The Illusion of Sovereignty in the Wife of Bath’s Tale
Long before enlightened women of the 1960’s enthusiastically shed their bras, in an age when anti-feminist and misogynistic attitudes prevailed, lived Geoffrey Chaucer. Whether Chaucer was indeed a feminist living long before his time, or whether he simply conveyed an alternate and unpopular point of view, is inconsequential. His portrayal of the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales is a compelling study of medieval feminism. Ostentatious, domineering, deceitful, and self-serving, the Wife, or Alisoun, systematically defies the notion that women should be subservient to their magisterial husbands. As a seemingly radical feminist, the Wife discards even moderate feministic ideals that hold both sexes in equal regard, and instead dwells in a utopian existence where women govern their gelded husbands. She does not stop here, however. The Wife resents any form of traditional authority, and weaves her tale in such an eloquent- though somewhat disjointed- manner that the listener is compelled to believe that the Wife is spotless as new snow. In reality, she is mud stained road slush at best, and never quite attains the “maistrye” that she so desires. Despite all her faults, the Wife is certainly an astute student of human behaviour, and is quite content, so long as she believes that women have sovereignty over their male counterparts.
It is important to note that the term “feminism” as we know it did not exist during the time that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. Today, we assume that a feminist is one whom believes that males and females are created equal, and therefore deserve to be treated equally. This was not the case in fourteenth-century England. Women had very few social rights, and there were no organized movements to increase women’s civil liberties. So then, when we describe Chaucer or the Wife of Bath as a feminist, we simply mean that he or she recognized that there were power disparities, and that men did not necessarily have the right to control women’s everyday activities.
Though some might argue that the Wife of Bath, or Alisoun, wants to completely discredit all authority figures, Mary Carruthers, in her article, “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,” argues that “Alisoun does not deny authority when authority is true… She does insist, however, that authority make itself accountable to the realities of experience” (209). Carruthers makes an interesting point, but it is hard to validate, as The Wife of Bath never does divulge to the reader a source of experienced authority that she respects, other than herself, of course. The authority that she struggles against belongs almost exclusively to male philosophers and poets. In order to “undermine the tyranny of authority the Wife of Bath feels the need to lay claim to a certain kind of authority herself, by establishing her experiential credentials at the outset of her discourse” (Gottfried, 208). She makes the valid point that
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right enough for me
To speke of wo that is marriage (1-3).
Because she has married five times since the age of twelve, the Wife of Bath certainly has more practical knowledge of that particular institution than so-called authorities, such as the apostle Paul. To defend her many marriages, she rightfully argues that Paul himself advised people to remain chaste, but to marry if their lustful passion became unbearable. However, what she does not acknowledge is that this advice only gives people licence to marry, not to copulate freely with all sorts of men, be they “short, or long, or blak, or whit” (624). That the Wife of Bath is an astute student of the Bible is undeniable; it is also obvious that she possesses the mental agility to skew the scriptures in order to best suit her needs. For example, she likens the multiple marriages of Lameth (Lamech), Abraham, Jacob, and King Solomon to her specific situation. She conveniently does not mention that all of these men lived before the birth of Christ, in a time when different biblical guidelines applied. Alisoun does, however, also present some very logical arguments. It is true that the belief of many male authority figures, that Christ’s attendance at only one recorded wedding was indicative that people should marry only once, was a gross misinterpretation of scripture. It is also true that if every person was meant to remain a virgin, the world would be devoid of human life in a very short matter of time. Though she has the tendency to misinterpret scriptures herself, in pointing out the misinterpretations of others, the Wife of Bath deliberately challenges the notion of the passive and uneducated female.
As previously stated, Alisoun’s self-perceived authority derives directly from her experience. She has found out, through years of experience, that the only way for her to achieve sovereignty is through economic independence. One of Carruther’s strongest arguments is:
As Alisoun knows from experience, the true fruits of marriage are described neither in Jerome nor in the deportment books but are set in the marriage bed. Its important spoils for her are neither children nor sensual gratification but independence. Marriage is the key to survival, and that is what Alisoun seeks and finds? The root of marital “maistrye” is economic control… The logic is clear: sovereignty is the power of the purse (214).
The Wife of Bath, then, seeks sovereignty through a combination of experience and independent wealth. The only reason that she is freer than other women is that she is not beholden to anybody. We know from the general prologue that she is an accomplished weaver, one of the most lucrative occupations in England at the time. Normally, her husband would have control of all the money that she makes, but, because she is a widow, she is allowed to possess independent wealth. To Alisoun, this, combined with her worldly experience, grants her the right to claim authority.
For the Wife of Bath, authority is of paramount concern. In each of her marriages, Alisoun achieves sovereignty over her husbands through a sordid succession of lies and deceit. She counter-complains about her husbands’ complaints about her, and even concocts false accusations to counter those directed at her. She proudly states that I pleyned first, so was oure werre ystynt.
They were ful glade to excuse hem blyve
Of thyng of which they nevere agilte hir lyve.
Of wenches wolde I beren hem on honde,
Whan that for syk unnethes myghte the stonde (390-394).
Ironically, Alisoun designs her allegations from the very actions of which she is guilty. Invariably, her husbands respond with all the vigour of impotent field mice; they acquiesce, and humbly bow to her authority. Alisoun’s most difficult challenge is her fourth husband, which is likely why she holds him in such low regard. Even after his death she has little respect for him, and considers it “but wast to burye him preciously” (500), though she certainly has the means to do so. The Wife’s previous three husbands are much older then she is, and she sees them as geriatric dotards as they cater to her every whim. The fourth husband is more of a match for her. He is younger than the others, and frequently visits his mistresses. His refusal to be lorded over infuriates Alisoun. In retaliation, she flirts aggressively with another man, whom she denies any involvement with, yet marries shortly after number four’s death. The Wife of Bath presumes that she has ultimately triumphed over her husbands’ authority, yet much of her story betrays this sentiment.
Alisoun’s narrative begins to fall apart in her description of her fifth marriage, to a clerk named Jankyn. Alisoun’s first four husbands are quite wealthy, and it is for that reason alone that she marries them. Jankyn, however, is a student, and is consequentially not rich. For the first time, the Wife of Bath is interested in somebody for reasons other than financial gain. Independently wealthy, Alisoun is physically attracted to Jankyn, and “thought he hadde a paire/ Of legges and of feet so clene and faire/ That al myn herte I yaf unto his hoold” (l. 597-599). At precisely this point, the Wife of Bath begins to lose her sovereignty. Before this juncture, Alisoun has never surrendered her heart, nor anything else to a man. She does not fully realise the consequences of falling in love. In any relationship, the partner that loves the most is in a vulnerable position. Obviously, Alisoun is in that unguarded position in her relationship with Jankyn. Jankyn seems aloof to her at best, and bitter and hateful at the worst, but Alisoun still cherishes him and holds his memory dear, even though he beat her so hard that her ribs still hurt. Though she claims that in the end, she was able to tame Jankyn, and he began to treat her “as kynde/ As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde” (823-824), some say that this perception is a complete fabrication of Alisoun’s.
Near the end of her prologue, Alisoun relates the story of her final fight with Jankyn. Jankyn has been reading aloud from his book of “wikked wyves,” which infuriates Alisoun. She retaliates by ripping three pages out of the book, and striking him on the head. Jankyn responds by hitting her in the ear, causing it to go deaf. Alisoun chastises her husband:
O! hastow slayn me, false theef.?…
And for my land thus hastow mordered me?
Er I be deed, yet wol I kiss thee (800-802).
All of this is perfectly clear and entirely plausible. What follows, however, is not. Directly after this, Alisoun breaks into a new paragraph, and Jankyn undergoes an abrupt change of character. It is from this point on that D.J. Wurtele believes that Alisoun is lying. In his article, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and the Problem of the Fifth Husband, he argues that
It is precisely at this point that the Wife may be shifting from fact to make-believe… For now Jankyn’s malicious nature is seen to change at a stroke. According to Alisoun’s story, he begs forgiveness for striking her, and swears never to do so again… It corresponds all to closely with the fairy-tale ending to the Loathly Lady exemplum that Alisoun… offers the pilgrims as a variation on the same theme of wifely sovereignty (119).
That Alisoun is modifying the ending of her story of her relationship with Jankyn to suit her specific worldview is very probable. She may even believe the ending that she has construed has actually occurred. She so wants sovereignty that if she cannot attain it, she alters reality in her mind so that she does attain it. According to Wurtele, Alisoun is ultimately frustrated in her quest for sovereignty.
Some people are more forgiving of Alisoun’s apparent contradictions. She admits that she must struggle for control over two of her husbands, and this revelation alone causes Anne Laskaya to respect her. In her book, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales, Laskaya says that “For the Wife, an accurate representation of marriage includes an account of the inequities of power and the struggles for power she knows exist within marriage, rather than some sort of formulaic gender hierarchy” (181). In other words, Alisoun is not simply a power-monger. She simply refuses to subscribe to the ideal of a dominant husband-submissive wife relationship. Realistically, this situation does not exist. The balance of power is constantly shifting from one spouse to the other.
Peggy Knapp seems to support many of Laskaya’s sentiments. Knapp feels that the Wife of Bath does not want to completely usurp masculine power, but simply desires some sort of self-definition and justification. She sees the loathly lady in Alisoun’s tale as a form of herself, and neither personality is out to “get” men. Knapp says this about Alisoun’s tale: “embedded deep in this story is the idea that men must learn from women… The loathly lady contrives to have a husband with whom she can share both authority and experience” (49). Knapp and Laskaya believe that Alisoun is willing to compromise in her relationships, but what they both fail to recognise is that while Alisoun does admit that at times she does not have compete control in her relationships, and while the loathly lady ends up obeying her husband in “every thyng,” Alisoun is completely miserable when she is not the one in power, and never chooses to relinquish even a small part of her sovereignty if she can prevent doing so in any way.
Though it appears as though Laskaya is only partially correct in the previous argument, she does point out the significance of Alisoun’s deafness. Though most people simply see her damaged hearing as a sort of “war wound” from her abusive relationship, Laskaya sees it as something more. She sees her the Wife’s deafness as a sort of shield, or weapon, for, “If she is struggling against the discourse of a patriarchal culture, what better defence than an inability to hear? If Alysoun cannot hear the awesome and oft-repeated voice of anti-feminism in her culture, she cannot be easily persuaded of its ‘truth’ either” (182). Alisoun’s deafness, then, becomes a sign of her resistance to the misogynist culture in which she lives. She is no longer constrained by the verbal definitions of what she should be, and is free to interpret her own life as she chooses.
Others believe that Alisoun has little, if any, freedom at all. To Richard Griffith, though the Wife of Bath’s tale “seems a straight-forward statement of the case for female dominance… there is a good deal of mitigation in this position” (109). Alisoun still loves and obeys Jankyn after their horrible fight, and even Arthur’s queen must beg her husband to spare the rapist knight’s life. At the end of her tale, “the wife’s obedience and the couple’s happiness is stressed” (Griffith, 111). This is curious, because from her prologue, one would never suspect that Alisoun would subscribe to the ideal of the obedient wife. Alisoun may want to believe that she has attained sovereignty, but in reality, the only sovereignty she has, is that which men have allowed her possess.
Alisoun not only lacks the sovereignty that she claims she owns, but she also is not as confident of the morality of her actions as she claims to be. In her prologue, the Wife of Bath proudly boasts of all the tricks she has played on her lovers, and encourages others to do the same:
Now herkneth hou I baar me properly,
Ye wise wyves, that kan understonde.
Thus shulde ye speke and bere hem
Wrong on honed;
For half so boldely kan ther no man
Swere and lyen, as a woman kan (224-228).
She sees nothing wrong with lying to her husbands and intentionally tormenting them, as long she ultimately achieves a position of authority. Martin Pushvel questions the sincerity of her outward confidence. If she feels justified in her actions against her husbands, she should take no offence when Jankyn reads from his “book of wikked wyves.” Surely, she applauds the wives’ behaviour. Acknowledging all of this, Pushvell raises an important question: “why react in such a furious manner to his bookish exercise if her conscience is clear?” (308). If Alisoun is truly proud of her actions, she would not take such great exception to Jankyn’s book. Her violent reaction betrays her hidden anxieties. She does not truly believe that she has the right to dominate and control her husband, and, in an attempt to suppress this realisation, she acts out in aggression.
Alisoun’s overbearing and domineering attitude could easily rouse feelings of repulsion, yet she also evokes feelings of pity. She struggles against patriarchal society, yet does not realise that she has lost the fight before she has even begun. Perhaps Barbara Gottfried says it best:
Even as she attempts a deconstruction of patriarchal literature in an experiential revision of it, the Wife necessarily falls short of the goal of overcoming authority because she can only define herself in relation to that authority. She does not speak simply about herself, but realizes herself through her relationship to the various manifestations of patriarchy. Not only does she borrow her categories and the terms of her self-evaluation from the literature she condemns; patriarchal authority determines the fundamental bases for her self-definition (203).
So, no matter how much authority the Wife of Bath thinks she has, she is always confined within patriarchal system. In order to be truly sovereign, she must completely discard the literature and world-views that she attempts to adapt to her specific situation, and replace them with her own ideals. According to Gottfried, she does not accomplish this. Women’s roles are primarily established in relation to their marital status, and the Alisoun does nothing to counter this belief. In fact, “The Wife herself not only concurs, but encourages her audience to judge her on the basis of her wifely success, the measure of her matrimonial experience” (205). Sadly, Alisoun has no inclination of what it will take to truly attain the sovereignty she so desires.
Some argue that the Wife of Bath has an unjustified unsavoury reputation. She reacts solely out of necessity, and is actually a champion for opposing an oppressive patriarchal society. Others maintain that she is a malicious, power-hungry tyrant, who achieves her ends through fallacious speeches and dastardly deeds. Whatever the argument, the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale bears to mind the centuries-old struggle of who controls whom. In Chaucer’s time, men are clearly in control of society. Most quietly accept this, and some, like Alisoun, vehemently oppose it. What she does not realise is that she has really accomplished nothing. While the Wife of Bath desires sovereignty above anything else, and indeed, even believes that she has attained it, she still aligns herself within a misogynistic worldview, and is bound within this vision.
Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions.” PMLA 94 (1979): 209-222.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. A. C. Cawley. London: J. M. Dent, 1999.
Griffith, Richard R. A Critical Study Guide to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Los Angeles: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1968.
Gottfried, Barbara. “Conflict and Relationship, Sovereignty and Survival: Parables of Power in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Chaucer Review 19(3) (1985): 202-224.
Knapp, Peggy A. “Alisoun of Bathe and the Reappropriation of Tradition.” The Chaucer Review 24(1) (1989): 45-52.
Laskaya, Anne. Chaucer’s Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales. Suffolk: St. Edmundbury Press Ltd, 1995.
Pushvel, Martin. “The Wife of Bath’s ?Remedies of Love.’” The Chaucer Review 20(4) (1986): 307-311.
Wurtele, D. J. “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and the Problem of the Fifth Husband.” The Chaucer Review 23(2) (1988): 117-127.
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