Good Example Of The Wife Of Bath AND Sovereignty Research Paper

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Women, Family, Wife, Bath, Chaucer, Sovereignty, Love, Power

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2023/04/10

In the Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath is a character designed to be more like the modern woman. Unlike what is expected of other women to behave at the time (which is to be submissive and obedient to their husbands, to have only one husband, to turn to nunnery when widowed, and to be virginal and pure), the Wife of Bath actively uses sex as a tool to get what she wishes. She demands complete sovereignty from her multiple husbands, and the freedom to do as she wishes in any aspect of her life.
Geoffrey Chaucer designed the Wife of Bath to be holistically different from what is expected out of other women. She is designed to be a complex character (Parker, 53), to be modern, outspoken, and crass. She “appreciates her own appreciation for herself,” (Bloom, 118). The Wife of Bath will outwardly speak about sex, even when the subject is about godly, authoritative figures. She will say about Solomon, “God woot this noble king, as to my wit/The firste night had many a mery fit/With ech of hem, so wel was him on lyve!” (Chaucer, 41-43). To speak about such a godly character in this way is to show her complete lack of deep respect for them. In this way, she is not afraid to speak her mind, a quality that many modern day women are encouraged to have.
The Wife of Bath is also outwardly crass about sex in general, describing the act of sex as a marriage debt, where the husband pays his wife using his “sely instrument,” (Chaucer, 138) and the mans testicles as “nether purs” (Chaucer, 46). These are things that she talks about in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue to the other pilgrims, which would be a personal tale of her beliefs and experiences as opposed to a tale - an example of her outspoken nature. In this way, she “crosses into opposition to the ideology of the medieval church on the issue of dominance in marriage. Her firm belief in female sovereignty is the center of her rebellion,” (Bloom, 118). In other words, the Wife of Bath uses her manipulative powers in her marriages and her outspoken qualities in telling these stories to the other pilgrims in order to establish a feminist position in an antifeminist culture and time period, (Bloom, 116).
In order to understand the Wife of Bath more and how she would relate to modern day women, it’s important to understand the basis of how fourteenth-century writers interpret human nature. Writers like Chaucer would understand humanity differently than modern writers, yet the established goal of expressing human nature is the same. Essentially, the fourteenth-century writer had a “much more pronounced and direct interest in the moral consequences and implications of human behavior, but this moral interest is not necessarily divorced from psychological interest,” (Parker, 50). In arguing ethics when it comes to marriage to the other pilgrims, the Wife of Bath is expressing her own psychological traits. Psychological traits, in essence, do not change throughout time, and can be shared between characters from a classic piece of literature to characters in modern literature (and by extension, represent modern women), even though their time periods and cultural aspects would be different.
Her prologue outwardly demonstrates that women desire complete sovereignty. She understands her ability to elicit power through sex in her marriages. Her philosophy expresses that “Thou shalt nat bothe, thogh that thou were wood/Be maister of my body and my good,” (Chaucer, 320-321), which means to say that her husbands will cannot have power over her body and possessions at once. If he wanted one, he would essentially have to pay for other (meaning if he wanted to have sex, he would have to give her gifts, for example). She also has no qualms to he way she treats her husbands, using excessive sex or manipulative sex in order to get the sovereignty that she wants, despite that she usually torments her husbands until they pass away. In this way, her “theme is tribulation in marriages, particularly the misery caused her five successive husbands,” (Brewer, 139). Her older husbands would get tired of the excessive sex, while the younger ones she would have to fight with in order to achieve her desires. Even her last husband was abusive to her, and yet he eventually yielded some sovereignty to her.
During the pilgrimage, she would showcase this power and sovereignty by using her knowledge and personal experiences to give advice to her fellow pilgrims. She calls her five marriages an estate, or a profession, in that “diverse practyk in many sundry werkes/Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly,” (Chaucer, 48-49). This essentially means that practice means perfect, so she is the expert in marriages. Using her expertise, she tells her fellow make pilgrims “Be war of it, er thou to ny approche,” (Chaucer, 184), or that it is not recommended for men, being that they can lose complete control.
Her tale also covers the subject of sovereignty for women during marriage and life. The knight in the tale rapes a woman (taking power away from her), and his punishment and repentance is decided by the queen, taking away his power. He is commanded to learn what women desire the most. He meets an old woman who tells him that women desire sovereignty over their husbands the most, which turns out to be the correct answer. Considering that this is exactly what the Wife of Bath wants, this goes to show that the old woman represents her, almost as if the Wife of Bath is trying to teach the pilgrims that she is correct. This tale “centers on the twofold problem of what women most desire and what should be the proper marriage relationship. The religious and legal doctrine of the husbands’ headship of the wife is set against the love-doctrine of obedience to the loved one,” (Brewer, 140). The old woman tells the correct answer to the knight in exchange for her hand in marriage, and while this initially makes him miserable, he eventually gives sovereignty to her, through his statement “I put me youre wise governance,” (Chaucer, 1237). He gave his wife the choice between being old and faithful to him, as opposed to beautiful and callous. “Having been granted sovereignty, she uses it well and returns it,” (Brewer, 140), rewarding the knight with beauty.
This push to turn their marriage into one based on love and “perpetual generous exchange” (Brewer, 140) is a modern concept, one that juxtaposes the medieval notion of marrying for property or political gains. It is this way that the tale not only represents the Wife of Bath’s desires, but that of all women, especially considering that the old woman’s answer (otherwise, the Wife of Bath’s answer) is in agreement with all the women in the queen’s court (meaning the Wife of Bath knows what every woman wants and she can therefore represent them all). These complexities within her character and tale make the Wife of Bath a “recognizable individual” (Parker, 56) for modern day women, one that is able to “penetrate the ephemeral details of human life to conditions that are timeless,” (Parker, 56).
Overall, the Wife of Bath is completely different than the women of her time. She is someone who knows the power that she has in order to manipulate her husbands into giving her more power. Her wish is to have complete sovereignty in her marriages and in her life. The power of choice is present and the reward in her Tale, the goal of which all women should aspire to have in order to have more freedom. The Wife of Bath is thus the representation of a modern woman in Chaucer’s time, and has characteristics that the modern day woman will be able to recognize and relate to.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “The Wife of Bath and Falstaff.” The Western Canon. Harcourt Brace:
New York, 1994. Pp. 116-119.
Brewer, D.S. “The Wife of Bath’s Commentary On Women.” Geoffrey Chaucer: Bloom’s Major Poets. Ed. Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishing: Philadelphia, 1998.
Pp. 138-141.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011. Print.
Parker, David. “Can We Trust the Wife of Bath?” Modern Critical Views: Geoffrey
Chaucer. Ed. Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers: New York, 1985. pp. 49
56. Print.

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