It is the reign of King Arthur. A knight rapes a young maiden, and the country calls for justice. As a sign of mercy, Queen Guinevere sets the knight a task: he must give her an answer to the question “What do women most desire?” within a year—or else he will die. The knight scours the countryside seeking the answer, but every woman he asks gives him a different reply. Finally, the knight finds an old hag who claims she has an answer that will satisfy the queen. To learn it, all the knight has to do is promise he will grant her the next thing she asks.
SPOILERS (Based on the assumption everyone has read this tale!)
I first read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in high school, and although I am deeply interested in Middle English literature, I have to admit to not having paid it much attention since then. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I figured, is sort of overdone. Everyone reads it. Everyone knows it. One could probably build a mountain out of the scholarship on it. I moved instead to looking at other “loathly lady tales” (stories where an old hag has a run-in with a man, gives him some sort of choice, and magically becomes beautiful by the end). I was most captivated by “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” a fifteenth century version of the story that most likely used Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” as a source.
The thing about “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” although it is an entertaining read, is that much of the critical attention it has received has been to the effect of, “Well, this certainly isn’t as good as Chaucer’s version. Let’s go read that.” “The Wedding” is accused of just not being as consistent, as logical, as well-written and put-together as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Well, after re-reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I am uncertain that is true; it turns out I have a lot of questions about this story, too!
In general, “The Wife of Bath’s” tale does have a nice arc. The knight rapes a maiden. He learns that women desire sovereignty. He puts his lesson into practice by granting his own wife sovereignty. And he wife becomes beautiful and faithful as his reward. While readers may scratch their heads at that last part (so the rapist gets rewarded???), the story has a nice unity. The knight’s crime, his task, and his penance all fit together.
But then someone pointed out to me a small detail that indicates that none of this was really planned, at least not within the context of the story itself. (Chaucer obviously wanted things to go this way.) When the queen sets the knight his task, she requests “an answere suffisant in this mateere” (an answer sufficient in this matter) (line 910). When she tells the knight to find out what women most want, it appears she does not know herself! When he returns and states that the answer is sovereignty, the women of the court basically consult among themselves and decide that sovereignty sounds like a great idea. There was never a “correct” answer to the question.
Also troubling is the question of whether the knight’s wife (note that none of the characters have names) actually receives the sovereignty the knight supposedly grants her. The Wife of Bath tells this tale as if to illustrate a case where a woman got the better of her husband and was able to rule her own life. Yet, immediately after wife receives sovereignty, the narrator reassures the audience that she “obeyed [her husband] in everything that might give him pleasure or enjoyment” (lines 1255-1256). Perhaps there is something in the fact that the wife can freely choose to be obedient—but her ending still does not read quite like any type of liberation.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is one of the more popular stories from The Canterbury Tales with good reason. It features a fascinating plot, rounder characters than can be found elsewhere, and a dash of magic. It also raises a lot of questions readers are still interested in today—differences between the sexes, how marriage should work, how one should be punished for one’s crimes. I am definitely glad I revisited it.
- I hope for this review to become part of a Canterbury Tales series, so look out for more tales!
- If you would like to revisit “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” yourself, Harvard has a useful interlinear translation.
- The background image for the banner was taken from a photo by Sven Schleger, which was downloaded from Unsplash.