The Wife of Bath has a reputation as the most memorable pilgrim in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and there's no doubt that her Prologue is a big part of the reason why. The Wife not only defends her married and lusty lifestyle, while at the same time speaking of the "wo that is in mariage," but also confronts the medieval antifeminist tradition that boxes women into offensive and defeating stereotypes. The Wife's success at this endeavor is debatable; in the course of her Prologue she seems to confirm as many stereotypes as she confronts. There's no question at all, though, that she gets your attention, which, in a tradition that denied women the possibility of meaningful speech, was half the battle.
And what was this antifeminist tradition of which we speak? Well, in the late classical period, a lot of authors wrote treatises about the disadvantages of being married, particularly for men who hoped to have careers as scholars and thinkers. Wives, these writers said, would talk your ear off, preventing you from getting any work done. Wives would demand that you make lots of money to pay for their extravagant lifestyle. Incapable of keeping their mouths shut, they would spill your secrets to anyone who happened to walk by. Women were presented as gold-diggers, only looking to marry for money. And so on. These negative ideas about wives gained support from St. Paul's counsel against marriage in the New Testament, in which he basically said that anyone who could stand to be celibate should avoid marriage.
By Chaucer's time, the antifeminist tradition had grown and spawned a huge number of treatises, legends, and proverbs about the dangers and annoyances of women and wives. The Wife of Bath refers to many of these texts in her Prologue. Her fifth husband, she tells us, owned a book that was an entire collection of such texts, from which he used to read to her every evening.
Because of this tradition, an antifeminist stereotype of women had taken shape. It held that women were lustful, dishonest, blabber-mouthed, greedy gold-diggers…sound like anyone you know? That's right: the Wife of Bath. At one point or another in her Prologue, the Wife conforms to every single one of these antifeminist stereotypes. At the same time, however, she mounts a skilled and learned defense of marriage and sex, in which she beats the anti-marriage clerical tradition at its own game by citing numerous authoritative texts and interpreting Biblical passages. She even does them one better by adding her own experience into the mix.
At the end of her Prologue, the Wife rips a page or two out of her husband's book because she is so angry. Finally, the Wife has begun to seem like an actual person with feelings, rather than just a combination of negative stereotypes. In the Wife's transformation from caricature to character, we begin to see the way stereotypes fall short when it comes to capturing the complexities of everyday existence and everyday people.
You know that movie starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt called What Women Want? Before it was written, the screenwriters probably thought it was a new concept: "Hey, let's make a movie in which a guy is able to read women's minds so he can figure out exactly what women want! Wouldn't that be funny? Wouldn't it be revealing?" The thing is, a guy named Chaucer already wrote a poem about six hundred years ago that does exactly that: the Wife of Bath's Prologue gets inside the head of a woman who's totally sure about what she wants, and how to get it. And yeah, it is funny, and it is revealing.
But, the hilarity of the Wife of Bath's Prologue sometimes gives way to sobering moments. It happens when the Wife alludes to the prevalence of sexual assault in her society, or expresses heart-wrenching pain at being forced to listen to horribly insulting stories and proverbs about women. You realize that in Chaucer's time, as in the modern day, what's great about being a woman is mixed in with what's frustrating, sobering, and sometimes painful about it. Are you a woman? Or do you care about any women (and yes, your mom counts)? If so, then you should care about the Wife of Bath's Prologue.