The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story
by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath is larger than life. With broad hips, a big butt, and a hat as big as a boat, she takes up a lot of space in the pilgrimage and in the poem as a whole. The Wife is dressed expensively in scarlet stockings and shoes of soft, new leather, and she has a penchant for fine, large headgear that Chaucer estimates weighs about ten pounds.
With a red face to match her red stockings, and a large gap between her two front teeth, the Wife's physical appearance matches a medieval stereotype about what a lustful person looks like. This stereotype held that such people couldn't control their passions, and the Wife's portrait falls in line with this idea by telling us how the Wife becomes angry if other wives go before her at the Church offering (where going first is a sign of respect given to the most highly-regarded woman in the parish), and by hinting that the Wife had numerous lovers before her five (five!) husbands.
It seems that the Wife has had great financial success in her business as a clothmaker in which, says Chaucer, she surpasses the clothmakers of Ypres and Ghent, who were renowned for this trade. From this piece of information, we can assume that the Wife is now a widow, for only a widow would have had the freedom not only to run her own business, but also to travel as widely on pilgrimage as the Wife has, to Rome, Bologna, Cologne, and Gaul.
The Wife's numerous lovers and husbands have made her skilled in the "old dance" of love, or sex, an expertise she draws upon in the long Prologue to her tale. There, we learn more about the Wife's history and hear her defense of a lifestyle revolving around sex and procreation. (Learn more in our guide to the Wife of Bath's Prologue.) But even from her portrait, we get the impression that the Wife is a fun-loving woman who likes to have a good time, making her an ideal companion on pilgrimage, for "in felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe" (General Prologue 476).
With the Wife, Chaucer is representing the medieval estate, or social class, of wifehood. There were many anti-feminist stereotypes about wives during this time period. We see them expressed here, in the portrayal of the Wife as lustful, in the Host and Franklin's complaints about their wives, and in the Wife of Bath's Prologue. But the presence on the pilgrimage of a dynamic and articulate wife who gets the chance to answer her critics means that these stereotypes are not allowed to remain unexamined.