The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 3)

In the Canterbury Tales, it is the Wife of Bath who introduces the topic of mastery in marriage into the discussion. Apparently piqued by the earlier fabliau-style tales of adulterous women and their cuckolded husbands as told by the Miller and the Reeve, as well as the aborted Cook’s Tale which surely would have continued this theme had it been completed, the Wife introduces into the tale-telling the topic of headship in marriage. In her prologue, which, at 856 lines is by the far the longest prologue of any of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales and more than twice the length of her Tale, the Wife of Bath enters into an extended detailing of and tortuous justification for her unfaithfulness to and dominance over her first four husbands.

In so doing, she consistently draws upon the tradition of misogynistic literature in her descriptions of herself and of women in general. In a claim that echoes the claims of these texts, for example, she says, “Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yive / To wommen kyndely, whil that they may lyve.”[1] While women are more deceitful and emotional than men, says the Wife of Bath, again repeating the claims of medieval misogynistic texts, “man is moore resonable / Than womman is.”[2] She also consistently draws upon this tradition to explain and justify her socially unacceptable behavior, as when she claims,

We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,

In this matere a queynte fantasye:

Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,

Thereafter wol we crie al day and crave;

Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;

Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we flee.[3]

Similarly, she invokes the conventions of misogynistic literature to explain certain aspects of her physical appearance, her wide-set teeth and birthmark:

Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel;

I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.

As help me God, I was a lusty oon.[4]

According to medieval physiognomists, gapped-teeth were an indication of “an envious, irreverent, luxurious, bold, faithless, and suspicious nature.”[5] A Latin gloss in the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, an early 15th century manuscript widely considered among the most authoritative, comments on the Wife’s astrology and physical appearance. “Whenever they [any of the houses of Venus, as at the Wife’s birth] are in ascendance unfortunately one will bear an unseemly mark upon the face. At the nativities of women when a sign is ascending from one of the houses of Venus while Mars is in it, or vice versa, the woman will be unchaste.”[6]

More recently, Walter Clyde Curry, in “casting the Wife of Bath’s horoscope” has provided a helpful compilation of a number of similar remarks in the works of various astrological authorities.[7] According to the Wife,

For certes, I am al Venerien

In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.

Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,

And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;

Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars therinne.[8]

Expanding upon this, Curry draws upon a number of astrologers predating or roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, discerning in their prognostications an image of the Wife of Bath. A late 13th or early 14th century misogynistic text titled De secretis mulierum, or “Women’s secrets,” and falsely attributed to Albertus Magnus claims of a woman born under the astrological signs the Wife of Bath describes for herself that, “She reaches maturity at the age of twelve years, has small breasts becoming full and hard, and coarse hair. She is bold in speech, having a keen, high-pitched voice, proud in mind, red of face, erect in carriage, given to drink, she loves to sing, wanders much, and delights in adorning herself as much as possible.”[9] This could nearly be a description of the Wife of Bath herself. She was, she says, married for the first time at “twelve yeer . . . of age.”[10] She is, similarly, “bold in speech” and “proud in mind,” as is evidenced from the outspoken nature of her prologue and tale as well as her emphatically and frequently expressed desire to dominate her husbands. She also “wanders much,” as Chaucer informs us through the list he provides of her various previous pilgrimages:

And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

She hadde passed many a straunge strem;

At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,

In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne.

She koude muchel of wandryne by the weye.[11]

In addition to providing an accurate prediction of her personality, Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s horoscope also matches the Wife of Bath’s physical appearance as described by Chaucer. Says Chaucer,

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;

I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound

That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.

Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,

Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.[12]

In addition to being “red of face,” then, she is also a woman who clearly “delights in adorning herself as much as possible.” Her adornment, in fact, does not end with the “ten pound” “coverchiefs,” “scarlet reed” “hosen,” and “moyste” (or supple) “newe” “shoes” described here. She is also, continues Chaucer, “ywympled wel,” wearing a fashionable hat “as brood as is a bokeler or a targe,” two species of shields in use in Chaucer’s day.[13] In spite of this ostentatious abundance of clothing, however, Chaucer tells us that “upon an amblere esily she sat,”[14] a feat no doubt made possible by her astrologically-endowed “erect . . . carriage.”

Firmly connecting her personal identity with the statements about the nature of women in the misogynistic literature, the Wife of Bath spends much of her prologue detailing the ways in which she cuckolded and domineered over her several husbands by manipulating their desires and emotions. “Her account of her first three marriages to old husbands,” summarizes Lillian M. Bisson, “captures the misogynists’ most nightmarish visions about women, as she unabashedly relates the ways in which she controlled her husbands.”[15] She has, in short, internalized and become the embodiment of the medieval tradition of misogynistic literature. In this, Chaucer has perhaps painted an accurate, if quite exaggerated portrait of many medieval women. “When a medieval woman sought her own features in her mind’s mirror, she found reflected there a preexisting pattern that patriarchal culture had already shaped,” says Bisson.[16] And this is precisely what we find in the case of the Wife of Bath.

Yet, if this were all there is to the character of the Wife of Bath, she would hardly merit the enduring interest she has attracted. Derek Pearsall has argued that the Wife was already “something of a talking point in London literary circles in the 1390s.”[17] More recently than the 14th century, George Lyman Kittredge has enthusiastically asserted that “the Wife of Bath is one of the most amazing characters that the brain of man has ever yet conceived.”[18] Such claims could hardly stand if the Wife of Bath were merely another iteration of the medieval type of the conniving and adulterous woman.

As Bisson remarks, “her confessional prologue consists almost entirely of amalgamed antifeminist texts like those contained in Jankyn’s ‘book of wikked wyves.’”[19] The power of the Wife of Bath as a character arises from the simultaneity of her embodiment of a well-worn type coupled with a remarkable individuality that seeks to thwart any typical appellation applied to her. As J. R. Hulbert observed in a comment on the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales as a whole, the genius of Chaucer is to be found in his ability to merge “individual features with typical ones in such a way as to gain vividness and realism, not to be found in type delineations before him.”[20] The Wife of Bath is perhaps the most outstanding exemplar of this species.

While identifying with the characters described in medieval misogynistic literature, the Wife of Bath surpasses an absolute identification with the women described in this literature, thereby calling the accusations levelled by this literature into question. As Bisson explains, “as Chaucer imagines the Wife appropriating those texts, she becomes a whole much greater than the sum of its parts; she balloons into an independent self, generating energy that her creator can scarcely control.”[21] At one point in her prologue, the Wife of Bath trenchantly inquires, for example,

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?

By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,

As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,

They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse

Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.[22]

With this, the Wife of Bath has entered into a battle with the culture into which she was born and its texts which have shaped her identity. While necessarily living under the influence of these texts, she asserts herself against them.

[1] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.401–402.

[2] Ibid. III.441–442.

[3] Ibid. III.516–520.

[4] Ibid. III.603–605.

[5] Benson, ed., Riverside Chaucer, 818–819.

[6] Ibid., 870.

[7] Walter Clyde Curry, “The Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 166.

[8] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.609–613.

[9] Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, De secretis mulierum, quoted in Curry, “The Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer, ed. Wagenknecht, 179.

[10] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.4.

[11] Ibid. I.463–467.

[12] Ibid. I.453–458.

[13] Ibid. I.470–471.

[14] Ibid. I.469.

[15] Lillian M. Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 210.

[16] Ibid., 191.

[17] Derek Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales (New York: Routledge, 2002), 6.

[18] George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1915), 198.

[19] Bisson, 213.

[20] J. R. Hulbert, “Chaucer’s Pilgrims,” in Chaucer, ed. Wagenknecht,  25.

[21] Bisson, 213.

[22] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.692–696.

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