Study Guide

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

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Literature and Writing

The Wife of Bath opens her Prologue by bucking the tradition of expounding upon a subject by citing from numerous scholarly texts, or "auctoritees." Instead, she says, she's going to speak from experience. She combats texts against marriage by pitting somewhat obscure citations against straightforward texts and her own life experience, making the former texts seem needlessly complicated in comparison. The Wife's relationship with textual authority is complicated, though. Just as often as she displays a haphazard attitude toward it by misquoting or misinterpreting it, she also uses some authoritative writings, like the Biblical texts in favor of marriage and sex, to make her points.

Furthermore, some scholars even argue that the Wife's character is nothing but a combination of various antifeminist stereotypes about women, all of which are contained in writing. This means that the Wife herself is inherently 'textual.' Yet, even as she conforms to these antifeminist writings, the Wife rages against them, namely in the form of her antagonistic relationship with Jankyn's Book of Wicked Wives. When she tears three pages out of the book, and later forces Jankyn to burn it, we can see the Wife taking a stand against the antifeminist literature that constrains women to a few deeply misogynistic stereotypes. The Wife even makes the point that these insulting stereotypes only exist because women have never held the power of the pen. So her attack on Jankyn's book may represent the only definitive answer to 'auctoritee' that a medieval woman is capable of giving, though the Wife's lengthy prologue would suggest otherwise!

Questions About Literature and Writing

  1. How and where does the Wife employ textual "auctoritees" (authorities) to make her points? On the other hand, how does she undermine the authority of these auctoritees"?
  2. Is the Wife of Bath a competent user and reader of texts? Why or why not?
  3. What is the significance of the Wife's treatment of Jankyn's Book of Wicked Wives? How does this treatment compare to her treatment of textual "auctoritees" in her Prologue?

Chew on This

The Wife of Bath's treatment of Jankyn's Book of Wicked Wives represents her ultimate rejection of medieval antifeminism.

The Wife of Bath is a competent user of textual authorities.

The Wife of Bath is an incompetent user of textual authorities.

The Wife of Bath uses textual authorities to suit her purpose, without regard to the integrity of her citations. In this she reveals herself to be an unethical but competent user of textual authorities.

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