"The Wife of Bath's Tale" (Middle English: "The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe") is a short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is one of the best known and most popular stories in the collection and is of historical value for what it says about the position of women in medieval England.
The story takes place in the time of King Arthur and contains a fantasy element. The tale's protagonist is a knight who, in order to save his life, is tasked with finding out what it is that women most desire. A hideous old woman reveals the secret to the knight but insists that he marry her in return.
One of King Arthur's young knights is found guilty of raping a woman and sentenced to death. The queen, however, gives the knight the opportunity to save his life. He will be allowed to live on the condition that he can discover what it is that women most desire within a year and a day.
The knight travels far and wide, asking many different people what it is that women desire above all else. He hears many different answers but cannot find one that is agreed upon by enough people. The time that the queen gave him having almost come to an end, the knight is returning home when he suddenly sees twenty-four young women dancing in a wood. When he approaches them, the young women vanish and an extremely ugly old woman is the only person who remains. When she hears that the knight is on a quest, the old woman says that her age has given her wisdom and that she can probably help him. She agrees to tell the knight what women most desire but insists that he must grant her any favor she asks for in return.
Back at court, the knight tells the queen that what women most desire is to have complete control over their lovers or husbands in every aspect. All of the ladies at court, whether single, married or widowed, agree that it is the right answer. The ugly old woman suddenly appears. She says that she was the one who gave the knight the answer and that he must do whatever she asks in return. To the knight's great distress, she demands that he marry her.
The knight and the old woman are married without much ceremony or any feasting. All day, the knight avoids the old woman's company. On their wedding night, the old woman asks the knight why he is so cold and distant towards her, saying that she can change anything with which her husband is unhappy. The knight replies that she cannot change the fact that she is of a lower social class, is poor, old and ugly. The old woman replies that those are not good reasons for looking down on her. Quoting Dante, she says that true nobility has nothing to do with being of aristocratic origin but comes instead from one's character. She points out that the Bible demonstrates that it is possible to lead a virtuous life in poverty and says that it is a widely acknowledged truth that the elderly should be treated with respect. As for being ugly, the old woman tells the knight that it means that no other man will ever desire her and, as a result, she will never be unfaithful to him. However, she says that she has the power to become young and beautiful but would then be unfaithful to the knight.
The old woman asks the knight what form he would like her to take, either ugly and faithful to her husband or beautiful and unfaithful. The knight replies that she can choose whatever form she thinks is best. The knight having surrendered control to his wife, she rewards him by becoming both beautiful and faithful.
- Original Middle English text of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" on Wikisource (the text of "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" is also on the same page).
- Modern English translation on the website of Florida State University.
- Middle English text and parallel Modern English translation on the SparkNotes website.
- "The Wife of Bath's Tale" on King Arthur Wiki.