The Wife of Bath's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

When it comes time for the Wife of Bath to tell her tale in Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'', she takes a moment to delve into her views on the double standards created in favor of men and then emphasizes these views in her tale of the disgraced knight.


The Wife of Bath on Husbands

The Wife of Bath has a story to tell the other travelers, but rather than begin right away with the entertainment, she takes the time to express her thoughts on the way women are treated and perceived. The first item she discusses in this prologue to her tale is the number of husbands she has had. Because she has been married five times, she wonders 'why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?' Her marriages have not been simultaneous, and there isn't anything in the Bible that speaks against re-marriage.

She then spends some time utilizing the Bible to support her position. Solomon had quite a few wives, yet God says nothing about this. Even Jesus notes that a woman he meets at a well has been married several times, but it is only because she is living with a man who is not her husband that he indicates her sin. Based on these examples, the Wife of Bath points out that there is no reason men should make a fuss about the number of times a woman is married, especially if it does not seem to be a concern of God's.

The Wife of Bath on Chastity

The Wife of Bath's discussion of virginity is more an argument about how sexual relations should be perceived. Because she has been married five times already, she has become experienced in this realm. She understands that this is a pleasurable act for both men and women. Again, she goes back to the Bible and indicates that there is no mention that women are supposed to remain chaste, especially during marriage. If this were the case, procreation would never take place.

Her main point in this discourse is that if God had intended for women to refrain from sex even after marriage, 'if ther were no seed ysowe,/Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe?' Since the Wife of Bath has had plenty of experience with her five husbands, it has become a gift for her husband, who 'shal it han both eve and morwe'. Men need to stop looking at women as chaste images of perfection, and see them as humans with needs.

Husband Number Five

As she moves away from the topic of marriage and virginity, the Wife of Bath discusses her five husbands, with a brief mention of number four, and quite a bit of time on her fifth. Her fourth was not a kind man and had another woman on the side while they were married. It is the fifth who garners most of her words, and her affection as well. She loved him the most, despite the violence he inflicted upon her, and this comes through in her speech.

He had a book about women who misbehaved against their husbands. She grew tired of hearing about it and ripped out a few of the pages. She then slapped him across his face. He responded by hitting her in the head with the book, leaving her deaf in one of her ears. They reconciled after this incident, and she demanded that he burn the book, which he did. He told her to do 'as thee lust the terme of al thy lif'. He wanted her to do as she pleased, without interference from him. This marked the success of their marriage, and it is a message that is prominent in her tale.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

The Wife of Bath's tale takes place in the time of King Arthur. A knight rapes a maiden and is called before the court to answer for his crime. He would have gone to his death had the queen not intervened. She gives him a quest to find what a woman most desires. If he can correctly answer, his life will be spared. She gives him one year to complete this quest.

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