The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
Rules and Order Theme
At the beginning of "The Wife of Bath's Tale," a knight commits rape, and the rest of the tale is concerned with how the law punishes him for his misdeed (or not). The queen immediately asks for the privilege of judgment over the knight, but rejects the traditional punishment of beheading in favor of justice that's more rehabilitative than punitive. "The Wife of Bath's Tale" emphasizes the way in which the law demands sovereignty over people's bodies in the way you forfeit the right to determine the fate of yours when you break it. It also emphasizes the way making a vow has the same effect in one's voluntary yielding of sovereignty to another. The law and vow-making thus join women as things that demand cession of a man's sovereignty; since the 'thing that women most desire' is also a kind of rule for men, this consonance makes sense.
Questions About Rules and Order
- How does the queen's version of justice differ from the king's? How might we account for these differences?
- How does "The Wife of Bath's Tale" link the law, vow-making, and women's desire to the concept of sovereignty over oneself, and particularly over one's body?
- How does the knight react upon the various occasions when the rules of law and troth exert themselves over him? When his wife does? If he reacts differently on different occasions, why?
Chew on This
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" portrays a romance version of rehabilitative justice in the 'punishment' the queen and her ladies devise for the criminal knight.
The knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" undergoes a training process that consists in his submission to the rules of law, troth, and women's desire, only after which can he be fully re-integrated into courtly life.
By linking the law, vow-making, and women's desire to the concept of sovereignty over oneself, "The Wife of Bath's Tale" suggests that women's desire is a force that must be obeyed in order to hold society together.