The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Notes on The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. This set of Tower Notes is 24 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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Introduction: ‘Experience’ and ‘Auctoritee.’

That there is plenty of ‘auctoritee’ in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue , as promised in the first line, is not a feature likely to enthuse most modern readers. Chaucer, in fact, makes sure that her opening discussions as to the value of marriage itself rarely rise to the level of serious argument; indeed there are numerous examples of humour in the way in which the Wife deploys her references and comments on them, but also many long passages which are essentially a patchwork of scriptural allusions. Misogynistic authorities are quoted by the Wife with great glee, but this is in the rather unconvincing context of her claiming that her first four husbands have used them against her ‘when drunk,’ which is, as the Wife freely admits, completely untrue. There is then considerable irony in the fact that Janekin – husband number five – genuinely does turn the tables for a while and uses this ‘auctoritee’ against his spouse (which, she complains, he knows better than her!).

None of this, however, really explains why there are so many quotations from past authors in the Prologue . The real answer probably has more to do with the Wife’s extraordinary head-dress than it does with her interest in scholarly debate. The former is described in the General Prologue :

Hir coverchiefs ful fine were of ground –
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed. (455-7)

Why does the Wife need to wear so much ‘ground’ – and so much scholarship – on her head? The answer is essentially the same: to achieve any status, she must work three or four times harder than a man would have to, because her whole life is a fight against the male domination of her world represented by those very ‘auctoritees’ she delights in quoting.

The skill with which Chaucer presents this woman is extraordinary, and shows very well the richness of his subtle and indirect characterisations of one of the greatest of his pilgrims. Layer after layer is uncovered. The first, and most obvious, are the ‘coverchiefs’ mentioned above. She has mastered the dialectic of the opposition, and developed, with considerable skill a number of strategies to turn her enemies’ weapons against them. Her wit in so doing (for example, her delight at Solomon’s ‘refreshment’ of a thousand wives) is combined with the sheer gusto with which she uses the arguments against women as a way of nagging and abusing her husbands. There is much more to the Wife than this, however, as is proved by the failure of her ‘auctoritees’ against Janekin. He knows them better, and she is forced to retire defeated from this particular field.

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Geoffrey Chaucer