Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Literature and Writing

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Literature and Writing

Lines 1-34

Experience, thou noon auctoritee
Were in this world, were right ynogh to me
To speke of wo that is in mariage
.
(1-3)

"Auctoritees" were the texts of scholarly tradition in the medieval period. By proposing to speak from her own experience, however, the Wife bucks a tradition of expounding upon a subject mainly by collecting what lots of "auctoritees" had to say about it. The arrangement of ideas, through which one might give a new perspective on these ideas, was the major creative activity of the medieval scholar.

Men may devyne, and glosen up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad for us to wexe and multiplye.
That gentil text kan I wel understonde
.
(26-29)

Here the Wife dismisses texts that require extensive interpretation to understand in favor of a text that's very straightforward. In effect she's democratizing the debate process, implying that such elaborate interpretive procedures shouldn't be necessary to it.

Lines 35-82

Whan saugh ye evere in any manere age,
That hye God defended mariage
By expres word? I pray you, telleth me,
Or where comanded he virginitee?

(65-68)

By asking where God forbade marriage "By expres word," the Wife is in effect asking "Where is it written?" At this moment she seems proto-Protestant, since a huge divide between later Protestants and Catholics was whether or not one should rely on the Bible alone for one's precepts and commandments, or whether it was OK to allow "tradition," or the wisdom of holy men collected through the centuries. By demanding God's express word as proof, the Wife seems to be in favor of the former, at least at this point in her Prologue.

Lines 121-140

Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun,
That they were maked for purgacioun
Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale
Were eek to knowe a femele fro ma male,
And for noon other cause, -say ye no
The experience woot wel it is noght so
.
(125-130)

Glossing was the activity of explaining a text. By referring to it here in relation to the purpose of the genitals, the Wife implies that she's drawing her information about this from scholarly texts. But in line 130, she deploys life experience in opposition to these texts' conclusions, continuing her method of pitting "auctoritee" against experience.

Lines 141-168

I have the power durynge al my lyf
Upon his propre body, and noght he.
Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me,
And bad oure housbondes for to love us weel.
Al this sentence me liketh every deel
.
(164-168)

Here the Wife demonstrates selective amnesia in her recitation of Biblical texts: the words of Paul actually give husbands and wives power over one another's bodies. The Wife, however, desires absolute power over both her husband and herself, so conveniently forgets to mention the other part of Paul's text.

Lines 169-193

Whoso that nyl be war by othere men,
By hym shul othere men corrected be.
The same wordes writeth Ptholomee;
Rede it in his Almageste, and take it there
.
(186-189)

The idea that one ought to take others' lives of an example was one that was heavily connected to literature and writing, because the examples contained in literature were supposed to be directions for one's own life.

Lines 330-342

Of alle men yblessed moot he be,
The wise astrologien, Daun Ptholome,
That seith this proverbe in his Almageste:
'Of alle men his wysdomis the hyeste
that rekketh nevere who hath the world in honde.'

(329-333)

In yet another haphazard use of texts, the Wife here cites a proverb that is nowhere to be found in Ptolemy's works. Her interpretation of this proverb is even more creative; she holds it to mean that a husband shouldn't care if his wife is having sex with other men as long as he's getting some, too.

Lines 343-353

And yet, with sorwe, thou most enforce thee,
And seye thise wordes in the Apostles name,
'In habit, maad with chastitee and shame,
Ye wommen shul apparaille yow,' quod he
,
'And noght in tressed heer and gay perree,
As perles, ne with gold, ne clothes riche.'
After thy text, ne after thy rubriche
I wol nat wirche, as muchel as a gnat!

(346-353)

A 'good' reader of a medieval text was supposed to apply its wisdom to her own life. The Wife of Bath is not exactly a 'bad' reader, for she at least appears to know that this is what she is supposed to do, and at other points, she recommends the practice to others. It's just that in this case, she chooses not to "wirche" after the given text, as it conflicts with her values.

Lines 653-716

By God! if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse
.
(699-702)

Here the Wife recognizes the power of the pen to dictate the way we interpret the world. The Wife's point is that the only reason such horrible antifeminist stories exist is because men have always been the only ones given the opportunity to write.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves,
Ne of noon oother womman never the mo
.
(694-697)

The saints' lives the Wife refers to here were tales about women who almost always lived a life of perfect chastity, and often suffered a violent death for their Christianity. Implicit in this statement is a critique of the limited options available to women if they are to be considered 'good.'

He hadde a book that gladly, nyght and day,
For his desport he wolde rede always.
He cleped it Valerie and Theofraste,
At which book he lough alwey ful faste.
And eek ther was som tyme a clerk at Rome,
A cardinal that highte Seint Jerome,
that made a book agayn Jovinian,
In whiche book eek ther was Tertulan,
Crisippus, Trotula and Helowys,
That was abbesse nat fer fro Parys,
And eek the Parables of Salomon,
Ovides Art, and bookes many on
.
(675-686)

The book in which Jankyn takes so much pleasure is a collection of lots of antifeminist writings, particularly ones about wives. Jerome's Against Jovinian, for example, was a book St. Jerome wrote in response to a man named Jovinian who argued that married life was just as valuable as virginity. For some of the works the Wife cites here, however, it's less clear why they might have been in a collection of antifeminist writings. The Trotula, for example, was a medical text about women's health issues; its presence here is somewhat puzzling.

And alle thise were bounden in o volume,
And every nyght and day was his custume
Whan he hadde leyser and vacacioun
From oother worldly occupacioun
To reden on this book of wikked wyves
.
(687-691)

Jankyn seems really despicable in this description. Why does he take such pleasure in his collection of tales of wicked wives? If one believed the stories, wouldn't its reading be an occasion for sorrow, and not enjoyment?

Lines 794-834

And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne
To reden on this cursed book al nyght,
Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght
Out of his book, right as he radde
.
(794-797)

One can read the Wife's attack on Jankyn's Book of Wicked Wives as her expression of frustration and anger at the entire antifeminist tradition, much of which is contained in texts just like this. Later, the Wife makes Jankyn burn his book, destroying it completely.

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