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Close Reading: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales “Wife of Bath’s Prologue”

Updated on October 7, 2017
Winnie Khaw profile image

Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).

Here begins the section where the WoB cites Biblical and other authoritative sources and somewhat tries to refute or otherwise question them, often with an illogic similar to the comprehension of the original (although I do not make assumptions on the validity of the source itself, only its interpretation by people).

Close Reading, Colloquial Paraphrase, and Analysis

ORIGINAL TEXT (lines 1-8)


Experience, though noon auctoritee …

Were in this world, is right ynough for me

To speke of wo that is in marriage:

For lordinges, sith I twelf yeer was of age—

Thanked be God that is eterne on live—

Housbondes at chirche dore I have had five

(If I so ofte mighte han wedded be),

And all were worthy men in hir degree.

TRANSLATION

My experience, even if no authority

Existed in this world, is enough for me

To speak of the woe that is in marriage:

For, gentleman, since I was twelve years of age—

Thanks be to God who lives eternally—

I have married five husbands at the church door

(if I had legally wed that often/if I’m allowed to marry that often)

And all were worthy men of their kind.

ANALYSIS

Either the Wife of Bath (“the WoB” henceforth) has conflicting feelings about marriage, or she simply lost track of what she was saying. At first she mentions that marriage is sorrow, and then a sentence later thanks God that she married five times (or I failed to understand what she said, which is entirely and unfortunately possible). The WoB’s extensive experience with the institution of marriage allows her to speak with authority, however biased, on the pains and gains of the legalized union between a man and wife. Also, there is a curious aside in parentheses, which I’m uncertain if I translated correctly: The WoB says “If I so ofte might han wedded be”, so I wrote two possible answers. The former I wrote because that’s what I thought after reflection; and the latter because I believe that’s the mostly word-for-word translation. The WoB says that she has been married since she was twelve years old, thereby enlightening the reader on some of the customs of that time—that women married very young. I read in a reliable text, A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, that the people of the Middle Ages tended to be

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quite young, because the older ones died earlier from various causes such as the doctors misunderstanding medical treatment (i.e. bleeding and the four humors), and this information correlates with what I learn in the WoB’s tale; if they died sooner, then there is an understandable hurry to perform the functions of a shortened existence (including marriage).

ORIGINAL TEXT (lines 9-23)

But me was told, certain, nat longe agoon is,

That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but ones

To wedding in the Cane of Galilee,

That by the same ensample taught he me

That I ne sholde wedded be but ones.

Herke eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones,

Biside a welle, Jesus, God and man

Spak in repreve of the Samaritan:

“Thou hast yhad five housbondes,” quod he,

“And that ilke man that now hath thee

Is nat thyn housbonde.” Thus saide he certain.

What that he mente therby I can nat sayn,

But that I axe why the fifthe man

Was noon housbonde to the Samitarian?

How many mighte she han in marriage?

TRANSLATION

But I was certainly told, not long ago,

That since Christ never went but once,

To a wedding in Cana in Galilee,

So by that example he taught me,

That I should only wed once.

Pay attention also, my goodness, how sharply

Beside a well, Jesus, God and man

Spoke in reproof of the Samaritan:

“You have had five husbands,” said he,

“And that same man that you now have

Is not your husband.” Thus he said for sure.

What he meant by that I can’t say,

But I ask why the fifth man

Was not the husband of the Samaritan?

How many could she have in marriage?

ANALYSIS

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Here begins the section where the WoB cites Biblical and other authoritative sources and somewhat tries to refute or otherwise question them, often with an illogic similar to the comprehension of the original (although I do not make assumptions on the validity of the source itself, only its interpretation by people). The WoB recalls that someone informed her of the reason for a single marriage: that Jesus only went to one wedding. I myself see that as only specious evidence, because I can’t understand the (tenuous, if that) relationship between the former and the latter. Then the WoB continues to the most notoriously wedded woman in the Bible (King Solomon as a man has without doubt more wives than the Samaritan), who has had five husbands. The WoB makes the common error of thinking that Jesus was referring to the fifth man as the not-husband, although in actuality he meant the sixth. This misunderstanding indicates a confusion on either the person who taught the WoB this information, or the WoB’s own inference, or both, thus laying the entire portion of the WoB’s references open to suspicion of other mistakes in reasoning. The WoB ends the lines above by questioning how she should know the correct number of men she can marry. This question is legitimate, because really there is no concrete answer in the Bible. Jesus could simply be stating a fact when mentioning the Samaritan’s other husbands besides the not-husband, not definitely criticizing, because although that is the general consensus, people really can’t know how and in what tone Jesus said that.

ORIGINAL TEXT (lines 24-34)

Yit herde I nevere tellen in myn age

Upon this nombre diffincioun,

Men may divine and glosen up and down,

But wel I woot, expres, withouten lie,

God bad for us to wexe and multiplye:

That gentil text can I wel understonde.

Eek well I woot he saide that myn housbonde

Should lete fader and moder and take to me,

But of no nombre mencion made he—

Of bigamy or of octagamye:

Why sholde men thane speke of it vilainye?

TRANSLATION

I’ve never in my life understood

That number definition.

Men may guess and interpret up and down,

But well I know, expressly, without lie,

God told us to increase and multiply:

That nice piece of text I can well understand.

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Also I well understand he said that my husband

Should leave his father and mother for me,

But no number is mentioned—

Of bigamy or octogamy*

Why should men speak of it badly?


* successive, not simultaneous, marriages (#7 of the footnotes from The Norton Anthology for English Literature, page 254)


ANALYSIS

The WoB brings up a valid point when she speaks of men “[guessing] and [interpreting] up and down.” As I briefly spoke of in an earlier analysis, laypeople, the laity, and scholars may do their best to decipher the frequently cryptic meanings in the Bible, but cannot be sure of the absolute correct answer. Especially the latter two often complicate what was originally understood by the common people (Jesus spoke to such people as fisherman, for example, and even made some his disciples), and the former then misunderstands them as well as gain a confused view of the truth. Therefore, we can probably suggest in safety that if the meaning comes out to be far too convoluted (meaningful to a great degree I still accept), then that’s probably not what Jesus intended. Who truly and wholly knows the purpose and truths of God as He intends? If someone did, then he would be God, and that is clearly not the solution, or if it is, no one can come up with answer. The WoB continually points out that no specific number is mentioned—she uses that argument to support her case of marrying several husbands. Negative evidence or lack of evidence at all is not the most convincing, but I suppose the WoB believed that if a rule was not explicitly stated, she did not have to follow it, a creed many people of the past and even today can sympathize with and adhere to it in their own lives.

ORIGINAL TEXT (lines 35-50)

Lo, here the wise king daun Salomon:

I trowe he hadde wives many oon,

As wolde God it leveful were to me

To be refreshed half so ofte as he.

Which yifte of God hadde he for alle his wives!

No man hath swich that in this world alive is.

God wooth this noble king, as to my wit,

The first night hadde many a merye fit

With eech of hem, so wel was him on live.

Blessed be God that I have piked out the best,

Bothe of hir nether purs and of hir cheste.

Diverse scoles maken parfit clerkes,

And diverse practices in sondry werkes

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Maken the workman parfit sikerly:

Of five housbondes scoleying am I.


TRANSLATION

Behold, the wise king master Solomon,

I believe he had many wives more than one

I wish God would allow me

To be refreshed half as often as he.

What a gift of God he had in all his wives!

No man hath such knowledge who is alive in the world.

God knows that this noble king, as far as I know,

The first night he had many a merry bout

With each of them, such a pleasant life he had

Blessed be God that I have wedded five,

Of which I have picked out the best,

Both of his hanging purse (genitals?) and his money box,

Different schools make perfect clerks,

And so different practical experiences in many works

Make the workman certainly perfect.

And I’ve had five husbands-schooling.


ANALYSIS

I knew the WoB would bring up this point: Solomon and his thousands of wives and concubines. She reasons that if it was alright for the great wise king to have so many spouses, that accordingly she could have a few. However, she conveniently forgot, or doesn’t know, that in the Bible his many (foreign) wives were his downfall, and that for all his wisdom he was persuaded to forgo God due to their influence. Also, Solomon as king probably made many of the marriages for political reasons, to bind other kingdoms close to his, while the WoB marries merely for the fun of it. Again here the WoB asserts herself as an authority on the subject; because she’s been married so many times, she’s perfected the art. In saying this she makes a bawdy joke about her husbands’ sexual “equipment” as well as their wealth, thus referring to the side of marriage, performance in bed, that religious persons probably wouldn’t talk about when preaching on the Church being the Bride of Christ (but is a reality when men and women marry). She clearly thinks that marriage is an enjoyable practice, which contradicts the first comment she made, that it is “woe.” To the WoB, each new husband is a “refreshing” experience, and she, like Solomon, much likes to be “refreshed.” Due to her earlier dirty remark, I think she’s referring to the sexual joys of marriage as well as the financial addition to her coffers. The WoB uses the metaphor of “schooling” and how her experience is equivalent to a kind of education, a subject which she knows thoroughly as a student so excellent that she has become the ultimate teacher on such topics.

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ORIGINAL TEXT (lines 51-64)

Welcome the sixte whan that evere he shall!

For sith I wol nat kepe me chast in al,

Whan my housbonde is fro the world agoon,

Som Cristen man shal wedde me anoon.

For thane the’Apostle saith that I am free

To wedde, a Goddess half, where it liketh me.

He saide that to be wedded than to brine.

What rekketh me though folk saye vilainye

Of shrewed Lamech and his bigamy

I woot wel Albraham was an holy man,

And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,

And eech of hem had wives mo than two,

And many another holy man also.


TRANSLATION

I welcome the sixth whenever he comes!

For I won’t be keeping myself chaste,

When one husband is gone from the world (i.e. dies)

Some other Christian man shall marry me soon.

For the Apostle (Paul) said that then I am free

To wed, on God’s behalf, when I please.

He said that it’s no sin to be wedded:

But to be wedded is better than to burn (for the sin of lust)

What do I care even if folk say evil things

Of cursed Lamech and his bigamy?

I know well that Abraham was a holy man,

And Jacob too, as far as I know,

And each of them had more than two wives,

And many another holy man did too.


ANALYSIS

According to TNAoEL’s footnote #8 on page 255, the WoB frequently cites secondhand from St. Jerome’s tract Against Jovinian. However, anyone who’s played “Phone Call” or some other such name can recall how the message is distorted after a few different people try to pass it on accurately. Therefore, I would view the WoB’s reasoning technique as questionable. Not only that, she takes her main points from an interpretation of the Bible, not the original source, so already those are prejudiced and selective. Again, she conveniently forgets or does not know that multiple wives caused

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great trouble in the lives of Abraham and Jacob. Abraham took Hagar as a concubine, but her child Ishmael became hateful the eyes of Sarah after Sarah had Isaac, and the two women could not live together peacefully as mistress and slave any longer. Jacob had four wives, but the foremost two, Leah and Rachel, constantly bickered over who Jacob should sleep with that night and occupy his attention, as well as who had more children and sons. Jacob only wanted Rachel, not the other three, so they merely complicated his life and diverted his attention from his one love. The WoB mentions other holy men with many wives, but I can’t think of any who had a serene, happy life—David, for example, had a most unhappy experience with Bathsheba.

ORIGINAL TEXT (lines 65-82)

Where can ye saye in any manere age

That hye God defended marriage

By expres word? I praye you, telleth me.

Or where commanded he virginitee?

I woot as well as ye, it is no drede,

The’Apostle, whan he speketh of maidenhead,

He said that precept thereof hadde he noon:

Men may conseile a wommman to be oon,

But conseiling is no comandement.

He putte it in our owene juggement.

For hadde God commanded maidenhead,thre we no seed ysowe,

Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the deed;

And certes, if there were no seed ysowe,

Virginitee, thane wherof sholde it growe?

Paul dorst nat comanden at the leeste

A thing of wch his maister yaf no heeste.

The dart is set up for virginitee;.

Cacche whoso may, who renneth best lat see.


TRANSLATION


Where can you say in any period of time,

That high God prohibited marriage

By express word? I pray you, tell me.

Or where he commanded virginity?

I know as well as you, there is no doubt,

The Apostle, when he spoke of virginity

He said that he had no rule of personal conduct:

Men may counsel a woman to be single,

But counseling is not the same as a commandment

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He put it to our own judgment.

For if God commanded virginity,

Then he condemned marriage at the same time;

And certainly, if there was no seed sown (i.e. no sex)

Where would virginity come from?

Paul doesn’t command at the least

A thing which his master didn’t say

The dart (the prize in a race) is set up for virginity

Whoever catches it can do so, who runs best in the end let’s see


ANALYSIS

The WoB has apparently convinced herself of the validity of her statements, but obviously she really doesn’t care what the Bible says or what people think of her actions; she’d carry out her desires no matter what. But in her prologue she does try to defend what she’s done, in a rather dubious manner. According to the WoB, Paul the Apostle may have frowned on marriage, but he didn’t exactly say no to it, and indeed said it was better than falling prey to the sin of lust. Also, Paul wouldn’t dare to say anything that God didn’t put in his mouth, thinks the WoB, but she fails to take into account the fallibility of human prophets and preachers. Then the WoB goes on to deride the state of virginity, because apparently if people didn’t have sex (in marriage, but there are other places offspring could be gotten), then there wouldn’t be virgins. Yes, perhaps God has not definitely prohibited marriage, but I think he’s shown by examples in the Bible that more than one spouse is probably not a good idea if one wants a peaceful and godly life. To the WoB, counseling is not the same as commandment; well, even if it was a commandment, I somehow doubt the WoB would alter whatever she’s done, is doing, or will do. The WoB basically says that virginity is up for grabs, and whoever wants it can have it, but that they’ll see who wins in the end, she and others like her, or the virgins/those who have sworn off marriage.

CONCLUSION

The WoB in her prologue addresses the misogyny (in large part due to the opinions of several saints and other influential religious persons of significance who ranted on the evils of women) of the time. The male-dominated society of husbands, fathers and guardians were gripped by the fear that women if were left to their devices, they would commit infidelity and be otherwise unacceptably licentious in their ways. While this may sometimes be true, I think perhaps men often reflected their own insecurities and frailties onto the feminine sex. The Christian Church held great power at this period, and the commonly held interpretation of Biblical text attributed the Fall of Man to Eve, who tempted Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. Therefore, since mankind inherits the sin of forefathers, accordingly women are culpable for Eve’s failure to keep pure.

Khaw 9

The WoB’s prologue belongs to the genre of literary confessions, in which a speaker defends a sinful life. The WoB, according to herself, is not living a precisely sinful life; it may be disapproved of by conventional views, but nowhere are her doings specifically prohibited and laid out in stone like the Biblical Ten Commandments. I believe Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the WoB with a social commentary in mind, as with his other characters, demonstrating in multi-layered satire the personalities of the common folk, including a woman who has enjoyed multiple marriages and cheekily remains unrepentant. In all but one of her marriages she dominated her husbands, and thereby in another facet Chaucer shows a fact that men were afraid of—being henpecked and submissive to wives. In addition, all the holy men in the Biblical references she made as “evidence” had unfortunate relations with their wives, and in this Chaucer may more subtly hint at the eventual end of the WoB and her lusty way of life—in much the same way God permitted, but did not openly support or prohibit, polygamy, and instead allowed things to take their course.

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