Social criticism in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Critical intention

It is easier to agree that there is social criticism in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale than to agree what the main targets of that criticism are. The text is delivered by an ironic author-narrator through an unreliable narrator (the Wife lies) and lacks evidence of its reception by the narratees (except by the Friar who would have an interest in giving a put-down to the woman who has encroached on scholastic matters). Interpretation will inevitably vary widely. We have no evidence of Chaucer's intention.             

Men and women 

Men could be seen as targets of social criticism, since in the Prologue they are imputed to be controlling and misogynistic. In The Tale the crime is committed by a man.

In The Prologue, women are represented as gossipy and manipulative or, depending on your interpretation, as resourceful and outspoken, in tackling the inequality of their situation in marriage.

The Tale superficially values women and their opinions (e.g. their views are sought in the quest) but basically denigrates them: 

  • The Old Woman has to be transformed into a young woman to be seen as being entirely satisfactory
  • The raped young girl who might validly have spoken for wronged women disappears from the text
  • Only the Queen is an example of a wise and powerful female, though even she has solicited her power from her husband.

The Wife

Chaucer's representation of the Wife has been labelled as being both ‘feminist' and ‘anti-feminist'. Depending on your point of view, either of these descriptions might provide a form of social criticism, either of the Wife or of the social world she inhabits.

Chaucer cleverly uses a first-person narrator so that we are drawn to make our own judgements of the Wife, but these judgements are belied by ironies and contradictions (see The Wife of Bath's Prologue > Synopses and commentary).

  • She argues forcibly against misogynist views of women but reveals herself as a violent, dominating woman, ready to trade sex for material advantage
  • Ironically, she reveals herself to be the garrulous, indiscreet, deceitful woman, the ‘jangleresse' and gossip that has been under attack by male authorities. She is as free with her speech as she is with her sexual activity
  • There is a moment of poignancy in Chaucer's handling of her when she acknowledges her ageing
  • Chaucer gives the Wife a crucial and challenging point about the depiction of women in texts when she asks, ‘Who painted the lion?
  • The Wife's declared intention is playful - she claims that she sets out to entertain. So we might also consider that the fictional Wife is elaborating an exaggerated fiction of her marriages for the amusement of the listeners l.193
  • She is Chaucer's creation, but she is created from a literary tradition in which there is a model for the sexually experienced older woman. It is interesting to read extracts from Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose which feature the Old Woman reflecting on her strategies and her declining power. (You can find this in The Canterbury Tales ed. Kolve and Olson, 2005, Norton, New York.) 


The state of marriage is presented as unsatisfactory in The Prologue, where even the mutual agreement of Alison and Jankin is only achieved after ‘muchel care and wo'. The Wife's intention to speak of the ‘wo' that is in marriage certainly becomes ironic. It may be doubly ironic in that the Wife really does reveal the ‘wo that is in marriage' where the partners are unequal. See Chaucer's humour for the problem of irony in the text.

The status of the knight and gentilesse

The Knight of Chaucer's The General Prologue has in the past been generally taken to be ‘a verray parfit gentil knight'. Yet (if we accept Terry Jones' revisionary work on the Knight in his book Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary) he now appears to be the subject of Chaucer's irony. In the Wife's Tale, the Knight (even though he is a pre-fourteenth century Arthurian knight) flouts any ideal of chivalry by raping a young girl. His high social and moral status has been belied.

Chaucer may also be criticising the notion of a social order which associates gracious and courteous behaviour with noble birth or high status. The behaviour of the Knight at the beginning of The Tale graphically demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of this idea. It is then exposed by the Old Woman's rhetoric. She proves that a definition of ‘gentilesse' should not depend on noble birth but on those actions which reflect God's grace. Together this could represent an attack on the contemporary social order in which the Knight has a high status. See Poverty and wealth.

The idea of pilgrimage

The nature of some of the tales told by the fictional pilgrims on the journey, e.g. The Wife's Prologue and The Miller's Tale, highlight the secular and bawdy enjoyment of the (fictional) journey to a religious shrine. The Wife demonstrates awareness of other pilgrimage sites, but not the piety with which they should be associated. Chaucer is perhaps highlighting the contemporary disquiet about the secular aspect of pilgrimage. 

The Church

At the beginning of The Tale there is an attack by the Wife on Friars as being licensed and licentious. In l.68 (Prologue) the Wife argues for ‘owene juggement' – a reference to one's own judgement on scriptural or moral matters which might well resonate with the listeners aware of the challenge to the Catholic Church presented by Wyclif. He called for reforms and was concerned to produce a Bible in English which ordinary people could understand for themselves, rather than relying on what they were told about the Latin Bible by a priest. See Social / political context > An era of social and economic change > Challenges to the Church. 

Interpretation is again an issue here. Our judgements about the reliability of the Wife as narrator and problematic suppositions about Chaucer's proximity to - or distance from - her views are important. Should we view the above as:

  • Examples of social criticism of the Church
  • Indications of the subversive character of the Wife
  • Both?
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