Study Guide

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

By Geoffrey Chaucer


Lines 35-82

Yblessed be God, that I have wedded fyve;
(Of whiche I have pyked out the beste,
Bothe of here nether purs and of here cheste.)


The Wife admits to marrying for money, but she also implies that a good penis (by which she may also mean talent in bed) is money in one's pocket by calling a man's genitals a "nether purs."

Lines 101-120

For wel ye knowe, a lord in his houshold,
He nath nat every vessel al of gold;
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servyse

Here the Wife is comparing virgins to gold and sexually active women to wooden dishes. It's true that a lord would have both golden and wooden dishes in his household, and would be able to use both. But he probably wouldn't bring out the wooden dishes for "company dinners" when he wanted to impress someone. The Wife, on the other hand, has no scruples about bringing out the lustfulness in front of company.

Lines 141-168

Myn housbond shal it have bothe eve and morwe,
Whan that hym list come forth and paye his dette.
An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral

It's appropriate that the Wife allows that a husband can pay his debt by having sex with her, since she's previously referred to a man's penis as his "nether purs." Sex and money are obviously very much linked in the Wife's mind.

Lines 194-229

The thre men were goode, and riche, and olde;
Unnethe myghte they the status holde
In which that they were bounden unto me –
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!


Here the Wife further corroborates her assertion that she married for money. She was even willing to overlook her husbands' impotence (that's what she means when she says they couldn't hold the statute by which they were bound to her) for their wealth.

Thou seist to me, it is a greet meschief
To wedde a povre womman, for costage,
And if she be riche and of heigh parage,
Thanne seistow it is a tormentrie
To soffre hire pride and hir malencolie

A man might consider it costly to marry a poor woman because she would not be able to bring a large dowry to the wedding. On the other hand, men might complain of the pride and bad temper of a rich woman. This is just one instance of the way antifeminist portrayals of women made it so that no matter their situation, women simply couldn't win.

I governed hem so wel after my lawe,
That ech of hem ful blisful was, and fawe
To brynge me gaye thynges fro the fayre

Here the Wife reveals her love for fancy things. Chaucer hinted at as much in the General Prologue when he talked about the Wife's hat as broad as a buckler and her expensive clothing.

As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke.
And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor,
They had me yeven hir gold and hir tresoor

Since the Wife already has control of her husbands' wealth, she has no further need to please them. The attitude the Wife expresses here is similar to an antifeminist idea she accuses her husbands of expressing in their drunkenness: that a woman hides her vices until she is married. Here, the Wife reveals her lack of consideration for her husbands' labors only after she has control of their property.

Lines 291-308

Thou seist, that oxen, asses, hors, and houndes,
They been assayd at diverse stoundes;
Bacyns, lavours, er that men hem bye,
Spoones and stooles, and al swich housbondrye,
And so been pottes, clothes, and array;
But folkes of wyves maken noon assay

This bit of antifeminist wisdom explicitly connects wives to property by implying that, like one's other purchasing decisions, the decision to marry a woman ought to occur only after she has been tested. A man might make an argument that marrying a woman was "purchasing" her because of the cost of her upkeep.

Lines 309-329

Now by that lord that called is Seint Jame,
Thou shalt nat bothe, though that thou were wood,
Be maister of my body and of my good;
That oon thou shalt forgo, maugree thyn eyen

By saying that her husband can have either her property or her body, the Wife is, in effect, offering to trade one for the other. This is not the first or last instance in which she implies that sex is for sale.

But tel me this, why hydestow, with sorwe
The keyes of my cheste awey fro me?
It is my good as wel as thyn, pardee

The marital equity the Wife implies in the idea that she and her husband own their property together is a pretence. The Wife's actual goal is to have total control (alone) over all the property.

Lines 343-353

Thou seyst also, that if we make us gay
with clothyng and with precious array,
That it is peril of oure chastitee:
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.'

This text from Paul is saying that a woman who dresses herself in fancy clothing could not possibly be chaste. At the heart of this sentiment is the idea that a woman who dresses herself nicely and cares about fashion does so because she is trying to attract the attention of men.

Lines 401-436

And therfore every man this tale I telle,
Wynne who so may, for al is for to selle:
With empty hand men may none haukes lure.
For wynnyng wolde I al his lust endure

The Wife of Bath is what today would be called a "gold-digger," itself an ugly antifeminist stereotype that has not disappeared. Here the Wife compares a man using money to attract a woman to the way a falconer lures a hawk with food. This comparison subtly suggests the way that a woman may need as much as want to provide for herself – just like a hawk, a woman must eat to stay alive.

I wolde no lenger in the bed abyde,
If that I felte his arm over my syde,
Til he had maad his raunsoun unto me;
Thanne wolde I suffre hym do his nycetee

This statement conflicts with the Wife's prior expression of a preference that her husband yield the marriage debt to her with his penis. There, the "raunson" was sex; here, it's money.

Lines 437-456

For if I wolde selle my bele chose,
I koude walke as fressh as is a rose
But I wol kepe it for your owene tooth

It seems very crass for the Wife to chasten her husband with the amount of money her body could fetch on the open market. But if she's a saleswoman of sex, it's smart; she's driving up the price of her goods by implying that demand for them is high.

Lines 509-530

Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;
Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we fle;
With daunger oute we al oure chaffare.
Greet prees at market maketh deere ware,
And to greet cheep is holde at litel prys;
This knoweth every womman that is wys

Here the Wife here reveals herself to possess a good head for business. She's saying that women are willing to lay down lots of money (or sex) for something that's rare or difficult to obtain, demonstrating a good understanding of the basics of supply and demand. This business knowledge fits with with the General Prologue's claim that the Wife was once involved in the textile business.

Al is his tombe noght so curyus
As was the sepulcre of hym Daryus,
Which that Appelles wroghte subtilly.
It nys but wast to burye hem preciously

Do we detect a bit of defensiveness in the Wife's tone? Though she may be right that it would be a waste for her to spend a lot of money on her husband's grave, we can't help but remember that she's perfectly willing to spend lots of money on herself.

Lines 531-548

My fifthe housbonde, God his soule blesse,
Which that I took for love and no richesse,
He somtyme was a clerk at Oxenford

The Wife was willing to marry for love and not money? (We scrape our jaw off up the floor.) This surprising revelation conflicts with the portrait the Wife has painted of herself as a heartless mercenary in her relationships.

Lines 549-592

[I] wered upon my gaye scarlet gytes.
Thise wormes ne thise motthes, ne thise mytes,
Upon my peril, frete hem never a deel;
And wostow why? for they were used weel!


A scarlet skirt was bound to attract attention, which was the Wife's intention. A few lines earlier, she says that she attends lots of social events because they afford opportunities for advancement. Her desire to wear fine clothing is not just vanity; it's part of her strategy for her future provisioning.

Lines 717-793

Myn housbonde hadde a legende of his wyf
Eriphilem, that for an ouche of gold

Hath prively unto the Grekes told
Wher that hir housbonde hidde hym in a place

This story may be particularly hurtful to the Wife because it's coming from the mouth of the one husband she married for love instead of money. For him to insinuate that women are not capable of what the Wife has in fact done with him, and no other husband, is the ultimate irony.

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