The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 5)

This simultaneous self-assertion coupled with subjection to social expectations is evident in the Wife of Bath’s treatment of biblical passages on marriage. While accepting the authority of Scripture in consonance with the expectations of her society, the Wife of Bath applies interpretations that allow her to assert her authority over her society’s most authoritative texts. She appeals, for example, to the polygamy practiced by certain Old Testament patriarchs in an attempt to justify her own polyamorous behavior:

What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye

Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?

I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,

And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;

And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,

And many another holy man also.[1]

Turning to New Testament texts on marriage, she admits St. Paul’s advice to prefer virginity over marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, but turns to assert her own authority over the text: “He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly; / And lordynges, by youre leve, that am not I.”[2] In a reference to the Epistle to the Ephesians, she mentions that “the Apostel” Paul “bad oure housbondes for to love us weel,” proclaiming that “al this sentence me liketh every deel.”[3] To fit this passage to her argument, however, she leaves out the preceding injunction that “wives” should “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” and the immediately following injunction to “let the wife see that she respects her husband.”[4]

At this point in her prologue, the Pardoner interjects, “Now, dame . . . by God and by Seint John! / Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.”[5] The accusation that the Wife of Bath has been preaching is an indication of what Chaucer is doing here. He has taken up the methodology employed by the medieval misogynists while turning it on its head. In the same way that, for example, St. Jerome quotes selectively from Scripture to justify his preference for virginity over marriage and to defame femininity, the Wife of Bath provides carefully selected biblical references coupled with creative misinterpretations to substantiate her own position.

The most powerful example of the Wife of Bath’s attempts to assert her dominance over the textual tradition in which she stands comes at the conclusion of her prologue. There, the Wife describes her fifth husband, Janekyn, reading from his “book of wikked wyves.” At last, she grows impatient with his impetuous reading and, snatching several pages from the book, strikes Janekyn on the cheek:

And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne

To reden on this cursed book al nyght,

Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght

Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke

I with my fest so took hym on the cheke

That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.[6]

Janekyn’s reaction, she continues, is to jump up “as dooth a wood leoun, / And with his fest he smoot me on the heed / That in the floor I lay as I were deed.”[7] Although Janekyn has struck her so hard that she will remain deaf in one ear, the Wife of Bath seizes on this opportunity to practice the sort of manipulation attributed to women in the very misogynistic tradition she is struggling to assert herself against. Appealing to Janekyn’s sympathy, she cries out, “O! hastow slayn me, false theef? . . . / And for my land thus hastow mordred me? / Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee.”[8] Janekyn, moved by his wife’s suffering, falls down on his knees and begs her to “foryeve it me.”[9] At last, after Janekyn is subjected to one more punch from his wife, the two are reconciled in a manner that fits the Wife of Bath’s tastes:

He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,

To han the governance of hous and lond,

And of his tonge, and of his hond also;

And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.[10]

In a commentary upon the Wife of Bath that, fittingly, evinces the influence of Michel Foucault’s notions of asserting power through “the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of” a text,[11] Susan Crane lauds the Wife of Bath’s actions as “suggesting that fundamental changes can arise from limited acts of destruction.”[12] Adding to Crane’s commentary, Bisson remarks on this passage that “the right to say what the culture’s central texts mean underpins the right to rule.”[13] By applying her own interpretations to her culture’s texts and, finally, engaging in a symbolic mutual destruction of those texts alongside her husband, the Wife of Bath is asserting her right to define her marriage and herself on her own terms.

More than that, he and she together are rejecting the sort of typology which has hitherto defined their respective self-understandings and, through so defining their identities, defined both of their understandings of each other and of their relationship. Whereas Janekyn and the Wife of Bath previously saw themselves and each other through the lens of the medieval misogynist texts, their mutual destruction of those texts is an act symbolic of their new mutual recognition of their own and each other’s personhood. The result, says the Wife of Bath, is that

After that day we hadden never debaat.

God helpe me so, I was to hym as kynde

As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde,

And also trewe, and so was he to me.[14]

The Wife of Bath has, through this mutual text-burning, found the means by which to surpass social expectations. She is able, albeit temporarily, to define herself and her relationship with Janekyn in fresh, creative terms because they have together made a decisive break with the tradition that had hitherto colored their relationship and prevented them from authentically offering themselves to each other.

[1] Ibid. III.53–58.

[2] Ibid. III.111–112.

[3] Ibid. III.160–162.

[4] Ephesians 5:22, 5:33, respectively (English Standard Version).

[5] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.164–165. There is no small irony in the Pardoner being the pilgrim who interjects here as his prologue and tale, told later, indeed constitute a sermon on avarice.

[6] Ibid. III.788–793.

[7] Ibid. III.794–796.

[8] Ibid. III.800–802.

[9] Ibid. III.807.

[10] Ibid. III.813–816.

[11] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 119.

[12] Susan Crane, “The Writing Lesson of 1381,” in Chaucer’s England: Literature in Historical Context, ed. Barbara Hanawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 216.

[13] Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World, 163.

[14] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.822–825.

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