Canterbury Tales: Wife of Bath
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in 1340 (Fuller 12). Geoffrey
Chaucer’s fortunes were closely bound with these of John Of Gaunt, the
son-in-law to the Earl of Derby (Fuller 12). Around the year 1380,
Geoffrey Chaucer was charged with rape by a woman named Cecily
Chaumpaigne (Williams 28). It is most likely that a distinguishable
character, such as Chaucer would not have been guilty of this charge.
However, the word “rape” probably referred to abducting rather than
assaulting a woman as it means today (Halliday 68). Cecily Chaumpaigne
in 1380 released Chaucer of all charges of “raptu meo,” a phrase
that could be interpreted as “seizing me” (Williams 28). It is
possible that this allegation of rape brought on to Chaucer by
Cecily Chaumpaigne, is the very reason behind the Tale of the Wife of
The wife of Bath was a plump, florid, jolly, bold, lusty, and
voluptuous woman. She was the most valuable of women. The wife of bath
cannot resist telling her companions about all of her sexual
experiences. She has had five husbands. Her husbands fell into two
categories. The first category of husbands was: rich, but also old and
unable to fulfill her demands, sexually that is. The other husbands
were sexually vigorous, but harder to control. The first three were
rich, old, and jealous. She tamed them by accusing them of promiscuous
behavior, that she herself practiced. Her fourth husband had a
mistress, so she “gave him a real cause for jealousy” (Halliday 119).
At the funeral of her first husband she fell in love with the legs of
an Oxford clerk. Although he was half her age, he became her fifth
husband. This marriage was unhappy because he beat her. To anger her
fifth husband, the wife of Bath tore three pages from his book. After
this he beat her again. She pretended to be dead and he felt so guilty
that he threw his whole book in the fire. This gave her the upper hand
for the rest of his life. She presently is looking for a sixth
husband when her character is introduced (Halliday 119).
The tale the wife of Bath tells us all is about a Knight who
ultimately rapes a maiden and is sent by the queen on a quest to seek
out what it is that women want most. If he succeeds and finds the
answer, he lives, if he fails, he dies.
The penalty for rape in the medieval era is death. The king is
ready to have the knight put to death when the queen speaks up and
allows to give him the chance to live. The knight is morally raped
when he gives up all his power of choice to the queen in order to live
(Williams 64). The word rape is often promoted by the wife throughout
the story (Williams 64). The king in the wife’s tale represents
authority. The king would have inflicted punishment on the knight. The
queen on the other hand would have commuted his sentence to rape him
back, “An eye for an eye (Williams 66).” The conclusion is triumph of
her theme, tyranny. The wife is the rapist knight herself (Williams
66). The wife having created the knight and theme of rape is a
perpetual self-rapist (Williams 66). There is irony in the wife’s
tale. Her tale is of the antifeminist clich, that all women in their
hearts desire to be raped (Williams 67). Through her tale she fulfills
her desires and resolves the oppositions that she faces (Williams 69).
The women of the middle ages tended to be anonymous (Evans 330). They
were not soft nor sheltered, but mere property. They were at the
disposal of their parents and later on husbands. They had no say in
fighting, administrating, justice, or learning. These duties were
taken care of by the men to take care of (Evans 330). Even though
women played no role in society other than child bearing, they fell in
love, became married, became divorced, and coped with problems the
same as we do in the present day (Evans 3330).
The wife’s tale is one of struggle of power and who has the upper hand
in any relationship. The wife clearly in her relationships enjoyed
having the power and control of her husbands. The knight did seek what
women desire most, and that is power. When someone has power over
someone else than they also have control.
Evans, Joan. The Flowing Middle Ages. New York: McGraw Hill Book
Hallida, I.E. Chaucer and His World. New York: Viking Press, 1968.
Fuller, Maurice. Chaucer and His England. Williamstown: Corner House
Williams, David. The Canterbury Tales, A Literary Pilgrimage. Boston:
Twayne Publishers, 1987.