Friday, April 26, 2013

A-Z: "W" is for The Wife of Bath Tale

The A-Z letter is W and I'm featuring Chaucer's The Wife of Bath Tale in Canterbury Tales. I remember liking this tale more the first time I read it than this time around.
The Wife has an idea based on experience about what married life should be.  I suspect since women were considered property, they yearned for freedom often.  The Wife begins her tale, stating hundreds of years ago, when fairies walked the earth and when King Author and his Queen reigned, there was a young knight in his court who violently raped a young girl and stole her maidenhead.  This was a crime punishable by death but the King let his Queen decide the knight's fate.  They obviously had a very unconventional marriage for back then but the queen deliberates and tells the guilty knight these words (The Wife of Bath's Tale verses 48-54):

48  I'll grant you life if you can tell to me
49  What thing it is that women most desire.
50  Be wise, and keep your neck from iron dire!
51  And if you cannot tell it me anon,
52  Then will I give you license to be gone
53  A twelvemonth and a day, to search and learn
54  Sufficient answer in this grave concern.

In short, she asks him : What do women most desire?  He has precisely one year to seek his answer. If he is right, it'll save his neck. If not, then...slice!  Of course the knight travels far and wide talking to all types of women which confuses him more.  As the year came to a close, he saw some fairies dancing in the forest.  When they disappear, an old hag emerges who told him if he agrees to offer her one future favor --whatever she asks--she will tell him the answer he seeks.

He agrees and heads back to court with his answer (The Wife of Bath Tale verses 182-184): 

182  Women desire to have the sovereignty
183  As well upon their husband as their love,
184  And to have mastery their man above;

All the women at court are in agreement with his answer (Queen included) and he has earned his life back.  Well not so fast because the hag shows up and wants her boon.  She said she wants to marry the knight.  He blanches but concedes. What choice did he have? They marry but the affair was more somber and certainly not merry at all.  The knight doesn't want her and tells her as much. He says he's of noble blood and her line is sullied (not to mention she's old.)  In the end she tells him that God defines the nobility from within or how virtuous a person is.  She asks him the question would you rather have a young beautiful wife with no morals or a hag with total virtue who he can completely trust?  The knight responds that its her choice.  By him giving her the power to choose this pleases her.  She asked for a kiss, promising she'll turn young, beautiful and faithful too.  When they kiss, the knight's ecstatic with his wife's transformation and all he had to do was submit.  And wouldn't you know they lived happily ever after.  LOL!

What do you make of this tale?  Its quite the fairly tale I think.  I think Chaucer's notion of what women wanted which back then was probably true.  Do you?  What do you think he would say about today's modern woman?  I think he'd have to write a thousand tales to figure that one out.  HeHe.

Mina B. 


Dani said...

More great tales Mina!

mshatch said...

I think it's interesting that Chaucer knew what women wanted and didn't instead write a tale that illustrated why women needed to be kept as chattel. he sounds like a very forward thinking person.

Laura said...

I always liked this tale. Thanks for reminding me of it :)

Allison said...

ha, I remember that tale. I liked that he gave her choice in the end.

Allison (Geek Banter)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Is that what women want? Because I've been trying to figure it out for years.

klahanie said...

Hi Mina,

Intriguing and your meticulous detail is much admired.

How things may have changed. I think my ex wife thought of me as some sort of property, a possession she could cast off when the mood fancied her. Yikes! :)

Now watch this, cause I'm such a valiant knight, I share your posting!

Thus thou hast provided much to contemplate in thine posting, fair lady.


Francene Stanley said...

What a complicated tale. It just shows how diverse human interactions were in the days of old, maybe just as tangled as the webs we weave right now.

Shannon Baker said...

what does want a woman.I try to made a cart.

non fiction publicist

S. L. Hennessy said...

The Wife of Bathe is my favorite of all Chaucer's tales. It's friggin hilarious, not to mention brilliant.