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BlakeCookMillerWife

Detail from an 1810 engraving by William Blake which depicts the Wife of Bath (on the right) with the Cook and the Miller.

"The Wife of Bath's Prologue" (Middle English: "The Prologue of the Wyves Tale of Bathe") forms part of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is the prologue which precedes "The Wife of Bath's Tale".

Many of the stories in The Canterbury Tales are preceded by a prologue in which the narrator says something about himself or herself before introducing the topic of the tale, however, "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" is the longest of the prologues, being longer than the tale itself. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" is well-known and popular in its own right, often featuring in literature syllabuses. Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 movie I Raconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales) features a segment which is based on "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" but not one which is based on her tale.[1] Similarly, the episode "The Wife of Bath" from the 2003 BBC TV series Canterbury Tales is chiefly based on "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" with some minor references to the tale which follows it.[2]

In common with "The Wife of Bath's Tale", the prologue is of historical value for what it reveals about the position of women in medieval English society.

Summary

The Wife of Bath begins by saying that she has been married five times, having married for the first time at the age of twelve. She comments on the contradictory things which the Bible says about marriage, polygamy, bigamy and virginity. She eventually concludes that it is right for some perfect people, such as saints, to remain virgins all their lives but most people, including the Wife herself, are not perfect.

The Wife says that three of her husbands were good and two were bad. The good ones were all rich and were already old when she married them. She says that she regularly scolded her first three husbands, accusing them of not buying clothes for her which were as nice as those of her neighbors, of not complimenting her often enough, of keeping money and other property out of her reach, of being unfaithful to her and of being suspicious of her and not allowing her enough freedom. The Wife says that she knows that most of the accusations that she made were completely false, she accused her husbands of being unfaithful to her when they were so old and so ill that they could hardly stand, but her husbands took the scoldings as a sign of her love for them and would readily confess to things that they had not done. The Wife adds that she was herself unfaithful to her husbands numerous times.

The fourth husband of The Wife of Bath was her first bad husband. She knew that he had a secret lover and, consequently, did all that she could to make his life miserable. She adds that she hopes that he is now in Heaven because he suffered enough while he was alive.

The Wife's fifth husband, Jenkin, was twenty years younger than she was. She married him purely for love because he had no money. She met him and began courting him while her fourth husband was still alive. He had been a student at the University of Oxford who had come to rent a room at the home of the Wife's friend. The Wife was able to take advantage of her fourth husband's long absence to persuade Jenkin of her love for him and to get him to promise to marry her if she became a widow again. The two married within a month of the death of the Wife's fourth husband.

Jenkin spent a lot of his time reading aloud from a book which gave examples of wicked wives from the Bible and from Greek and Roman history and mythology. The Wife comments that, if more women wrote books, many more stories could be written about the wicked deeds done by men. Not being able to stand his constant criticism of women any longer, the Wife tore three pages from Jenkin's book and hit him. He responded by hitting her, causing her to go deaf in one ear and knocking her out.

However, the Wife says that she and Jenkin were eventually able to live in harmony because he agreed to allow her to have complete control over all aspects of both of their lives, which, according to "The Wife of Bath's Tale", is what all women most desire.

Footnotes

  1. Other segments in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 movie I Racconti di Canterbury are based on the "General Prologue", "The Merchant's Tale", "The Friar's Tale", "The Cook's Tale", 'The Miller's Tale", "The Reeve's Tale", "The Pardoner's Tale' and "The Summoner's Tale".
  2. Other episodes of the 2003 BBC TV series Canterbury Tales are based on "The Miller's Tale", "The Knight's Tale", "The Shipman's Tale", "The Pardoner's Tale" and "The Man of Law's Tale".

External links

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