
What is the Effect of Love?
This is the effect of love: that the true lover can not be corrupted by avarice; love makes an ugly and rude person shine with all beauty, knows how to endow with nobility even one of humble birth, can even lend humility to the proud; he who loves is accustomed humbly to serve others. Oh, what a marvelous thing is love, which makes a man shine with so many virtues and which teaches everyone to abound in good customs. . . .
Love, according to Andreas, can overcome poverty, old age, and even ugliness: Andreas, De amore.
It is almost as surprising to find this doctrine of love in The Wife of Bath's Tale as it is to find her quoting Dante. Her tale considerably complicates the character that shines through in her lively prologue.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Wife of Bath's Tale click here.