Wife of Bath
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in 1340 (Fuller 12).
Geoffrey Chaucer's fortunes were closely bound with these
of John Of Gaunt, the son-in-law to the Earl of Derby
(Fuller 12). Around the year 1380, Geoffrey Chaucer was
charged with rape by a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne
(Williams 28). It is most likely that a distinguishable
character, such as Chaucer would not have been guilty of
this charge. However, the word "rape" probably referred to
abducting rather than assaulting a woman as it means today
(Halliday 68). Cecily Chaumpaigne in 1380 released Chaucer
of all charges of "raptu meo," a phrase that could be
interpreted as "seizing me" (Williams 28). It is possible
that this allegation of rape brought on to Chaucer by
Cecily Chaumpaigne, is the very reason behind the Tale of
the Wife of Bath.
The wife of Bath was a plump, florid, jolly, bold, lusty,
and voluptuous woman. She was the most valuable of women.
The wife of bath cannot resist telling her companions about
all of her sexual experiences. She has had five husbands.
Her husbands fell into two categories. The first category
of husbands was: rich, but also old and unable to fulfill
her demands, sexually that is. The other husbands were
sexually vigorous, but harder to control. The first three
were rich, old, and jealous. She tamed them by accusing
them of promiscuous behavior, that she herself practiced.
Her fourth husband had a mistress, so she "gave him a real
cause for jealousy" (Halliday 119). At the funeral of her
first husband she fell in love with the legs of an Oxford
clerk. Although he was half her age, he became her fifth
husband. This marriage was unhappy because he beat her. To
anger her fifth husband, the wife of Bath tore three pages
from his book. After this he beat her again. She pretended
to be dead and he felt so guilty that he threw his whole
book in the fire. This gave her the upper hand for the rest
of his life. She presently is looking for a sixth husband
when her character is introduced (Halliday 119).
The tale the wife of Bath tells us all is about a Knight
who ultimately rapes a maiden and is sent by the queen on a
quest to seek out what it is that women want most. If he
succeeds and finds the answer, he lives, if he fails, he
The penalty for rape in the medieval era is death. The king
is ready to have the knight put to death when the queen
speaks up and allows to give him the chance to live. The
knight is morally raped when he gives up all his power of
choice to the queen in order to live (Williams 64). The
word rape is often promoted by the wife throughout the
story (Williams 64). The king in the wife's tale represents
authority. The king would have inflicted punishment on the
knight. The queen on the other hand would have commuted his
sentence to rape him back, "An eye for an eye (Williams
66)." The conclusion is triumph of her theme, tyranny. The
wife is the rapist knight herself (Williams 66). The wife
having created the knight and theme of rape is a perpetual
self-rapist (Williams 66). There is irony in the wife's
tale. Her tale is of the antifeminist cliché, that all
women in their hearts desire to be raped (Williams 67).
Through her tale she fulfills her desires and resolves the
oppositions that she faces (Williams 69).
The women of the middle ages tended to be anonymous (Evans
330). They were not soft nor sheltered, but mere property.
They were at the disposal of their parents and later on
husbands. They had no say in fighting, administrating,
justice, or learning. These duties were taken care of by
the men to take care of (Evans 330). Even though women
played no role in society other than child bearing, they
fell in love, became married, became divorced, and coped
with problems the same as we do in the present day (Evans
The wife's tale is one of struggle of power and who has the
upper hand in any relationship. The wife clearly in her
relationships enjoyed having the power and control of her
husbands. The knight did seek what women desire most, and
that is power. When someone has power over someone else
than they also have control.
Evans, Joan. The Flowing Middle Ages. New York: McGraw Hill
Book Company, 1966.
Hallida, I.E. Chaucer and His World. New York: Viking
Fuller, Maurice. Chaucer and His England. Williamstown:
Corner House Publishers, 1976
Williams, David. The Canterbury Tales, A Literary
Pilgrimage. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
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