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Illegitimate Interpretation of Scripture in Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath"

Updated on September 20, 2016

Geoffrey Chaucer

Method of Interpretation

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The Error of Allegorical Interpretation

Throughout the Christian era, men and women have used the Scriptures illegitimately to buttress false doctrine and practice; the first two pages of The Prologue to the Wife of Bath contain such. Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, relates Jerome’s “interpretation,” according to Beidler, of the meaning of Jesus’s attendance at the Cana wedding (44). In my opinion, this “Church Father” erred when he employed Scripture in this manner, and thus misled the Wife. Even if Christ did attend only one marriage—a highly improbable assertion—that point by itself would not prove that His example “taught that people should marry only once” (44).

[A question, though, remains. Did Jerome mean that one should marry only once and afterwards remain celibate for spirituality’s sake, or did he mean that one should marry only one spouse at a time? I would disagree with the former, but agree with the latter].

Taking the former view as that of Jerome, I conclude that his faulty allegorical hermeneutic causes him to make an unwarranted leap into the fanciful speculation of asceticism that views marriage as “filthy”; such a perspective remains reprehensible to this day (22). [Incidentally, in 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul advised people not to marry at the time of the writing because of the distressful circumstances the saints were experiencing; being unattached to a spouse during those days of trouble would enable individuals to devote themselves more fully to the Lord]. Jerome, in effect, makes his mind the basic authority in interpretation, not the Scriptures. For his interpretation to be substantiated, the Scriptures would have to say plainly that people are allowed only one marriage. Clearly, they do not.

The Wife of Bath

One Marriage or One Spouse at a Time?

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One Marriage or One Spouse at a Time?

A second questionable use of Scripture may occur after Alisoun attempts to justify her five marriages—the same number, by the way, as the Samaritan woman had (see John 4)—by basing her behavior on God’s commandment to “wexe and multiplye” (Prologue 28). From pleading ignorance to Jesus’s meaning when He said, “And that ilke man that now hath thee is not thine housbonde “(18-20), the Wife appears to argue, in essence, “What makes the Samaritan’s first five men “husbands,” but the sixth one “not thine housbonde?” [Incidentally, if the Samaritan woman has had five husbands, then the one she has now must be the sixth man, not the fifth as Chaucer writes (21)].

Admittedly, some fogginess exists. Does the Wife argue that it is permissible for her (and the Samaritan) to marry more than once, or is she saying that she and the Samaritan can have as many husbands as they like at one time? (The Wife uses the terms “bigamye or of octogamye” (33)—terms that mean marriage to two or eight spouses at a time—but the margin notes read, “marrying twice or eight times” [Beidler 45]. Later, she references Solomon who ‘hadde many oon!”—a clear-cut case of political polygamy—positing that if he had so many, why cannot she have five? [Prologue 36]. This reader needs the editor to clarify his definitions.

The fact that they have had five husbands is not necessarily sinful; all of the men may have died. Whether the first five were legitimate or not is debatable; at any rate, it is not the point. What Jesus certainly indicates as unlawful is the Samaritan’s having a sixth man, who is not her husband. [My Bible says that the Samaritan had the man, not vice versa, as Chaucer records it]. Therefore, for the Wife to legitimize the Samaritan’s affair with the sixth man (and, by application, her own five husbands—unless, of course, they were all dead) by citing Genesis 1:28 is not a proper use of Scripture. In conclusion, this critic asserts that arriving at the proper interpretation of both passages hinges upon what Jerome meant: one marriage or one spouse at a time.

© 2015 glynch1


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    • glynch1 profile image

      glynch1 22 months ago

      You have shown by your first sentences that you do not understand how to interpret the Scriptures. You are off-base with your subjective spiritualizing and Gnostic tendencies.

      Where in my remarks did I write that "all marriages are acceptable in the sight of God"? I said that He recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman and that He would judge all marriages. If unbelievers are not married, then what are they? Unbelievers are spiritually dead, not "dead dead." They are still responsible to God for how they conduct their lives, and will still be judged according to their works.

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      Norine Williams 22 months ago

      Glytch: "...instead of seeking to understand the literal (or normal) meaning of the text." Did Scripture not say in John 4:24 we "...MUST worship in Spirit and in truth..?" Why then, would we need to "seek to understand the "literal" (or normal) meaning of the text?" Why don't "Christians" believe WORD? Religion? Do you not KNOW that RELIGION (man's teachings v Holy Spirit's understanding of Scripture) is Satan's GREATEST WEAPON against JESUS? Don't you love JESUS?

      Again, if WORD says in Ephesians 2:1 we "...were DEAD (spiritually) in our trespasses and sins," why don't you believe? If marriage's MYSTERY is as "Christ is to the Church" (Ephesians 5:32) isn't Christ Holy and the Church Holy? Then why do you believe unholy people who are DEAD (spiritually) can make a vow to the Lord?

      I have given WORD stating GOD'S intention for a marriage, would you be so kind ("religiously correct") to provide Scripture(s) saying ALL marriages are acceptable (including Gay and unholy) in the sight of GOD?

    • glynch1 profile image

      glynch1 22 months ago


      I am afraid that you, too, are employing a spiritualizing hermeneutic in your explanation of the wedding at Cana. I do not believe the original writer (the Apostle John) intended to convey the ideas you have expressed above. I think you are engaged in eisegesis instead of exegesis, inventing "spiritual" interpretations of your own making instead of seeking to understand the literal (or normal) meaning of the text.

      I believe marriage is God's standard for humanity: a man and a woman united "until death do us part." Obviously, marriages between unbelievers do not (and cannot) illustrate the relationship between Christ (the bridegroom) and the Church (the bride), because unbelievers have no union with Christ as do marriages between believers. Nevertheless, God still regards these unions as marriages and will hold unbelievers responsible for how they relate to one another. In God's eyes, they are still married despite the fact they are not Christians.

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      Norine Williams 23 months ago

      The definition of "Marriage" as given in Bible is addressed in Ephesians 5:32 which says "This (marriage) is a great MYSTERY, but I speak concerning Christ (Holy) and The Church (Holy)." The preceding verse (31) says "For this cause shall a man leave his mother and father (the flesh), and shall be joined unto his wife (Jesus/The Spirit) and they two shall be one flesh" (Spirit). If "in Christ," have we not become "One Spirit" with Christ? MARRIAGE: "AS CHRIST IS TO THE CHURCH!" This is the "great MYSTERY" spoken of in Ephesians 5:32!

      Marriage is such a "serious" covenant to Jesus that He performed His first miracle at a wedding. "...leave mother and father" (wine left) "and and shall be joined to his wife (Jesus), then look what happened at the wedding: (John 2:10) ""...Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine and, when men have well drunk, then that which is worse; but thou has kept the good wine (Jesus) until now."

      Marriage should be a "Spiritual" union. God married Adam & Eve in Genesis BEFORE they "sinned!" Therefore, they were "both" Holy and "in the Lord." I Corinthians 7:39 says (of a second marriage after spouse dies) "The wife (not wife if not married "in the Lord") is bound by the law as long as her husband (not husband if not married "in the Lord") liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will, "only in the Lord." Well, if the "second marriage" is to be "only in the Lord," don't you think the "first marriage" should be also?

      Now that we have established the definition of "Marriage" according to Scripture, both Holy and "in the Lord," I ask how many of us have done this? If Scripture says marriage is "only in the Lord," (Spiritual) and Ephesians 2:1 says we "...were DEAD (Spiritually) in our trespasses and sins..." how could we possibly have been married when Scripture says marriage is Holy and "only in the Lord?" Sorry folks, we only got "a license to sin!"

      Therefore, I agree that Scripture means "one spouse at a time" in that I Corinthians 7:2 says "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have HIS OWN wife, and let every woman have HER OWN husband," indicating "one spouse at a time!" But do we consider the "husband" (not "in the Lord") or "wife" (not "in the Lord") as such if acquired before coming to Christ a "husband" or wife according to Scripture (Holy and "in the Lord" when we were DEAD)? NO! They couldn't possibly be not according to Scripture for both were Spiritually DEAD and marriage was intended by GOD to be HOLY and "in the Lord!"

      Now concerning the Samaritan woman at the well! Jesus told her {paraphrasing} in John 4:16-24 to "Go, call thy husband.." in which she replied "...I have no husband.." and Jesus said, "...Thou hast well said, I have no husband. For thou hast have "five husbands," (according to man's law) and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband; that saidst thou truly." Why did Jesus tell her the man she was now with was not her husband? Read Verse 21: "...Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when YE shall NEITHER in this mountain, NOR yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father." Can you see she was not Holy and "in the Lord?" V22 Jesus said, "YE WORSHIP YE NO NOT WHAT..." as we did when we were "DEAD in trespasses and sins." Therefore, do you really think if marriage was not Holy and "in the Lord" GOD recognizes for we were DEAD, so says Scripture!