Part one: l.1 'Experience' - l.76 'Cacche whoso may'

Synopsis of l.1-76

Tongue versus text, the Wife launches her first attacks 

The Wife opens with a direct statement about her views on marriage, which she sees as full of woe. She insists that her view is well grounded in her experience of five marriages, rather than on any traditional written authority. The number of times that she might be legitimately married becomes the focus of her attack on authority as she questions the conclusions that might be drawn from examples taken from both the New Testament (the Wedding at Cana, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the epistles of St Paul) and the Old Testament (King Solomon, Lamech, Abraham and Jacob). 

In the course of her arguments for the legitimacy of her serial marriages, she identifies herself as a candidate for a sixth marriage when my husband is ‘fro the world y-gon' (gone from the world – she later indicates that her fifth husband has already passed away).

She takes up St Paul's counsel on virginity seeing a welcome opportunity for exercising ‘oure owene jugement' (our own judgement). She uses a device of logic, the reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity) to demonstrate that, if followed to its logical conclusion, the demand for universal virginity leads to an absurdity. If the prized virtue of virginity was demanded of everyone, there would ultimately be no virginity to prize. 

Commentary on l.1-76

The opening

L.1 Experience, though noon auctoritee: The Wife establishes a pattern of opposition between experience and ‘auctoritee' (authority). 

L.2-3 Right ynogh for me / To speke: The Wife does not begin with any modest reservation about her ability to tell a good tale or her concern to please the listeners. Instead she launches in with an abrupt direct statement about her competence to speak about marriage. (By contrast, the courteous Frankeleyn (Franklin) apologises in the short prologue to his tale for his plain speech. He then delivers a rather elegant tale about a marriage threatened by a rash promise.) (See The language of The Wife of Bath's Prologue). 

L.3 wo that is in marriage: The Wife claims that ‘wo' in marriage is her main theme and it is not until we have listened to more of her prologue that we come to understand the irony of the use of the word ‘wo'. Initially we might well assume that the ‘wo' is mainly the pain that she has endured, but we come to learn that most of the ‘wo' is the pain that she has inflicted.

L.5 twelve yeer: The Wife claims to have been married at twelve, which was the youngest age at which a female could make a valid marriage. 

L.6 [fyve] housbondes at chirche dore (at church door): She has been legitimately married five times. (See Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century)

L.7 If I so ofte myghte: As the Wife speaks, the nature of the opposition she professes between her experience and male authority is made evident. She does not dismiss the Bible outright but questions it and claims her right to interpret it for herself. (See Social / political context > Challenges to the Church)

L.13 ne sholde wedded be but ones: The number of times that the Wife might be legitimately married now becomes her concern. She could legally be married several times, providing that after each marriage she was a widow. Behind the Wife's comments lurks the awareness that widows were sometimes regarded with unease. St Paul in 1 Timothy 5:13 had highlighted their potential moral frailty, and questioned their suitability for remarriage, seeing some as idle, tattling women with nothing to do but wander from house to house. These are charges which could be held against Chaucer's fictional Wife!

Wedding at CanaL.11-13 To weddyng, in the cane of galilee: The Wedding at Cana is recounted in the New Testament, John 2:1-11. At the wedding, Jesus, prompted by his mother, turned water into wine to satisfy the wedding party when the original supply had run out. For the significance of the Wedding at Cana in medieval marriage sermons see Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century

The Wife relates the ‘authoritative' comment that she heard on this passage, which has no logical validity. Performing a miracle at only one wedding is no proof that Christ either approved or disapproved of more than one marriage. On the face of it the Wife has simply exposed the illogical interpretation to the listeners. The Wife seems to be taking on an ‘authority' on its own terms and winning the point. 

L.14-22 Biside a welle … : The Wife lets herself down by missing the point of the next example regarding marriage. She refers to Jesus' encounter with an outcast Samaritan woman (John 4:4-19) who is challenged to live differently. However, the Wife ignores this implication and focuses on whether the fifth man was or was not actually the woman's husband.

L. 26 Men may devyne and glosen: Medieval clerics were not expected to be original in their thinking about the scriptures but to study the ideas of other authorities (hence the importance of ‘auctoritee'). These were often produced as textual notes or glosses (‘glosen') in manuals about the teaching of scripture.

L.31, 28 lete fader and mooder / wexe and multiplye: Not surprisingly, the Wife prefers God's repeated command to mankind to marry Genesis 2:24 and procreate in the first book of the Bible Genesis 1:28, Genesis 9:1, Genesis 9:7

L.33 bigamye / octagmye: The Wife means second or eighth marriages in succession, i.e. not at the same time. (See Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century.) Solomon and his wives

L.35-43 Which yifte of God hadde he: Although Solomon was renowned in the Bible for his wisdom, the Wife fantasises about how good this much married biblical king must have been in bed.

L.52 Bet is to be wedded than to brynne: The Wife is again selective in her use of a well known Bible text 1 Corinthians 7:1-9. Paul was teaching about the virtue of virginity over marriage – only making a ‘concession' of marriage for those who could not cope with sexual abstinence.

L.57 hem hadde wyves mo than two: The Wife quotes her own list of Old Testament figures who married more than once – Lamech Genesis 4:19, Abraham Genesis 16:3 and Jacob Genesis 29:26-28. However, she is (conveniently) ignoring the New Testament teaching which superseded this, to have only one wife!

L.65 precept … hadde he noon: The Wife again refers to Paul's teaching on marriage, and quotes that this was his advice rather than a command 1 Corinthians 7:12 – except that by then he has gone on to talk about separation from non believers, not about the virtue of virginity.

L.68 owene juggement: Preferring one's own judgement on scriptural or moral matters might well resonate with the Wife's listeners. They would be aware of the challenge to the Church presented by Wyclif, his call for reforms and his English translation of the Bible. This meant ordinary people could understand it for themselves, rather than relying on what they were told about the Latin Bible by a priest (see Social / political context > Challenges to the Church).

L.23-76: By the end of this section, the Wife has delivered something near to an unwitting parody of a sermon, as she moves through a number of biblical examples to establish her point (see Literary context > Medieval literary conventions and The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale > Sermons). Chaucer handles the Wife's attack on ‘auctoritee' in her Prologue by making her use some of the devices of an ‘authoritative' sermon in her own attack:

  • She starts with a clear point to expound
  • She cites the Bible for authority
  • She gives examples.

Chaucer the poet 

Read lines 47 – 50 carefully (from ‘Whan myn housbound …'). What do you notice about the sound pattern of these couplets and the ways in which they support the meaning of the lines? For instance:

  • You could point out how the iambic pentameter (see Literary context > Chaucer's metre: Iambic pentameter) stresses certain words in the lines, so that the listener catches the most important words e.g. ‘gon', ‘wedde', ‘I', ‘free'
  • You may feel that Chaucer has disturbed the regular iambic pattern with ‘Whan myn'. You could read this as a trochaic inversion of the iambic pattern, in which ‘Whan' has a stronger stress than ‘myn'. This disturbance to the regular pattern alerts the listener to a change, something new
  • Notice Chaucer's clever rhyming between lines so that ‘Whan' is subtly connected by sound as well as by sense to what happens next, i.e. ‘thanne' - then the wife will be able to look for another husband
  • Listen too to the effects of sound at the line endings. The husband is dispatched with short vowel sounds ‘y-gon' and ‘anon'. But the situation after his departure sounds open and expanding with the longer vowel sounds of ‘free' and ‘me'. Chaucer's humour is apparent here in his rhyming.

Investigating l.1-76

  • The Wife and ‘auctoritee': Explore for yourself how the Wife both challenges and appropriates (takes over for her own purposes) ‘auctoritee'.
  • Choose two biblical examples from the text in this section
    • Examine how the wife has used / interpreted / challenged these extracts from the Bible.
  • Major themes and oppositions: What seem to you to be the major themes in the Wife's narrative so far?
    • List these themes in two columns so that you can see how these themes may set up oppositions in the text e.g. between speech and text / male and female / … and …?
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