The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Analysis: Writing Style
Iambic Pentameter, Rhyming Couplets; Varied types of vocabulary
For a discussion of Chaucer's use of iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets check out our guide to the "General Prologue & Frame Story." Here we'll discuss the style unique to the Wife of Bath's Prologue.Since the Wife of Bath's Prologue combines numerous genres into one package, it's not surprising that we see a medley of different types of vocabulary in her Prologue. From her discussion of the sinfulness (or lack thereof) and of serial marriage comes a highly legalistic vocabulary consistent with her preoccupation at this moment with the Church's laws: for example, the Wife says that "for to been a wyf he yaf me leve / Of indulgence," a "leave of indulgence" being a highly legalistic term for "permission."
The Wife also employs a vocabulary of financial terms, for example, when she refers to sex as paying a debt, declaring "An housbonde I wol have, I wol not lette, / Which shal be both my dettour and my thrall" (160-161). Of course, at other, less guarded and more argumentative moments the Wife discusses sex irreverently, using lots of vulgar terms like "queynte" and "quoniam" to refer to the genitals instead of the subtle "instrument" that appears in her argumentative mode.
Another interesting feature of the Prologue's linguistic style is the language of domestic (home) life that it uses. For example, when the Wife compares virgins to "breed of pured whete-seed, / And late us wyves hoten barly breed" (149-150). Some people think that, with this language, the Prologue is "signaling" its feminine authorship, since women at this time period were the ones responsible for setting up and maintaining a household.