The Strong Wife of Bath
Alison of Bath as a battered wife may seem all wrong, but her fifth husband, Jankyn, did torment her and knock her down, if not out, deafening her somewhat in the process. Nevertheless, the Wife of Bath got the upper hand in this marriage as she had done in the other four and as she would probably do in the sixth, which she declared herself ready to welcome. Alison certainly ranks high among women able to gain control over their mates.
The Wife of Bath's personality, philosophy of sexuality, and attitude toward sovereignty in marriage obviously are offered as comedy. When Chaucer's short poem addressed to Bukton, who is about to marry, recommends that he read the Wife of Bath regarding "The sorwe and wo that is in mariage" (ed. Benson, p. 655), he has to mean the domination, real or attempted, or the nagging, of the husband by the wife, that is sure to follow his wedding. Why else recommend the Wife of Bath for the edification of a bridegroom-to-be? And how could such an admonition be meant as anything but jest?
The Bukton piece leaves Chaucer's present-day audience wondering whether he and Philippa, married in 1366, had lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, the Chaucer Life-Records tell us nothing personal such as this. As for Chaucer himself, although he uses the autobiographical first person pronoun, his allusions to domineering and/or nagging wives are presented through the voices of his persona and of the pilgrim narrators of the Canterbury Tales, of whom the persona is one, all as likely to be fiction as to be fact. Chaucer remains inscrutable regarding his own marriage.
What, then, are we to make of the Bukton piece; of Alison of Bath and her anti-Pauline vi...
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...st wife in the world. One would expect the married men hearing this to chuckle. But, needless to say, Chaucer's audience included women as well. In that day, when all marriage was Pauline at least in theory, and permanent sacramentally as well as legally, both "archwives" and "sklendre" had promised to obey. Women could join the laughter at this old chestnut because the shrew was some other woman. Of course good Christian wives never nagged their husbands.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Crow, Martin M., and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.
Skeat, Walter W., ed. Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 2nd ed. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1899; rpt. 1972.
Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.