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October 3, 2013

In Which I Take on the Wife of Bath

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I’d heard about this woman: sexually voracious, loud mouth, obscene, headstrong, selfish, power-hungry, and immoral. I was eager to meet her. News flash: she is none of those things in my estimation. Here, word for word, is how we might expect to describe a man similar in nature to the wife of Bath: man of appetites, principled, sophomoric, determined, self-indulgent, autocratic, indiscreet. It sounds a lot more benign.

I think the difficulty that some have with the wife of Bath stems from their inability to see her as a human being. Women are constantly being characterized as something other than human. Men are standard-issue human. When women behave, think, and feel like human beings, a slice of the population is outraged.

Let me digress a minute: I expected to do a whole whine of a post about Chaucer’s middle English, eliciting all the admiration I could for even attempting to read the slightly translated excerpts from The Canterbury Tales in The Norton Antholgy of English Literature Vol 1.  But it turns out it’s not that bad. In fact it’s kind of fun. It takes a while to get used to the odd spellings and strange words but after a while, and when I imagine the spelling to be that of a second grader, it starts to flow.

The wife of Bath is one of a group of pilgrims journeying to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrims introduce themselves and then they each tell a story. The wife of Bath tells us she has had five husbands, three good and two bad, and she has learned how to make a place for herself within a marriage, or as she puts it: “Diverse scoles maken parfit clerkes” which I take to mean “diverse schools make perfect clergy,” i.e. a wide range of experience makes one knowledgeable and practical.

The wife of Bath enjoys sex and she expects to get it from whomever she’s married to. Within any couple, there’s usually one party who has the greater sexual appetite. When it’s the man, it’s considered normal. When it’s the woman, she’s a nymphomaniac. In the middle ages there was the “marriage debt,” in which the wife owed sex to the man who married her. The wife of Bath turns this around:

Why sholde men elles in hir books sette
That man shal yeeldle to his wife hir debt.
Now wherewith sholde he make his payement
If he ne used his sely instrument. . .

. . . in wifhood wol I use myn instrument
As freely as my Maker hath it sent.

Just to help you out here: hir means his, and sely means innocent, and instrument means penis. Then in the last two lines, the wife refers to using her instrument freely. I love that! News flash from the 13th century: Women are human beings. Women are sexual beings. Women have erections.

The wife continues:

Thou saist we wives wil oure vices hide
Til we be fast, and thane we wol hem shewe.
Wel may that be a proverb of a shrewe!

Shewe is footnoted as villain. The complaint here is that women behave one way (sweet) before marriage and differently (villainous) afterwards. Two things going on here: first of all the same could be said about men. Secondly, of course people behave differently when thrown into close proximity with another person. It’s why so many friendships go sour after friends travel together. The wife points out that while women and men may not be so very different, it is men who write the stories and advance the proverbs.

We love no man that taketh keep or charge
Wher that we goon: we wol been at oure large.

Translation: no one who is being controlled can love .

The wife of Bath’s Prologue is full of such observations, as well as a short history of her five housbandes, and a happy list of words for the female genitalia: quoniam, queint, cueint, chamber of Venus, and my favorite: belle chose.

Here, in brief, is the wife’s tale: a knight rapes a woman, and is sentenced to death. The Queen intervenes and gives him a year’s reprieve to find out what women most desire. If he comes back with the right answer, his life will be spared. He searches for a year and as he is about to return to the Queen without an answer, he meets an ugly, old, “foul” woman who will give him the correct answer if he will promise to marry her. He promises. Back they go to the Queen and the knight announces:

Wommen desire to have sovereinetee
As wel over hir housbande as hir love
And for to been is maistrye him above.

(Women desire to have sovereignty
Over her husband and in love,
And to be master over him.)

Ding! Ding! Ding! That answer was correct. The ugly old woman comes forward to be married but the knight balks. He wasn’t serious about his promise to her, he only wanted his life spared. But he is finally persuaded to marry her and of course, she immediately becomes young and beautiful. And then she turns around and gives back to the knight the “sovereinetee.”

There are many avenues of interpretation emerging from the wife of Bath’s tale. Here’s mine: When the women says she desires sovereignty over her husband and over love, she does not mean what a man might mean if he said the same thing. A predominantly feminine mind works somewhat differently than a predominantly male mind. The feminine paradigm is not about being on top, it’s about being side-by-side. When the wife has mastery over love, nobody is forcibly, stultifyingly on top all the time. People take turns yet come to rest side-by-side in a partnership of equals. This isn’t going to happen unless both parties are recognized as equals, which they are not in a hierarchical paradigm. It was this feminine paradigm that the young/old, beautiful/foul woman gave back to the knight.

I am not suggesting that this was exactly what Chaucer had in mind, or that women in the 14th century thought exactly in those terms. I am suggesting that what I call a feminine paradigm is not something that was dreamed up in the 1960s by Gloria Steinem or by Carl Jung in the early part of the last century. It’s an energy that has always been there, and that has always expressed itself in any way that it can.

And finally I read the “foul” woman turning “beautiful” as a perception within the knight himself. We are all both foul and beautiful. We are all both young and old. (I couldn’t know that for certain while I was merely young, but can, with pleasure, assert it now.) Who we love becomes beautiful to us, and within any relationship, there are only two perceptions that matter.

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