Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary

By Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary

In a land populated by fairies and elves, in the days of King Arthur, a young knight rapes a maiden he sees walking from the river one day. For his offense, Queen Guinevere and her ladies rule that his punishment is to find out within one year what women most desire, or else he'll be beheaded.

The knight departs on his quest to find the answer to this question, but despite questioning women all over the land and receiving numerous answers, he cannot find two women who agree on what women most desire.

After a year, the knight returns to King Arthur's court with a heavy heart, no closer to knowing what women most desire. On the way, he comes across a ring of 24 fairy ladies dancing. The fairies quickly disappear, only to be replaced by an ugly old hag. Upon learning of his quest, the hag agrees to tell the knight what women most desire if he promises to grant her anything she desires. The knight agrees.

The hag tells the knight what women most desire – to have sovereignty over their husbands and lovers. The queen and all the ladies assemble agree that he is correct. As the court is adjourning, the hag petitions the queen to force the knight to fulfill his promise to her: she wants the knight to marry her. Despite the knight's reluctance, the queen insists that he must do so, and the knight and hag are married.

On their wedding knight, the knight doesn't want to consummate the marriage. The hag asks what ails him, and he tells her that she is so ugly, old, and low-class that it's no wonder he does not desire her. This prompts a long speech from the hag on the true origins of gentility, and the advantages of poverty and old age. The hag concludes her speech by offering the knight a choice: either he can have her old and ugly, but a good and faithful wife, or he can have her young and beautiful, but with no guarantee of these other good qualities. The knight turns the decision over to his wife, asking her to make the choice.

Once the hag has confirmed that her husband has yielded sovereignty to her, she tells him that she will be both: young and beautiful, and a faithful, good wife to him. The knight takes his young, beautiful wife in his arms and they live happily ever after. The wife is not only faithful and good, but also obedient to her husband for the rest of their lives together.

The Wife concludes her story by praying Jesus to send women "housbondes meke, yonge, and fresshe a-bedde / and grace to'overbyde hem that we wedde" (1265-1266). She also calls down a curse on husbands who refuse to be ruled by their wives.