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Wife of Bath’s Prologue About Power: Sovereignty.

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Presentation on theme: "Wife of Bath’s Prologue About Power: Sovereignty."— Presentation transcript:

1 Wife of Bath’s Prologue About Power: Sovereignty

2 Fragment III A three-tale fragment: Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner, thus immediately precedes the two tales of institutional hatred Located after Man of Law (Fragment II) in many manuscripts, including Ellesmere, which omits the endlink in our edition That endlink, in many MSS, introduces a new tale told by either the Squire (Fragment V) or the Shipman (Fragment VII) Many modern scholars prefer to follow with the Shipman and Fragment VII, based on references to location and time of day in Fragments III and VII However, the endlink’s reference to “my joly body” could also suggest the Wife of Bath, since she uses this term of herself Wife of Bath is located before Man of Law in Hengwrt, an especially early MS – arguably a nonsensical arrangement The entire problem is likely the result of Chaucer not having firmly placed the tale in the first place See

3 Why the Wife is Important One of three women speakers on pilgrimage and only lay woman Prologue arguably breaks the tale-telling contract made by the Host by offering a personal narration set in the present that does not count as a tale Shift to present suggestive of explosive effect of Miller’s Tale but goes a stage further (in ways later imitated by the Pardoner) Refusal to submit to sovereignty of Host, who is strangely subdued by her We can see why. A cloth-maker who “passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt,” she is a female business-woman, in competition with some of the other pilgrims, an experienced pilgrim, and dressed in clothes like armor. Her spurs tell us that she does not sit side-saddle. She is a virago, a manly woman (General Prologue) The Prologue is partly a joke about female talkativeness (one of a myriad anti- feminist topoi found here). But it is also in a manly genre. Although lay women were not allowed to preach, the Wife proposes a sermon: “Ye ben a noble prechour in this cas!” (110, the Pardoner speaks) The thema of this sermon is from John 2 (27ff), which the Prologue applies to the wife herself. Its subject is the molestiae nuptiarum, “the wo that is in marriage” (2)

4 Chaucer’s Other References to the Wife of Bath 1.Clerk’s Tale [speaker, the Clerk] For which heere, for the Wyves love of Bathe – Whos lyf and al hire secte God mayntene In heigh maistrie, and elles were it scathe – I wold with lusty herte, fressh and grene, Seyn yow a song to glade you, I wene... (IV.1170ff.) 2. Merchant’s Tale [speaker, Justinus] But lat us waden out of this mateere [marriage]. The Wyf of Bathe, if ye han understonde, Of mariage, which we have on honde, Declared hath ful wel in litel space. Fareth now wel. God have yow in his grace. (IV.1684 ff.) 3. Envoy to Buxton [speaker, Chaucer] This lytel writ, proverbes, or figure I sende yow; take kepe of yt, I rede; Unwys is he that kan no wele endure. If thow be siker, put the nat in drede. The Wyf of Bathe I pray yow that ye rede Of this matere that we have on honde. God graunte yow your lyf frely to lede In fredam, for ful hard is to be bonde.

5 The Questio (12-59) (modeled on Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica) “Aquinas”: Question: whether it be permissible to have more than one husband? 1. It seems that it is not permissible to have more than one husband. Objection 1, for Augustine says: x; Objection 2, Jerome says: y. Now if x is true and y is true, it follows that, therefore, one cannot have more than one husband. 2. Contra: But it is written by Bernard that: multiple husbands are ok. 3. I Answer That: It is possible to have more than one husband under certain circumstances but not others. Why the contra is wrong, or does not mean what it seems to mean 4. Replies to Objections 1 and 2 Wife of Bath Question: whether it be permissible to have more than one husband? 1.It seems that it is not permissible to have more than one husband (12) Objection 1: for Christ says x to the Samaritan woman 2.Contra: But this does not offer “diffinicioun” of answer, except “wexe and multiplye” (28) 3.I answer that this is the proof text I like best. Support: Solomon and his wives; Abraham and Jacob. 4.Also, Paul says “it is better to marry than to burn” (52) 5.Therefore I can wed as many people as I please.

6 The Treatise (60-162) On the Legitimacy Of Marriage: That Marriage Is Permitted How to read the authorities who praise virginity God’s Commandments versus God’s Counsels (63ff). Perfection versus Imperfection (105ff). (Wife speaks back here to the Prioress and the Second Nun, both of whom have chosen the celibate life. Also to Constance, whose married perfection appears based on her indifference to actual sex) Reasoning from Natural History The use of sexual organs (115). Wheat-bread versus barley-bread (143ff.) Conclusion: A matter of preference. “Experience” legitimately trumps “auctoritee” “I nyl envy no virginitee” (143) “Al this sentence me liketh every deel’” (162).

7 The Wife’s Relationships to the Molestiae nuptiarum (misogamy/anti-marriage) tradition So far the Wife has argued against this tradition The Pardoner’s interruption (163ff), however, reads her another way. She herself is an example of why marriage is bad. The only proof her sermon provides is herself In practice misogamous writing was written for men by men, as in the Envoy to Buxton Important although also somewhat scandalous part of a notionally celibate clerical culture In practice, it was therefore misogynist, it argued against men marrying women because women are xxx This is the aspect of the tradition the Wife picks up in what follows Here, she uses her own life to answer misogynist charges, albeit in a tone and manner that continually embodies them She also describes her own social/economic mobility, using the marriage-market to improve her standing (cf Miller’s Tale again)

8 The Made-Up Drunken Anti-Women Sermons of Hen-Pecked Husbands 1-3: the “Thou seyst” passage ( ) “Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous And prechest on thy bench with yvel preef!” The Wife is hear reporting to the pilgrims what she told her first three husbands about what they said to her when drunk She says they slandered women, using the topoi of misogamist/misogynist satire, although for them this satirical tradition comes too late – they’re married Thereby she cowers them into submission in order to extract promises from them and cover up behavior that resembles the accusations they are making They have not in fact said these things The Wife therefore controls her husbands by controlling anti-marriage/ anti-women discourse She also vents, to the pilgrims, a set of charges laid against women by the tradition

9 The story darkens: husbands 4 and 5 The Wife of Bath meets her match? Husband 4: “revelour” with “paramour” (see Cook’s Tale). His similarity to her Old Age: “that al wole envenyme” (474) Fantasies of violence: “Al my bed was ful of verray blood” (579). Strong sexual charge (605ff) Jankyn, Husband 5: the abusive beloved for whom she gives up everything (temporarily) Reuse of Miller’s Tale motifs in serious key (525ff) Confrontation with misogamist/misogynist tradition directly, through a book in which all “bounden in o volume” (681). The “Thanne tolde he me” passage (713-87) Her eventual victory (hearing in one ear gone) and Jankyn’s death

10 What are we supposed to think? “Virginitee is heigh perfeccioun.” Clearly marriage is not. We learn much more about this in other tales. Nonetheless the Wife speaks out for marriage, for a combination of reasons, including economic benefit, sexual pleasure, and simple interest – marriage gives one a narrative. In the process, she speaks out for the live of the lay person, not cleric, monk, or nun, whose desires are messy and whose relationship to the ethical and religious ideals of her age are indirect. In the context of the Friar/Summoner argument that follows, she looks impressive. She suffers from many faults but is free of the sin of hypocrisy, for example. But can she, does she, has she found happiness? That’s another question, to be taken up by the Tale. The most important thing for now: we mind.


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