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Acclaimed as the “Father of English Literature” and “the English Homer” before William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, the writer of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, was born to a middle-class family in ca. 1343 and was once a member of the house of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. Regarded as one of the most famous and significant poets in the medieval period, Chaucer was well-known for his use of dream-vision form, his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales (ca.
1387), and more importantly, his contribution to the English language by importing more than 1000 new words that were derived from foreign languages. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, Chaucer’s precise presentation of the Wife of Bath’s “experience” (line 1) of marriage, which she believes to be “right ynough for [her] to speke of wo that is [inside]” (lines 1 – 3), brings forth to her convincing arguments about marriage.
Obviously in the beginning of the Prologue, Chaucer suggests the idea of the Wife of Bath as being a five-time, experienced married woman, whose first marriage experience comes when she is only “twelf year of age” (line 4).
The wise woman is without doubt an advocate of marriage, as she is always ready to ‘fight back’ all kinds of attacks concerning her marrying five times with her strong, convincing arguments with references to the Bible – although she “graunte it wel” (line 101) the truth that “[one] does well not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7.1), as “it would be better to continue to live alone” (1 Corinthians 7. 8) as a widow, the Wife of Bath strongly believes that there is nothing wrong to marry more than once, as she always agrees with the idea that “to be wedded is no sinne” (line 57) as long as “[her] housbonde is fro the world agoon” (line 53) – according to her idea, it is of “no repreve” (line 90) and “withouten exception of bigamye” (line 92) to “wedde if that [her] make [dies]” (line 91).
Despite the advices from other men, who “[keep on] [conseiling] [her] to be oon” (line 72), she is convinced that she does the right thing as there is no law that forbids her marrying, and whether to marry is up to her “owene juggement” (line 74) and decision. Her firm belief and strong arguments are, in my opinion, the results of her awareness of the law and her situation in the society, as well as her understanding of the Bible.
Regardless of the higher values of maidenhood, the Wife of Bath believes that marriage is of the same importance as virginity as it is God who “[tells] us to wexe and multoplye” (line 28) and it is impossible to do so without marriage. In her argument about virginity and marriage, she likens wives as “barly breed” (line 150), which “[the] Lord Jesu [uses] to [refressh] many a man” (line 152). Such metaphor, in my view, works well to emphasize the importance of wives (“barly breed”), despite its inferiority to the purity of virginity, which she likens as “breed of pured whete seed” (line 149).
The Wife of Bath, furthermore, believes that marriage suits her the best and is what she desperately needs, as it is her will to “bistowe the flour of al [her] age in th’actes and in fruit of marriage” (line 118 – 119) – it will definitely be a disaster for her if she has to “laden al [her] lif in chastitee” (line 100), despite the fact that “virginitee is great perfeccioun, and continence [is] with devocioun” (line 111 – 112), which is according to the Almighty God, the way to live a perfect life.