Study Guide

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

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Power

Lines 35-82

Th'Apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseilling is no comandement:
He putte it in oure owene jugement
.
(64-68)

By portraying Paul and other men who counsel women to be virgins as respectful of women's judement, the Wife of Bath makes them into the spiritual version of the kind of husband she'd like to have – one who gives her "maistrye" over her own body and mind.

Lines 141-168

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

What the Wife chooses to leave out of her interpretation of scripture here is that Paul ("the' Apostel") said that husbands and wives have power over one another's bodies, not just the wife over the husband's. This is not the first or the last time the Wife makes her argument through selective repetition of someone else's statements.

An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,
Which shal be both my dettour and my thral,
And have his tribulacioun withal
Upon his flessh, wyl that I am his wif
. (160-163)

The Wife creatively interprets the idea of the marriage debt, in which a husband and wife owe one another sex, to cast her husband as debtor. Yet she plays upon the way predatory lending gives the creditor mastery over the debtor to suggest that, as debtor, her husband is also her slave. In her hands, the marriage debt goes from a reciprocal duty between husband and wife to a tool of power for her.

Lines 194-229

But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven all hir lond,
What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,
But if it were for my profit and myn ese?

(211-214)

Here the Wife reveals how control over material possessions, like land, leads to power in a relationship. When she has this control, she has no need to try to please her husband. This statement raises a chicken-or-egg question, though, about which comes first: does power come from control of material wealth, or does a woman gain control over material wealth because she has power over husband?

As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke
.
(207-208)

The Wife's reference to how she made her husbands "swynke," or work very hard, recalls her earlier intention to have a husband who is a thrall, or slave. The slave-labor she wishes to extract from him is sexual.

I governed hem so wel after my lawe
That ech of hem ful blisful was and fawe
To bringe me gaye thinges fro the fayre
.
(225-227)

The Wife's assertion that she "governed" her husband "after my lawe" subtly references the medieval notion that a husband should rule his household and wife the way a king rules his lands and people. Of course, this version of household government sets that notion on its head, with the wife taking on the role of king.

Lines 309-329

Now by that lord that called is Seint Jame,
Thou shalt nat bothe, thogh that thou were wood,
Be maister of my body and my good;
That oon thou shalt forgo, maugree thyne yen
.
(319-322)

By saying that her husband can't be master of both her body and possessions, the Wife implies that he must pay for one with the other. If he wants sex, he must pay for it with possessions, and vice versa. This fits into the Wife's overall view of sex as something that's for sale.

We love no man that taketh kepe or charge
Wher that we goon; we wol ben at oure large
.
(327-328)

The Wife's couches her desire for absolute sovereignty in her relationship with her husband in terms of her ability to go where she wishes. She makes the significance of this physical freedom clear later on in her Prologue, when she mentions her joy in walking from house to house and the fact that this activity was strategic for her as a means of social networking. By granting her this power, her husband was in effect granting her the ability to gain even more power.

Lines 330-342

'Of alle men his wisdom is the hyeste,
That rekketh nevere who hath the world in honde.'

(332-333)

The Wife creatively uses this (unattested) proverb from Ptolemy to make the point that her husband ought not to care whom she's having sex with. Yet the proverb's actual meaning is that people shouldn't to care if others have more power than them, a meaning that does not support the Wife's quest for the upper hand in all her relationships.

Lines 385-400

Whoso that first to mille comth, first grint.
I pleyned first: so was our werre y-stint
.
(395-396)

The Wife is referring here to how she accuses her husbands of adultery to prevent them from (probably rightly) accusing her of it. Earlier in the Prologue she warned wise wives never to let their husbands catch them in an affair. It seems that the Wife believes that whoever has the moral high ground (or at least the appearance of it) has the power in the relationship.

Lines 437-456

Oon of us two must bowen, doutelees,
And sith a man is more resonable
Than womman is, ye moste been suffrable
.
(446-448)

Here the Wife uses the antifeminist idea the women are unreasonable to force her husband to give in to her. Notice that, true to character, the Wife totally rejects the idea of compromise. One of the two must "bowen," or be subject to the other. There's no power sharing in the Wife's marriages.

Lines 633-652

This joly clerk Jankin, that was so hende,
Hath wedded me with greet solempnitee,
And to him yaf I al the lond and fee
That evere was me yeven therbifore.
But afterward repented me ful sore;
He nolde suffre nothing of my list
.
(634-639)

In giving up her property to Jankyn, the Wife must have forgotten her own insight that whoever owns the property in a relationship has the power. Perhaps the Wife was love-struck; we know from a few lines earlier that Jankyn was the husband she loved best. It seems that love and power-mongering don't go together so well.

Lines 653-716

Who peyntede the leoun, tell me, who?
(698)

Here the Wife is referring to a story in the Fables of Avianus, in which a man and a lion together consider a sculpture in which a lion bows in submission to the man. The lion suggests that if the sculpture had been constructed by a lion, it would show the lion eating the man. The Wife of Bath shows that she understands that who wields the pen, wields the power, an idea that gives a whole larger meaning to her Prologue.

But al for noght; I sette noght an hawe
Of his proverbes n'of his olde sawe,
Ne I wolde nat of him corrected be.
I hate him that my vices telleth me,
And so do mo, God woot, of us, than I.
This made him with me wood al outrely:
I nolde nat forbere him in no cas
.
(665-671)

The Wife's refusal to be correction may indicate a love of power rather than excessive pride. She does not wish to "forbere" or "obey" her husband, in anything, because this would indicate that he's got the power in their relationship.

Lines 794-834

And whan that I hadde geten unto me,
By maistrie, al the soveraynetee,
And that he seyde, 'Myn owene trewe wyf,
Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf;
Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat' –
After that day we hadden never debaat
.
(823-828)

So extreme and, for the Wife's purposes, ideal, is Jankyn's verbal relinquishment of sovereignty that many people think we're meant to read her account of Jankyn's submission as so much hooey. It may just be her fantasy of total control that we're seeing here, but it resembles the control that medieval husbands were supposed to have over their wives. Chaucer explores the idea of one person's total mastery over another in more detail in "The Clerk's Tale."

We fille acorded by us selven two.
He yaf me al the brydel in myn hond,
To han the governance of hous and lond,
And of his tonge and of his hond also;
And made him brenne his book anon right tho
.
(818-822)

The Wife's claim that she and Jankyn "fille acorded" emphasizes the total mastery the Wife was able to gain, not just over their property, but also Jankyn's words and body. The burning of his book may even symbolize the Wife's mastery over his mind. The extremity of this description makes some people doubt the veracity of the Wife's version of events, so unlikely does it seem that Jankyn would yield to the Wife this completely.

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