“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is part of a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canturbury Tales”. The Wife of Bath is one of the most popular and well known characters of “The Canturbury Tales”. Her story is a satire, full of scandal and sexy humor. Although the sexual humor would be considered mild by today’s standards of entertainment, in its own time “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” was racy entertainment. As a character The Wife of Bath is a champion of women’s liberation and feminism but also a woman of loose morals who uses sex for success.
The Canturbury Tales in Context
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “The Canturbury Tales” in Middle English, the common language of the time period. Middle English was the commoner’s language mixed from Old English, German, and French vocabulary. Authors of this time period wrote in Latin or French, which were considered more precise, and proper languages for educated writing. Chaucer wrote for all classes of society. He was the first author to write a major work in the ‘common language’ of the people.
Sexuality as a Motif
The Wife is an elderly woman who considers herself an authority on the subjects of marriage and sex. The story presents her as both wise and experienced older woman, but also as a gold-digging woman of questionable morals. In the slang of modern times she might be called a slut, a tart, or a cougar. She has enough money and age on her side to command respect, even in the face of her questionable behavior. One might consider her a merging of Anna Nicole Smith and Madonna, rich, powerful, old but still attractive, a woman of both positive and negative qualities in the extreme.
The Wife of Bath has married many rich men, so often that marriage defines her persona. She’s “The Wife” of the city of Bath. She wears fine clothes and expensive jewelry, and is open about her lusty behavior. Though never explicitly stated, it’s likely she married sickly or elderly men, intending to quickly become a rich widow. She is regarded as an expert at lovemaking. It’s also possible she murdered some of her husbands, whether by foul play or with sex.
Feminism in the Wife of Bath’s Tale
The Wife’s Tale tells about a knight who forces himself on a maiden of the court. His punishment requires he travel the land for a year, asking women the secret to what all women truly want. If he returns without the answer, he will be executed. He agrees to marry a filthy, ugly, and elderly homeless woman who promises to save his life by revealing what all women desire. She explains all women want the freedom to make their own choices in life, particularly in marriage and in the bedroom. The old hag saves the knight’s life, and he offers her the same freedom of choice in their marriage. The gift of freedom breaks a curse upon the old woman, turning her back into a beautiful young maiden.
The Wife as a character and the story she tells both suggest that women are happiest and thrive when they have the same freedom that men do, politically and sexually. The idea of sexually and socially liberated women would be considered absurdly satirical and in somewhat low taste to Middle English society. Even in our modern times, women are commonly expected to behave at a higher moral standard than men.