The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

Love and marriage in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue”

EMma Lipton


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 6 The Wife of Bath’s prologue provides an introduction to medieval ideas about marriage and love. The prologue begins like a sermon and then takes on the terms of misogyny and misogamy, as the Wife describes her first three marriages. When the Wife speaks of her fourth and fifth husband, the prologue becomes more personal, like a modern autobiography, exploring the role of love in marriage and its relationship to gender hierarchy. In her prologue, Chaucer’s Wife defends marriage against religious teachings that claim that it is inferior to celibacy, embraces sexual pleasure and roundly rejects the idea that wives should obey their husbands. The Wife also defends marriage in her tale, an Arthurian romance, the kind of story usually associated with aristocratic “courtly love” (or fin amor) of the period. Her tale upsets the conventions of the romance genre by rejecting the idea that love exists primarily outside of marriage; she asserts the agency of wives in a literary genre that often makes marriage a prize of male success rather a matter of mutual choice. In these ways, the Wife transforms both religious and aristocratic conventions to defend marriage as a virtuous practice, a position that promotes her own interests as a bourgeois lay woman.


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 Unlike modern American society, which often places marriage and family values at the center of religious practice, in the Middle Ages, marriage was considered less spiritual than celibacy, which was required for the clergy. Medieval sermons and theologians often cited St Paul I Corinthians 7, which recommended continence, and linked abstinence from sex to a greater reward in heaven. St Paul allowed that those who were not able to abstain from sex were better married than not: “but if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt” (verse 9). In his analysis of this same Biblical passage, St Jerome identified marriage as the lesser of two evils, superior only to fornication (Jerome, 420). In this view, the limited virtue of marriage lay in its ability to protect the spouses from sex outside of marriage. Medieval sermons were critical of widows who chose to remarry, especially those who had already had children, suggesting that they were motivated primarily by sexual appetite. This hierarchy of sexual status was frequently used to categorize women and was typically referred to as “The Three Grades of Chastity” with virgin at the top, widow in the middle, and wife at the very bottom. In this way, women were frequently identified by marital status in contrast to men, who were often defined by their jobs. This explains why, although Alison of Bath is identified as a cloth merchant in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, she is not called the “merchant” (another male figure in the tales gets that name), but the “Wife. “

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 Even within marriage, preachers taught, sexual pleasure was deemed “lust” and considered sinful. Following St. Augustine’s notion that sin was determined by intention rather than by the act itself, preachers taught that sex was only sinless if undertaken in an effort to have children or to save one’s spouse from fornication, but not if experienced as pleasurable (Payer, 84-110). Despite its bad reputation, sex was considered an obligation in marriage if requested by either the husband or the wife in an effort to avoid fornication. This obligation was known as the “marital debt” and was often justified in an interpretation of St. Paul: “Let the husband render the debt to his wife, and the wife also in like manner to her husband” (I Corinthians 7: 3-4) (Payer, 89-98). St Paul specified that marriage was not sinful (“if thou take a wife, then thou hast not sinned”) but, he said, married people will “have tribulation in the flesh” (7:28). Medieval preachers interpreted this to mean that because there were acceptable reasons to have sex in marriage, being married required constantly resisting the enjoyment of sex. Marriage’s association with sex in contrast to the ostensibly superior practice of clerical celibacy was one of the ways that clerical superiority was asserted over lay people in the religious texts of the period (Lipton, 4-9).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 Although the “Three Grades of Chastity” associated marriage with sex, sex was not required for marriage in legal and sacramental definitions. Basing his analysis in the Biblical example of Mary and Joseph, St. Augustine argued that the essence of marriage was the “affections of the mind” rather than sex. When the marriage sacrament was formally defined in the twelfth century, the mutual love between spouses (expressed in the exchange of marriage vows) was determined to be the substance of the marriage sacrament; this love in turn was both the sign and substance of God’s grace. This vision of marriage as a sacrament based in love dignified marriage as a spiritual practice (Lipton, 4-9). Medieval church courts upheld this sacramental definition of marriage as the consent between two parties as expressed in the exchange of marriage vows (McSheffrey, Helmholz). Defining marriage in this way meant that the approval of families and presence of clergy was not legally necessary, although families could and did pressure women in their choice of partners (Sheehan, 87-117). Although this definition of marriage as consent applied to all medieval women, historians have shown that in practice, women in the middle sections of society (whom we would now identify as “middle class” including cloth merchants like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath) exercised the greatest choice of marriage partners.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The idea that marriage was defined by mutual love was juxtaposed in medieval sermons with a seemingly opposite view that husbands should rule over their wives (Galloway, Sheehan, 262-77). These paradoxical views were often expressed at the same time in sermons and in handbooks that instructed priests on how to perform confession. Chaucer was certainly aware of this tradition since his “Parson’s Tale” is structured like a confessor’s handbook. The section on lust juxtaposes the importance of mutual love between spouses with the need for a wife to obey her husband. Chaucer’s Parson instructs: “God ne made nat womman of the foot of Adam, for she ne sholde nat been holden to lowe; for she kan nat paticiently suffre. But God made womman of the ryb of Adam, for womman sholde be felawe unto man. / Man sholde bere hym to his wyf in feith, in trouthe, and in love . . . / Now how that a womman should be subget to hire housbonde, that telleth Saint Peter. First in obedience…” (The Riverside Chaucer, 321). In this passage, marriage combines two seemly incompatibly virtues: mutuality in love and the rule of husband over wife.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 5 This idea that wives should be controlled by their husbands was integral to medieval legal practice. In medieval courts, wives were represented by their husbands (and by their fathers before marriage). All land and goods owned by a wife, including property inherited during her marriage, was legally controlled by her husband. However, a wife could operate a business separately from her husband and, depending on the nature of her husband’s will, a wife could inherit property after her husband’s death. This meant that widows could potentially be financially and legally independent from men in ways not possible for married women or women still living under paternal control.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 5 Not only did the medieval legal system treat wives as inferior; there was a colorful genre of “anti-matrimonial” writing that advised men not to marry on the grounds that wives were intolerable. This kind of writing typically painted a picture of the “woe of marriage,” a phrase used by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in the opening lines of her prologue. A widely circulated example of this kind of writing is by Theophrastus who is named as a source for the Book of Wikked Wives that Jankyn reads to the Wife in her Prologue (line 671) (Theophrastus, Blamires). St Jerome is also cited in the Prologue as an author of Jankyn’s text (674); Jerome’s Against Jovianian itself cites the anti-matrimonial work of Theophrastus. Building on the association of marriage with undesirable sexuality, anti-matrimonial writing depicts wives as sexually voracious, unfaithful, vain, acquisitive, and unforgivably talkative. Refuting a possible practical reason for marriage, this text asserts that wives are inferior managers of the household compared to male servants. These texts show that the bad reputation of marriage is tied both to negative views of sexuality and to the clichés of medieval misogyny.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 Like medieval sermons, aristocratic romances were often anti-matrimonial in that they frequently located love outside of marriage. For example, many Arthurian romances celebrated the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, who was married to King Arthur. In his famous treatise on love, Andreas Capellanus even goes so far as to say that “marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” This tradition of fin amors (or, in modern parlance, “courtly love”), emphasizes the role of the male lover, and his suffering for love; the lady is typically depicted as the passive object of his desire. Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale exemplifies this tradition when the two knights Arcite and Palamon see Emily through the window of their prison and fall in love with her without even talking to her. In Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, as in many other romances, marriage is presented as a reward for knightly success on the battlefield or in a tournament, rather than as an expression of mutual love.


9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 The Wife begins her prologue by claiming that her authority to speak on marriage is justified by her experience (an authority not available to the celibate clergy)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 rather than on her ability to interpret the Bible, a practice she attributes to men (line 26). Nonetheless, the first part of the Wife’s prologue resembles a marriage sermon in its use of Biblical quotations and interpretation to defend marriage. Although no women or lay married person could be a preacher in the Middle Ages, the resemblance of her prologue to a sermon is recognized with the text by the Pardoner (also a preacher), who interrupts the Wife to say “Ye been a noble prechour in this cas” (165).  In this passage, the Wife threatens clerical authority on marriage both by her experience and her command of the tools and strategies of marriage sermons.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 6 The Wife shows that the same passages from St Paul (whom she calls “the Apostle”) most often used in contemporary sermons to promote the superiority of celibacy over marriage can be turned on their head and used to defend marriage and justify marital sexuality. For example, she asks of God where “commanded he virginitee?” arguing that “Th’Apostel “said men may “conseille” a woman to be a virgin, “but conseilling is no comandement” (67). Here she refutes St Jerome’s interpretation of this passage as condemning marriage, insisting that St. Paul supports marriage. She also challenges the view that sexual pleasure is problematic. Willfully misunderstanding the marital debt, she says “Myn housbond shal it have both eve and morwe, / Whan that him list com forth and paye his dette. / An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette, / Which shal be bothe my detour and my thral” (150ff). In this passage, the Wife depicts her husband as serving her pleasure, rather than seeing the marital debt as a mutual obligation designed to protect against fornication. Similarly, she revises St Paul’s warning of the “tribulation” of marriage, claiming “Of tribulacioun in marriage, / Of which I am expert in al myn age —This is to seyn, / myself have been the whippe” (173-75).  Here, she celebrates marital sexuality, and asserts her mastery of her husband, inverting the convention of husbands ruling their wives. Questioning the superiority of celibacy over marriage is one of several ways that the Wife challenges the superiority of clerical over lay authority.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 After the Pardoner’s interruption, the Wife’s description of her marriage to her first three husbands invokes the stereotypes of misogynist and anti-matrimonial literature (Patterson 141). The Wife is acquisitive, admitting proudly to marrying for money and exhorting land from her husbands before she is willing to sleep with them (line 210ff). She is a chatterbox who cannot keep secrets. Her prologue is by far the longest in the Canterbury Tales and she says if her husband had so much as pissed against a wall she would have told her “gossips” (line 534ff). The Wife boasts that she rules over her first three husbands, inverting the conventional hierarchy of husband over wife. Throughout this middle portion of the prologue, the Wife continually reminds the reader of the stereotypes of anti-matrimonial writings by repeating the phrase “they sayst.” She asserts the essential message of these texts “that no wys man nedeth for to wedde” (274). Even before she talks about her first three marriage, her words seem to have fulfilled the goals of anti-matrimonial writings as the Pardoner claims that her words about the “woe of marriage” (3) have made him decide not to wed a wife after all.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 4 By contrast to her account of her first three marriage, the Wife claims that she married her last husband, Jankyn “for love and no richesse” (526), and she celebrates the sexual element of their marriage (“in oure bed he was so fresh and gay,” line 508). At first Jankyn seems to have the upper hand in their marriage as he subjects her to readings from his misogynist book featuring villainous wives from history. Then the wife tears pages from the book (790) symbolically rejecting the stereotypes therein and temporarily gains “maistrie” and “soveraynetee” over him as she previously had over her first three husbands. However, after he tells her to do whatever she wants, the Wife reports “After that day we hadden never debaat. / God help me so, I was to hum as kinde / As any wyf from Denmark unto Inde” (822-24). The quotation creates an image of love, mutuality and partnership. Thus, the end of the Prologue resembles contemporary marriage sermons in its juxtaposition of marital hierarchy (here inverted) with mutual love.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 6 The “Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends in similar sequence: the Knight’s delegation of sovereignty to the lady results her obedience to him and then in mutual love. Faced with a choice to have his wife ugly or faithful, the Knight delegates the decision to her: “My lade and my love, and wyf so dere, / I put me in youre wyse governance” (1230). The tale rewards the Knight with “parfit joy” (1258) in his marriage and magically grants him a wife both fair and faithful. This plot refutes an anti-matrimonial cliché (referred to both in the Wife’s prologue and in Theophrastus’s text) that wives cannot be simultaneously faithful and attractive. Just as the Wife’s act of tearing of pages out of Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wives rejects stereotypes, so the Knight in the tale must reject misogynist answers to the question of what women want, such as riches, and pleasure in bed (line 925). The repetition of the phrase “somme seyde” in this section of the tale echoes the “they sayst” of the prologue, establishing the tale as a refutation of these stereotypes about women.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 4 Just as the Wife’s prologue engages the strategies of medieval sermons but refutes their teachings, so her tale revises the conventions of medieval romance. In her tale, marriage is not the prize for masculine aristocratic prowess but a matter of female choice. The old woman in the tale chooses marriage as her reward for helping the knight; he is bound by his knightly oath to marry her against his own desire. Furthermore, the Knight’s quest is not to rescue a passive lady, but to recognize female desire, by answering the question “What do women want?” a task assigned to him by the queen as punishment for rape, the ultimate violation of female agency. The tale ends with an assertion that mutual love is indeed possible within marriage and not just outside of it, as is often the case in the courtly romances. Like the prologue, the tale is a defense of marriage and its potential for providing love and “joy.” The long sermon at the center ties the tale’s celebration of marriage to the Wife’s own social class through the idea that nobility is defined by actions not by aristocratic class. In this way, the Wife revises the genre of romance to defend the possibly of love and female agency in marriage, and ties this view to her own bourgeois values.


16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 -Chaucer’s Wife fulfills negative contemporary medieval stereotypes about wives and women. Do you think she is supposed to be likeable? Why or why not? Do you think Chaucer’s text perpetuates or criticizes these stereotypes? Are we invited to side with the Wife or be repulsed by her? How can the prologue help us think about how to respond to stereotypes in general?

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 3 -The Wife of Bath claims female “experience” as her authority, but then goes on to imitate male preachers in her interpretation of the Bible. Do you think the text validates experiential or textual authority? To what extent does the text embrace a stable model of gender and to what extent does it show gender to be a potentially changeable social construct?

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 4 -The endings of both the Wife’s prologue and tale are difficult to interpret because in each case the husband’s sovereignty is turned over to the wife, but then both texts end by celebrating love, seeming to embrace mutuality in marriage. How can this be explained?

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 -The Wife celebrates marriage and links it to sexual pleasure, to love and to her sense of selfhood. To what extent do you feel she shares modern values? What perspective can the tale offer us on our own society? On modern ideas about marriage? On our ongoing political debates about the definition of marriage?

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 -Compare the depiction of marriage in the Wife’s Prologue and tale to the representation of marriage in other Canterbury Tales, such as the Clerk’s and Franklin’s tales. How does each vision of marriage fit the social values of the teller?

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 -Can the Wife of Bath’s Prologue offer any wisdom for our present moment, whether about social change, the construction of sexuality or something else?

Further Reading

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 James A. Brundage, Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Alcuin Blamires, ed. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Glenn Burger, Chaucer’s Queer Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), especially 78-100.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parson’s Tale” in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 288-328.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Andrew Galloway, “Marriage sermons, Polemical Sermons and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue: A Generic Excursus.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 14 (1992): 3-30.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Richard Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Emma Lipton, Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Shannon McSheffrey, ed. Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London. TEAMS. (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1995).

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Lee Patterson, “’Experience woot well it is noght so’: Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” in The Wife of Bath: Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Peter Beidler (Boston and New York: Bedford St Martins, 1996), 133-54.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Pierre J. Payer, The Bridling of Desire: Views of Sex in the Later Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Micheal M. Sheehan, Marriage, Family and Law in Medieval Europe: Collected Studies, ed. James K. Farge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 Saint Jerome, from The Epistle Against Jovinian in Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, ed. Robert P. Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 415-36.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Theophrastus, from the Golden Book on Marriage in The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue, ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson, 357-59.

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