Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Marriage

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Marriage

Lines 1-34

But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
Was noon housbond to the Samaritan?
How manye mighte she have in mariage?
Yet herde I never tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun
.
(21-25)

The Wife's point is that Jesus's negating of the Samaritan's fifth marriage while giving a "pass" to the first four is somewhat confusing. It's a point well-taken, and supported further by the Wife's claim that no one seems to be able to agree upon just how many husbands is too many.

God bad for us to wexe and multiplye:
That gentil text can I wel understonde.
Eek wel I woot he seyde, myn housbonde
Sholde lete fader and moder, and take to me
.
(27-31)

The Wife's argumentative strategy here is to pit very transparent Biblical texts in support of marriage against very confusing ones sometime wielded against it. Everyone can agree on the meaning of God's commands to multiply, and leave one's father and mother and cleave to one's wife. The Wife's defense of marriage as a legitimate life choice thereby gains merit.

'Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right y-nough for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage.
For lordinges, sith I twelf yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche-dore I have had fyve.'

(1-6)

There was a large branch of scholarly tradition dedicated to talking about the "wo that is in mariage," from which we later hear Jankyn read. These stories and proverbs were all written from men's perspectives, however. By proposing to speak about it from her perspective, the Wife turns this tradition on its head.

But me was told, certeyn, nat longe agon is,
That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
To wedding in the Cane of Galilee,
That by the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholde wedded be but onis
.
(8-13)

The notion that a widowed woman ought not to marry again was a commonplace during this time period. According to this way of thinking, instead of marrying again, and again indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, a woman should become a nun or at least live the rest of her life in celibacy.

Lines 35-82

Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes,
And diverse practyk in many sondry werkes
Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly:
Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I.
Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall!

(47-51)

The Wife's defense of marriage comes from the notion that wifehood might be its own "estate," or profession, just like any other trade. If that's the case, then what's wrong with women improving themselves at their trade by marrying multiple times for practice?

Blessed be God that I have wedded fyve,
Of whiche I have pyked out the beste,
Bothe of here nether purs of here cheste
.
(44-46)

The Wife's criteria for a good husband seem to be a well-endowed genital region and money-chest. The Wife welds together the notion of money and sex, as she will do again many times in her Prologue, by calling the man's testicles a "nether purs," or lower purse.

Whan myn housbond is fro the world y-gon,
Som Cristen man shal wedde me anon;
For thanne th'Apostle seith that I am free
To wedde, a Goddes half, where it lyketh me.
He seith that to be wedded is no sinne:
Bet is to be wedded than to brinne
.
(53-58)

Here the Wife alludes to 1 Corinthians 7:9, in which Paul writes, "If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn." Paul held out marriage as a last resort for those who could not control their lust, so this text is not exactly the ringing endorsement for marriage the Wife portrays it to be.

Lines 101-120

[Christ] spak to hem that wolde live parfitly,
And lordinges, by youre leve, that am nat I.
I wol bistowe the flour of myn age
In the actes and in fruit of mariage
.
(117-120)

Chastity is only for those who strive for perfection, says the Wife. Though married life is less than perfect, the Wife implies it's balanced by its "fruits" – the pleasures available to those who forego chastity.

Lines 169-193

And whan that I have told thee forth my tale
Of tribulacioun in mariage,
Of which I am expert in al my age –
This to seyn, myself have been the whippe –
Than maystow chese whether thou wolt sippe
Of thilke tonne that I shal abroche.
Be war of it, er thou to ny approche
.
(178-184)

The Wife's warning against marriage after a long speech in favor of it is just one of the many contradictions in her Prologue. She seems to be recommending marriage for women, but counseling against it for men. By comparing it to a "tonne," or cask of wine from which a man can choose to sip or not, she implies that, like wine, marriage can be dangerous and make one lose control.

Lines 263-290

Thus seistow, lorel, whan thow goost to bedde,
And that no wys man nedeth for to wedde,
Ne no man that entendeth unto hevene
.
(279-281)

The Wife's re-enactment of her accusatory remarks to her husband is also an opportunity for her to parrot many of the current antifeminist proverbs warning men against marriage, like this one. What might be her purpose in doing this?

Lines 291-308

But folk of wyves maken noon assay
Til they be wedded. Olde dotard shrewe!
And thanne, seistow, we wol oure vices shewe
.
(290-292)

The argument against marriage to which the Wife here alludes – which is that, unlike farm animals or housewares, a wife can't be tested out before the wedding day – reveals that wives were pretty much seen as property during this time period.

Lines 549-592

For certeinly, I sey for no bobance,
Yet was I nevere withouten purveyance
Of mariage, n'of othere thinges eek.
I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
that hath but oon hole for to sterte to,
And if that faille, thanne is al y-do
.
(575-580)

Here, like in the passage above, the Wife's comparison of a woman without a prospective husband to a mouse without a hole explicitly compares women to animals. The effect of this comparison is completely different here, however, emphasizing the relative powerlessness of a woman alone in a way that is sympathetic even to scheming women like the Wife.

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