Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Women and Femininity

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Women and Femininity

Lines 194-229

A wys womman wol bisye hire evere in oon
To gete hire love, ye, ther as she hath noon
.
(215-216)

This is the first of the Wife's pronouncements about what a wise woman ought to do, or does. Most of these pronouncements are, like this one, concerned with teaching women how to place themselves in a position of greater power in a relationship. Here the Wife advises that it's always better to make a man fall in love with you so that you can use his love to gain power over him.

Lines 230-240

Now herkneth how I bar me proprely:
Ye wyse wyves, that can understonde,
Thus shul ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde
.
(230-232)

The Wife's address to "ye wyse wyves" is curious, given the fact that there are no other married women in the company of pilgrims (all the other women on pilgrimage are nuns). This is a moment where the imaginary setting gives way to the poem's knowledge of itself as a poem, addressed to a wider audience that probably includes wives.

A wys wyf, if that she can hir good,
Shal beren him on hond the cow is wood,
And take witnese of hir owene mayde
Of hir assent
. (237-240)

A wise wife will tell her husband that "the cow is wood," or the crow is crazy. This statement refers to stories common at this time period, of which Chaucer's "Manciple's Tale" is one, in which speaking birds tell a husband about his wife's unfaithfulness. The Wife is saying that it's in a woman's best interest that her husband never find out about her unfaithfulness.

For half so boldely can ther no man
Swere and lyen as a womman can
.
(233-234)

This is not the last time the Wife will refer to the antifeminist stereotype of women as expert liars. Her emphasis upon this is puzzling given her desire to make believable arguments. Doesn't her insistence that all women are great liars undermine her credibility a bit?

Lines 263-290

And if that she be foul, thou seist that she
Coveiteth every man that she may se;
For as a spaynel she wol on him lepe,,
Til that she finde som man hire to chepe
.
(271-274)

This statement continues the women-are-damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don't argument the Wife has just made with the notion that even ugly women are un-"keep"-able. It also continues the objectification of women by comparing a woman to a spaniel (a kind of dog).

Thow seyst we wyves wol oure vyces hyde
Til we be fast, and thanne we wol hem shewe
.
(284-285)

The idea that women are out to entrap men into marriage, after which they feel free to be their true, heinous selves, adds the vices of manipulative-ness and deceptiveness to the ones the women are supposedly hiding before their wedding day.

Thou seyst, som folk desiren us for richesse,
Somme for oure shape, and somme for oure fairnesse,
And som for she kan outher synge or daunce,
And som for getillesse and daliaunce,
Som for hir handes and hir armes smale;
Thus goth al to the devel by thy tale.
Thou seyst, men may nat kepe a castel wal,
It may so longe assailled ben overal
.
(263-270)

The Wife's point here is that women are damned if they do and damned if they don't; no matter what a woman is or does, men will always view her as potentially desired by other men. The reference to a castle wall that men are trying to "keep" emphasizes the way in which men treat women as property.

Lines 309-329

We love no man that taketh kepe or charge
Wher that we goon; we wol ben at oure large
.
(321-322)

Here is the Wife's first intimation that what women desire above all in their relationships is sovereignty – they long, in other words, to be their own masters. This claim later takes a more sinister turn when the Wife demonstrates that a woman desires sovereignty not only over herself, but also over her husband.

Lines 363-384

Thou lykenest eek wommanes love to helle,
To bareyne lond, ther water may not dwelle,
Thou lyknest it also to wilde fyr:
The more it brenneth, the more it hath desyr
To consume every thing that brent wol be
.
(377-381)

This reference to woman's love as consuming is difficult to interpret. It might be accusing women of excessive lust, which would be consistent with the metaphor of burning (i.e., burning lust). This also fits well with the Wife's own portrayal of herself as excessively lustful.

Lines 401-436

Under that colour hadde I many a mirthe,
For al swich wit is yeven us in our birthe.
Deceite, weping, spinning God hath yive
To wommen kindely whyl they may live
.
(405-408)

The idea that deceit, weeping, and spinning were the tools natural to womankind is not original to the Wife of Bath, but was a common maxim at this time period. Deceit is definitely a morally reprehensible tool, but since the other two tools, weeping and spinning, seem feeble in comparison, the deceit women use almost begins to seem justified. If those were your only tools, which one would you use?

Lines 437-456

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

Here the Wife strategically uses antifeminist sentiment to get the upper hand in her relationship. Antifeminist discourse holds that women lack reason. Therefore, says the Wife, the man ought to give way first in any argument, since it's impossible for the woman to be made to see reason.

Lines 475-486

In wommen vinolent is no defence,
This knowen lecchours by experience
.
(473-474)

The Wife's claim that lecherous men know that a woman who's been drinking is unable to resist sex is a sobering attestation to the prevalence of sexual assault in the Wife's experience.

Lines 509-530

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
.
(527-530)

Now the "queynte fantasye" to which the Wife referred above becomes again strategic: it's just economics, the Wife seems to be saying. If a man withholds himself from the market, he creates scarcity, causing the woman to out her "chaffare," or goods, to purchase him. It's no great thing for a woman to win a man that anyone could buy. The "queynte fantasye" is revealed to be a strategy that increases a woman's status the same way the purchase of an expensive hat might.

We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,
In this matere a queynte fantasye;
Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,
Therafter wol we crie al day and crave.
Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;
Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we fle
.
(521-526)

This statement is reminiscent of the Wife's earlier claim that wise women are quick to go after a love they do not possess. There, this pursuit seemed strategic, a way for women to ensure they were the one with greater power in the relationship. Here, on the other hand, it seems simply emotional, a "queynte fantasye" or eccentricity in women.

Lines 653-716

The children of Mercurie and Venus
Been in hir wirkyng ful contrarius,
Mercurie loveth wysdam and science,
And Venus loveth ryot and dispence.
And for hire diverse disposicioun
Ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun
.
[…]
Venus falleth ther Mercurie is reysed.
Therfore no womman of no clerk is preysed
.
(703-707, 711-712)

The Wife is calling women the children of Venus and men the children of Mercury. This astrology implies that one cannot prosper while the other does and, therefore, (male) clerks will never speak well of women, in order to ensure their own prosperity. This quote is not the first one in which the Wife uses astrology to explain something; she also claims the mark of Venus on her face is what causes her to be so lusty.

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)

The Wife implies here that women lack only the opportunity, and not the ability, to write stories about men. Since women at this time period rarely had access to education, most simply did not possess the skills necessary to become writers. Without taking the pen, they could not combat the antifeminist writings that depicted them negatively.

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

Here the Wife begins to reflect on the reasons behind the antifeminist sentiments she's been exploring in her Prologue. The Wife says that clerks, or writers, slander all women except saints. The implicit point here is that a woman has to be a saint in order to merit a good word from a male writer. Ordinary women don't stand a chance.

The Wife of Bath

This clerk, whan he is oold and may noght do
Of Venus werkes worth his olde sho,
Thanne sit he doun, and writ in his dotage
That wommen kan nat kepe hir mariage
.
(713-716)

With this statement, the Wife implies that a clerk's slander of women may be due to jealousy or curmudgeonly-ness due to impotence in age. If the clerk isn't having sex, maybe he doesn't want anyone else to be having it either. If he discourages marriage, maybe no one will!

Lines 717-793

'Bet is,' quod he, 'thyn habitacioun
Be with a leon, or a foul dragoun,
Than with a womman usynge for to chyde.'
'Bet is,' quod he, 'hye in the roof abyde
Than with an angry wyf doun in the house,
They been so wikked and contrarious.
They haten that hir housbondes loveth ay.'
'He seyde, 'a womman cast hir shame away
Whan she cast of hir smok,' and forther mo,
'A fair womman, but she be chaast also,
Is lyk a goldryng in a sowes nose.'

(781-791)

This cascade of antifeminist proverbs from Jankyn is the straw that breaks the camel's back as far as the Wife's tolerance of his "preaching" is concerned. The way the proverbs are cited one after the other ups the intensity of the antifeminism here. After all, the stories Jankyn has read are also horrible portraits of women, but having the points stated so baldly and succinctly here helps us to understand the ugliness and relentlessness of the antifeminism the Wife must confront.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...