Contemporary image of Chaucer on horseback
Perhaps the best-known pilgrim in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is Alisoun, the Wife of Bath. The Wife's fame derives from Chaucer's deft characterization of her as a brassy, bawdy woman—the very antithesis of virtuous womanhood—who challenges the prevailing antifeminism of the times. Yet Chaucer never fully lets on whether she is the object of satire, the instrument of its delivery, or perhaps a combination of both.
This lesson helps students understand the complexities of the Wife of Bath's character and the rhetoric of her argument by exploring the various ways in which Chaucer crafts a persona for her. Students begin by familiarizing themselves with the framing narrative of The Canterbury Tales and the language in which the Tales were written: Middle English. Next, students read Chaucer's description of the Wife in the "General Prologue" to consider how he represents her, both in his role as the poet of The Canterbury Tales and as a character in his own poem. Next, students read the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," where Chaucer has the Wife speak for herself, to gain additional perspective on her character. Students then examine several primary source documents written about women and marriage in order to understand the context in which the Wife presents her argument. Finally, students read the "Wife of Bath's Tale" and explore the alternative readings of the tale in relation to the character of the Wife of Bath.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales depicts a 14th-century England populated by peasants, tradesmen, knights, and clerics, most of whom appear to be healthy and well fed. But the 14th century in which Chaucer lived was one of plague, rebellion, and corruption. Between 1349 and 1350, England lost nearly half its population to the Black Death. This enormous loss of life only exacerbated the shortage of farm labor and intensified the growing class conflict that resulted in the violent rebellion known as The Peasant's Revolt in 1381. In England, the Catholic church suffered from political conflict with Rome and the presence of corruption throughout its lower ranks, all of which did little to help the people the Church was supposed to serve. In short, Chaucer's world was fraught with danger and instability, and life for the average person was hard and often violent.
Yet The Canterbury Tales does not dwell on these issues. Instead, Chaucer parades before us a catalog of the human condition, and we can only wonder how he acquired such insight into human nature and developed the poetic skill to express it. Although scholars know little about Chaucer the "man," they attribute his talent for literary portraiture to the life he led. Born c. 1340 to a family of vintners, Chaucer became a faithful public servant who traveled widely and was most certainly well read. His career as a courtier and Controller of Customs gave him access to a variety of personalities, and to perform his jobs well, he had to be perceptive, shrewd, and rhetorically agile, the very skills he gives to the character of the Wife of Bath.
His travels influenced his poetry, particularly his trip to Italy sometime in the 1370's where he encountered the works of Dante and Boccaccio, men who chose to write in their vernacular language rather than the more urbane Latin, a choice Chaucer would make in his own writing. Writing, however, would never be a full-time occupation for Chaucer; it was a hobby rather than a profession, and yet he became well known for his work during his lifetime and was buried in Westminster Abbey upon his death. The Canterbury Tales, a project Chaucer worked on during the last fourteen years of his life, shows him at the height of his poetic powers, weaving a rich and intricate tapestry of men and women whose vices and virtues are still wholly familiar to twenty-first century readers.
The definitive source for Chaucer's works is the Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson of Harvard and published by Houghton Mifflin. For more information about life in 14th-century Europe, see the "'Calamitous' 14th Century" sources at the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Medieval Sourecbook. The EDSITEment reviewed Geoffrey Chaucer Website has a brief biography of Chaucer's life, as well as information about his literary reputation during his lifetime.
If your students are encountering The Canterbury Tales for the first time, explain to them the framing narrative of the poem (see links in Background section, above). Students may find it easier to understand the framing narrative of the poem once they realize that Chaucer's pilgrims are like any travelers on a "road trip" who have decided to tell stories to help pass the time. It might be helpful to make connections between The Canterbury Tales and several well known "road trip" films, such as Stand By Me, where the narrator, Gordie, is also a character in the film who is known for his talent for storytelling. The Wizard of Oz is another useful example because it depicts four characters who undertake a lengthy trek, each to seek aid from what they believe to be a mystical source.
Chaucer's pilgrims, of course, are on their own lengthy trek, this one a pilgrimage to seek spiritual aid from the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Explain the purpose and popularity of pilgrimages in Chaucer's time and make connections to modern pilgrimages where appropriate. The Geoffrey Chaucer Website available via EDSITEment has an brief explanation of pilgrimages, and The Thomas Becket site, via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Medieval Sourcebook, provides a brief biography of Thomas Becket and—particularly enjoyable for students—an online tour of Canterbury Cathedral.
You may click through the tour as you or some students read aloud the first eighteen lines of The General Prologue, which are among the most famous lines in English literature. Introduce students to the different sounds and stresses of Chaucer's Middle English. Reading Middle English is not all that difficult, and students can gain an appreciation for Chaucer's masterful use of rhyme and meter by reading his poetry aloud.
The PDF worksheet Talk Like a Pilgrim: Reading Chaucer Aloud provides instructions and links (see the following paragraph). Furthermore, it contains the first 18 lines of the Prologue in Middle English, with a space below each line for the student to translate to the poem. Harvard's Geoffrey Chaucer Website on EDSITEment has a thorough guide for learning to speak Middle English (link also available for students on the lesson LaunchPad), should time allow. If time is short, teachers might provide some basic guidance for students and then have them work individually or in groups as they work through understanding the first 18 lines.
Instructions for students: Read the introduction and first five lessons on the "Teach Yourself to Read Chaucer's Middle English" page at the EDSITEment-reviewed Geoffrey Chaucer Website. You should notice two important differences between speaking Middle English and the English we speak today. First, many of the vowel sounds in Middle English were pronounced differently; second, the final "e" in Middle English is often pronounced rather than silent. After reading these brief lessons, write out the phonetic pronunciation of each line and practice reading it aloud. The stresses on the syllables are indicated by bold font. Next, listen to the recording of the first 18 lines of The General Prologue, available from the Chaucer Metapage Audio Files via the Geoffrey Chaucer Website. How does your own pronunciation compare with the one you just heard?
Teach Yourself to Read Chaucer's Middle English
The General Prologue, Lines 1-18, ready by Tom Hanks (requires Real Player)
Once students understand that The General Prologue briefly describes all the characters on pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, they can begin dissecting the narrator's specific portrait of the Wife of Bath. Remind students that, like all the portraits in the "General Prologue," the description of the Wife of Bath reflects on the narrator that Chaucer created for his poem—sometimes called Chaucer the Pilgrim—as much as on the character of the Wife. Students need to understand that Chaucer the Poet actually wrote The Canterbury Tales, but Chaucer the Pilgrim tells them. Making himself a character in the Tales enables Chaucer to inject opinions without claiming they are his own, a tactic which enables much of the satire and irony in The Canterbury Tales.
Point out, for example, the narrator's opinion of the Wife's cloth-making ability (lines 446-447) and his estimate of her kerchiefs (lines 453-454). How does this tendency to exaggerate affect our impression of the narrator? Point out also his summary of her married life (lines 459-462). How should we interpret the narrator's suggestion here that quantity is a mark of quality, that the Wife's worth as a woman can be measured by the number of husbands she has had? Finally, note those lines that seem to imply that the Wife has had extramarital affairs as well (lines 461, 467, 476). Are these sly turns of phrase intended by the narrator, or does Chaucer seem at points like these to be having his narrator reveal more than he means to?
Have students offer a general impression of the Wife of Bath, based on her portrait in the "General Prologue." What can we infer about her personality, for example, from her domineering manner in church (lines 449-452), her world travels on pilgrimage (lines 463-467), and her social skills (lines 474-476). Note that Chaucer devotes many lines to her costume. Does she seem fashionable? over-dressed? Have students compare their mental image of the Wife of Bath with the near-contemporary picture found in the Ellesmere Manuscript, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Geoffrey Chaucer Website.
Conclude this close reading by asking students to summarize what the narrator seems to think of the Wife of Bath. Is she admirable? ridiculous? attractive? repulsive? Have students explore the notion that we see her in a dual perspective, both social and moral. How would one judge her by the standards of her society? How does she measure up to moral standards?
Turn next to the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," where she takes on medieval antifeminism and tells the story of her own much-married life. Chaucer gives us an interesting woman whose coarse speech and flashy clothing seem at odds with the depth of her learning. In the opening lines of her Prologue, the Wife proclaims that her "experience" makes her better equipped to speak about "woe in marriage" than any authority, but to prove her point, she must refute "auctoritee" by arguing against some of the well-known antifeminist tracts of Chaucer's day. Students will need some understanding of these tracts in order to assess the Wife's argument that women rather than men should have mastery in marriage.
In her defense of marriage, the Wife takes aim at a long tradition of antifeminism that can be traced to St. Paul's dictums on the primacy of virginity in First Corinthians. She also alludes to St. Jerome's Against Jovinian, which argues the virtues of celibacy and portrays marriage as a necessary evil. Chaucer has the Wife quote Jerome and some of the Scriptures he cites, as well as a passage that Jerome translated from The Golden Book on Marriage by the ancient Greek philosopher, Theophrastus.
In addition to Jerome, the Wife's "Prologue" refers to many other antifeminist authorities, and cites many examples of the corrupting influence of women, all of which, the Wife says, were collected by her fifth husband, the clerk Jankyn, into a single volume that he called his "book of wykked wyves" (line 685). This is a fictitious book invented by Chaucer to make the Wife's erudition on this topic more plausible, but included in it are further examples from the Bible and classical literature about the danger women pose to men.
The activity "How Would the Wife of Bath Debate the Church Fathers?" is available both on the EDSITEment Launchpad as well as a downloadable PDF. Like Chaucer himself, the Wife of Bath is well read. The Wife of Bath's defense of her five marriages and her pursuit of a sixth rests upon her ability to acknowledge the statements made by the church fathers on marriage and virginity and offer her own interpretation of them. The activity contains several passages from the writings of St. Paul and St. Jerome, two men whose opinions about women the Wife specifically alludes to in her Prologue. In the space below each example, students should find the passage in the Wife's Prologue where she makes references to these ideas about marriage and virginity and write it in the space provided. How does the Wife's opinion differ from that of the teachings of the church fathers? On what issues does she agree? The quotations in the activity come from the following links (all available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Medieval Sourcebook), which students may wish to explore as they read the Wife of Bath's Prologue
After students have completed the exercise, have them summarize the Wife's argument on marriage, using the following questions as a guide.
Most critics agree that the Wife of Bath is Chaucer's most vivid and realistic creation, yet at the same time she is the character perhaps most thoroughly constructed from literary sources. As a character, the Wife stands in a literary tradition of "old bawds" that goes back to classical times, but her most direct ancestor is La Vielle in the Romance of the Rose, a 12th-century French poem that Chaucer translated. Chaucer borrowed some lines from La Vielle's long speech for "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," along with some of the enthusiasm La Vielle expresses in her advice for taking advantage of men. Students might be more familiar, however, with another well-known "old bawd": Juliet's nurse in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, an earthy woman who is as eager for Juliet's marriage as she is comfortable fending off the lusty insults lobbed at her by Romeo's friends.
In the Wife's "Prologue," Chaucer even calls some of these contemporary sources to his readers' attention. Discuss with students how this combination of "real life" with literary allusion affects our response to the Wife of Bath, using the following questions to guide discussion:
Students will also benefit from understanding attitudes toward women and marriage that prevailed during Chaucer's time. To place Chaucer's work in historical context, have students work in groups to prepare class reports on the institution of marriage in medieval times and the place of women in medieval society. In addition to library resources, background on these topics is available through EDSITEment at the Labyrinth website and the Geoffrey Chaucer Website.
As one possible exercise, have students take a glimpse at a medieval marriage between an older man and a young girl in The Goodman of Paris text, a document composed at the time Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales. In Chaucer's day, it was not uncommon for young women to marry older men. The Wife's first three husbands were men much older than she was, but unfortunately, they had neither the energy nor the wit to tame her. In this document, the much older husband offers advice to his fifteen-year old wife about how to behave properly and maintain an ideal marriage. Note: This document is a little lengthy and can be difficult for some readers. One strategy for teaching this material is to begin as a class and review the letter's introductory remarks. Then split students up into groups and assign pieces of the letter that they can digest. Finally, have students share the "advice" they read in the letter's text. Ask students to compare Goodman's advice to the behavior of the Wife during her marriages. Would the Wife have made a suitable mate for the Goodman of Paris?
After students have presented their reports, discuss how this historical context throws additional light on the fictional Wife of Bath. For example:
Have students debate the following question: to what extent should an informed reading of the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and an informed response to her character be based on historical evidence of the attitudes toward marriage and women held by Chaucer's contemporaries? Is Chaucer holding her up to ridicule? Or does he use her to ridicule the conventions of his own age? Or again, does he somehow manage to set her in both perspectives at the same time?
Turn finally to the "Wife of Bath's Tale," which unexpectedly, perhaps, is not one of the bawdy stories for which Chaucer is famous but is instead an Arthurian romance based on a plot device familiar in fairy tales like "The Frog Prince"—the transformation of an ugly mate. The Geoffrey Chaucer website provides background information for The Wife of Bath's Tale.
After students have read the Wife's tale, consider first what might have led Chaucer to give her this story to tell. Explain that throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer generally gives his pilgrims tales that fit their character. Thus the Knight, who is the noblest member of the group, recites a chivalric romance, while the Miller, who is one of the commoners, tells a bawdy tale. In other cases, Chaucer creates a dramatic motivation for his pilgrims' choice of tales, as when the Friar's insulting tale of a summoner prompts the Summoner to tell an insulting tale about a friar. The following questions may have guide discussion of the Wife of Bath's Tale:
Students may notice that the hag of the story seems to sound like the Wife of Bath when she lectures her unwilling husband on "gentilesse" (lines 1106-1212), the innate worthiness attributed to those of noble birth. Have students explore the hag's argument at this point: that true "gentilesse" is a quality of character, not a result of noble birth. Some or all of the following questions may help guide discussion:
Conclude this lesson by having students explore these alternative readings of the tale in relation to the character of the Wife of Bath. Ask students to pick one of the following questions and prepare either a short written or oral response:
Student responses should reflect an understanding of the historical context for women, as discussed in class, and should draw from specific portions of the text to provide evidence.
Though held in submission by social convention, some women gained a measure of authority in the Middle Ages by becoming authors. Encourage students to explore women's writing in the medieval period by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed Geoffrey Chaucer Website for links to the works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp, two mystic writers, and to the work of an anonymous woman poet whose best work, "The Flower and the Leaf," was for centuries attributed to Chaucer himself. For additional information on medieval women writers, visit Medieval Women on the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth website.
Students may also wish to explore the Cult of the Virgin, an artistic and religious movement of the Middle Ages that gave virginity and motherhood an exalted status, a status that no real woman could ever attain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art website available through EDSITEment has an online exhibit, "The Cult of the Virgin Mary During the Middle Ages," that uses text and image to explain how virginity came to be worshipped and why it created such an impossible standard for women.
2-3 class periods