Marriage, Gender and Politics in the English Medieval and Renaissance Period

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Marriage, Gender and Politics in the English Medieval and Renaissance period

The Wife of Bath Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Wife of Bath begins the Prologue to her tale by establishing herself as an authority on marriage, due to her extensive personal experience with the institution. Since her first marriage at the tender age of twelve, she has had five husbands. She says that many people have criticized her for her numerous marriages, most of them on the basis that Christ went only once to a wedding, at Cana in Galilee. The Wife of Bath has her own views of Scripture and God’s plan. She says that men can only guess and interpret what Jesus meant when he told a Samaritan woman that her fifth husband was not her husband. With or without this bit of Scripture, no man has ever been able to give her an exact reply when she asks to know how many husbands a woman may have in her lifetime. God bade us to wax fruitful and multiply, she says, and that is the text that she wholeheartedly endorses. After all, great Old Testament figures, like Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon, enjoyed multiple wives at once. She admits that many great Fathers of the Church have proclaimed the importance of virginity, such as the Apostle Paul. But, she reasons, even if virginity is important, someone must be procreating so that virgins can be created. Leave virginity to the perfect, she says, and let the rest of us use our gifts as best we may—and her gift, doubtless, is her sexual power. She uses this power as an “instrument” to control her husbands.

At this point, the Pardoner interrupts. He is planning to marry soon and worries that his wife will control his body, as the Wife of Bath describes. The Wife of Bath tells him to have patience and to listen to the whole tale to see if it reveals the truth about marriage. Of her five husbands, three have been “good” and two have been “bad.” The first three were good, she admits, mostly because they were rich, old, and submissive. She laughs to recall the torments that she put these men through and recounts a typical conversation that she had with her older husbands. She would accuse her -husband of having an affair, launching into a tirade in which she would charge him with a bewildering array of accusations. If one of her husbands got drunk, she would claim he said that every wife is out to destroy her husband. He would then feel guilty and give her what she wanted. All of this, the Wife of Bath tells the rest of the pilgrims, was a pack of lies—her husbands never held these opinions, but she made these claims to give them grief. Worse, she would tease her husbands in bed, refusing to give them full satisfaction until they promised her money. She admits proudly to using her verbal and sexual power to bring her husbands to total submission. The Wife of Bath's Prologue begins with a defense of serial marriage. The Wife of Bath, who has been married five times, launches her argument against those who might claim that a once-widowed woman ought to become a nun. The Wife's argument moves on to be a defense of marriage, period. She insists that though those who choose to marry might not be as spiritually perfect as people who remain chaste all their lives, they are still fulfilling God's commandments. The major feature of marriage, for the Wife, is the marriage debt, or sex, which seems to be why she's so strongly in favor of marriage. Another reason she's pro-marriage appears to be the ability to gain property, wealth, and a comfortable living situation through a husband.

Yet interspersed with the Wife's arguments in favor of marriage, we have her imaginative re-enactments of how she browbeat her first three husbands, and her ready admission that she was in those relationships only for money and sex. The Wife seems to be saying that marriage is a great thing for women to do; men, on the other hand, should approach with caution! The Wife is quite prepared to use marriage to secure material wealth and...
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