The Wife of Bath? Really? Hmm.

We have spent the past two weeks examining Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in my AP Lit class and it has – as so many things do these days – illuminated a series of interesting reflections of a more personal nature. I actually quite enjoy the tales of the motley crew of pilgrims who meet up at a pub prior to embarking on a “religious” trek. I like that they are off to see St. Thomas Becket in particular, as I find him to be rather a cool chap. He is kind of the original dude who let people hold their mistaken assumptions about him without feeling compelled to correct them. He simply allowed people their ignorance and trusted, ne, had faith I suppose, that eventually all would be revealed. [This tends to be a favorite characteristic of mine, as previously seen here.] Becket surprised a lot of people with his consistency and authenticity once he became the Archbishop and that, too, was something of an anomaly in the Church of old – perhaps in the church of new as well.

Anyhow, the pilgrims. At the tavern, in the lovely spring after the rains and before the winds…

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The drought of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licuor
Of which vertu engendred is the fleur;

I decided that we would approach the incomplete and oft rearranged frame narrative by examining the General Prologue – and yes… as I did in the 10th Grade with Madame Wadsworth at Petaluma High School, my students would be memorizing and reciting the first eighteen lines of the prologue in Middle English. Why? Because. It’s cool. And because 25 years later I can still recite it… I wanted to share the love.

After considering the motives for the pilgrimage, the terms of the challenge of our host ye goode Harry Bailly, and considering Chaucer’s possible inclinations, we used the Wife of Bath as the tale on which we would model the literary analysis. Of course, Alisoun gets such a large share of the air time that it is hardly surprising to select her, if not her, then of course it would have to be the knight but he is just too… yeah, predictably chivalrous and what not [wow – no wonder I have such dodgy taste in men.] Alisoun mixes it up a bit more.

So we were all introduced: Alisoun meet your new judge and jury. We discussed the nature of her description in as Chaucer first describes her in the prologue. Well traveled, able in more ways than he could mention, sensibly dressed, save for the ridiculous Royal Ascot-worthy hat of some ten pounds, voluptuous, a little cheeky with those scarlet hose… and the – wait what did he say? Yes, he said: “Gap-toothed was she, it is the truth I say.” That stopped my audience right there. Ahh… but the gap toothed woman was apparently one of quite a healthy libido in Chaucer’s day, make what meaning of that you may. It strikes me that maybe Madonna had a little Bath-ward leaning?

{image from here.}

And of course, Geoff mentions her five husbands (“Not counting other company in youth; But thereof there’s no need to speak, in truth.”)


Yes, five.

I thought about this for a moment. But then we moved right along to the interior of the text to read Alisoun’s own introduction as the prologue to her tale. In her lengthy prologue, the Wife of Bath pontificates and speculates and emasculates. The question as to whether or not “she is the object of satire, the instrument of its delivery, or perhaps a combination of both” makes looking at her words – after Chaucer’s and before she tells her tale, a rather surprising choice of an unsurprising Authurian romance considering the tale is told as an entry in the host’s competition – all the more interesting.

We looked at her views on the Church (abbreviated, but clearly critical), virginity and marriage (expert in the latter and bewildered by the former), husband training and maintenance (a rather contradictory collection of anecdotes and suggestions, seemingly to achieve the same end: victory), the role of women in marriage (to be sovereign) and even the purpose of the genitals (“Trust you right well, they were not made for naught”). We discussed the form and structure. We considered her tone and mood. Confident or over compensating? Bawdy or audacious? Glib or sincere? We wondered if we trusted her.

After some time one student finally did ask how it might be that Alisoun has no children… Aha! How is this so? Does it complicate what we take to be her word…?

We wondered if she was self-deprecating or simply frank. Was she acting as Aesop’s fox (apparently the fox is illustrating cognitive dissonance – who knew?) and disparaging what she cannot have… Some of my students decided she was the original cougar.

Contemplating all of these little intricacies and mentally meandering through the Middle Ages I headed home. On my arrival I was greeted by Matil (and did you know that Thomas Becket’s mother’s name was Matilda? Yeah, well it was) and looked down at my little cat. I gave her a few pets and thought about how soft she is and then she started yelling at me reminding me of how disgruntled she is about this whole lockdown situation. Why did this seem like a total deja vu?

You said this, too, that I was like a cat;
For if one care to singe a cat’s furred skin,
Then would the cat remain the house within;
And if the cat’s coat be all sleek and gay,
She will not keep in house a half a day,
But out she’ll go, before dawn of any day,
To show her skin and caterwaul and play.

Someone once told me that I was just like a cat. Apparently someone said the same thing to Alisoun. Interesting. And how many husbands did she have? Five? Right. Kids? None. Bawdy? Talkative? Audacious? Holy. Shit. I do not have a gap tooth (a little crooked maybe) though lots of the ladies in my family have had…

Next week we will host the winner’s meal complete with [modified] medieval fare, and my students will take the roles of the 30 pilgrims and determine through discussion who shall be the winner of the host’s long promised meal. As Chaucer never finished the tales, and left them in some disarray with little apparent thought to providing us with the winner, it shall fall to the discretion of this group of 30 high school seniors to decide.

I will be looking fairly closely at the Wife of Bath…


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
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3 Responses to The Wife of Bath? Really? Hmm.

  1. Wow. I wish you’d been my teacher. I hate Chaucer because we did the Knights Tale which is boring. Especially when all you do in class is translate it.

  2. Eric says:

    I had that first line we had memorized kicking around in my head not to long ago. I couldn’t remember what book it was from but was able to solve the mystery thanks to The Google. It’s amazing the things you remember.

    All that analysis is what I was talking about in my email to you a couple of weeks ago. I can appreciate it, and it brings so much more to the story, but how do you learn to figure that stuff out?

  3. Chippy says:

    I am extremely glad you still remember Madame after that many years. She was an amazing teacher and wonderful person. May she rest in peace.

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