The Wife of Bath’s Tale

by strassur

The Tale begins by talking about the old days of King Arthur and the fairies and supernatural beings that walked among the land.  The narrator mentions an evil being like no other, “Ther is noon other incubus but he” (886).  It sounds like Arthur dispatched a young knight to search for the evil creature, but instead he became distracted by a maiden that was seen in the woods.  After raping her, Arthur sentenced the knight to death.  The queen begged Arthur to spar the knight, which he finally agreed.  She asked him, “What thing it is that women most desiren” (911).  She warned to think hard and if he does not know, he will have twelve months to find the answer.  The knight took his leave and searched everywhere, relying on God’s grace to guide him to the answer, but nowhere could he find two responses that agreed with each other, “Some saiden women loven best richesse;/ Some saide honour, some saide jolinesse;/ Some rich array, some saiden lust abedde” (931-933).

He eventually sees twenty four women dancing in the forrest.  Hoping to gain some insight to the Queens question, he rears his horse to discover all but an ugly woman remains, “A fouler wight ther may no man devise” (1005).  She makes a deal to give him the answer he needs, based on her experience up to being an old woman, but in return he must marry her.  The young knight returns to the court and tells the queen his answer, “Wommen desire to have sovereinetee (dominion)/ As wel over hir housbonde as hir love” (1044-1045).  The old lady tells the court of the knights promise and the two eventually marry.

The remainder of the poem is very long, but essentially the old lady is upset that the knight thinks she is ugly.  She asks, would he rather have a loyal wife, or one he would doubt, “To han me foul and old til that I deye/ And be to you a trewe humble wif,/ And nevere you displese in al my lif,/ Or ells ye wol han me yong and fai,/ And take youre aventure of the repair” (1226-1230).  The knight responds that it is her choice, which she loves his answer.  She asks for a kiss, and when he builds his courage, he turns and discovers she is now a young and fair woman.

Do you think Chaucer is saying women are underappreciated or possible seen only on the surface?  Is this a cautionary tale?

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 282-310. Print.


 The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (Cambridge School Chaucer)