The portrait of the Wife of Bath in The General Prologue

Judging the story tellers

Each of the stories in The Canterbury Tales is given to a narrator. Reading Chaucer the Pilgrim's portraits of his fellow travellers in The General Prologue allows us to make ‘jugements' (judgements) about them before we begin to listen to them. The narrator of The General Prologue begins his account of the Wife at l.445

The significance of the Wife's appearance

The portraits of the pilgrim characters in The General Prologue are vividly impressionistic rather than orderly The Wife of Bath by Blakeand pick up on what might be quickly noticeable and memorable rather than on a systematic detailing of basic facts.

Details about the Wife's appearance are interspersed with other information about her. The narrator does not offer a physical description of her until l.453. He then leaves this description, to tell us something of her history, before returning to her appearance for most of the final part of the portrait. So the reader needs to ask:

  • What does Chaucer the Pilgrim's account of the Wife's appearance suggest about her character?
  • How do Chaucer's transitions between appearance and other information influence our ‘jugement' of her? 

Clothing and colour

Clothing and colour are both important in the narrator's description of the Wife. He draws attention to the fine fabric of her ‘hir coverchiefs' (her head-dress) and speculates on the heavy head-dress that she might wear when displaying herself in church on a Sunday. We might well suspect that this is a woman displaying her wealth and sense of importance in the amount of fabric that she wears. Equipped with a large head-dress, she is set on making a big impression. 

Red is a vibrant colour and it is the colour that the narrator associates with the Wife. Her carefully tied ‘hosen' (hose) is ‘of fyn scarlet reed' (red), and her bold face is ‘reed of hewe' (of red complexion). These details add to the sense that Chaucer is describing a figure who attracts and demands attention. 

The narrator also notices that the Wife's large hat is ‘as brood as is a bokeler or a targe' (as broad as a shield, or as a large shield) and then directs attention to her ‘spores sharpe' (sharp spurs). Again her dress or equipment becomes a sign of her sense of her own importance and her dominance. 


Wife on her horseThe Wife is a confident rider. She sits comfortably on an ambling horse (‘Upon an amblere esily she sat'), rather than a fiery steed which might get the better of her. Taken together with Chaucer's reference to her ‘spores sharpe' this suggests her desire for power and control. She has a manageable, not particularly fast, mount, but the spurs will enable her to drive it on to keep up with the ‘compaignye' (company).


Towards the end of her physical description, the narrator slips in that the Wife was ‘gat-tothed' (gap-toothed, having teeth set wide apart). Contemporary listeners might recognise this as a sign of boldness and uncontrolled appetites, particularly lust. In her Prologue (l.603) the Wife claims that being ‘gat-tothed' ‘ becam me weel' (suited me well) and launches straightaway into an account of her sexual energy and prowess. 

Chaucer's deft handling of the narrator's transition between appearance and other information is evident in The General Prologue. His comment on her widely spaced teeth follows the aside of the previous line that she understood a great deal of ‘wandringe by the weye' (wandering by the way). The two lines play against each other so that her ‘wandringe' has implications of sexual adventure. 

What we are told about the Wife 

The Wife is defined by her role as a wife and her home town. Bath was an important cloth-making town and the Wife would be regarded as coming from a place of rising wealth. We also discover that:

  • She is ‘somdel deef' (somewhat deaf) - the cause of this is revealed in her prologue
  • She is skilled as a cloth-maker
  • Her anger is quickly roused if her precedence at church is usurped by another
  • She has been married five times (See Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century)
  • She has travelled extensively (see Religious / philosophical context > Pilgrims and pilgrimage)
  • She talks and laughs readily with the company
  • She knows all about love and its remedies.

The gaps in the text

It is significant that there are a number of areas concerning the Wife which Chaucer does not reveal or leaves ambiguous.

The Wife's family

Although he has defined the character (whom we later in her Prologue come to know as Alison) as a wife, the narrator doesn't tell us very much about Alison as a wife.

In fact her love of travel, her appearance and her sociability are more relevant to her apparent freedom from so-called wifely duties. Perhaps this reveals a fundamental problem with the category ‘wife'? 

No mention is made of children. There is some advantage for the author in leaving a gap here because it allows him to direct the focus of the Wife's Prologue to a series of straightforward contests for dominance between Alison and each of her husbands.

The Wife's special skill 

Alison's cloth-making, of which ‘she hadde swiche an haunt' (she had such skill) is particularly puzzling:

  • Does the Wife spin and weave for her family?
  • Is she or has she been a professional weaver?
  • Does she manage or own one of the thriving cloth-making businesses near Bath?
  • Or are Chaucer and his narrator being ironic about her claims? 
More on the Wife as a weaver: For an exploration of Chaucer's account of the wife as a cloth-maker have a look at Lee Patterson's essay ‘Experience woot well it is noght so': Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale in Beidler P G (1996) Geoffrey Chaucer: The Wife of Bath, Bedford Books, Boston and New York, USA.

Comparison with other portraits

Absence of information about the Wife's occupation is the more striking when we consider how full an account the narrator gives of the roles that he identifies in other portraits. For example:

  • The Knight from l. 43 (record of his service abroad)
  • The Frere (Friar) from l.208 (hearing confession, keeping up contacts with the ‘worthy')
  • The Cook from l. 379 (all his culinary skills).

An exception is the Prioresse (Prioress) – the only other female pilgrim that Chaucer gives a full portrait of in The General Prologue. Here the narrator's focus is on appearance, mannerisms and her affected gentility, but not on her occupation as a prioress.

Naming the pilgrims

Chaucer's narrator does not give the Wife a name in The General Prologue. This follows the general pattern of the descriptions of the other pilgrims. Their roles are their names. The fictional pilgrims exist in the text as much as types as they do as individuals. Whilst they are often so vividly sketched that after many readings we may come to feel that we know them, behind most of the portraits there is a recognisable type of person. 

The few characters named include:

  • The Friar, who ‘was cleped Huberd' (was called Huberd)
  • The ‘Prioresse', named madame Eglentyne
  • (somewhat bizarrely in the context of the lack of names for people) the Reeve's horse, ‘pomely grey and highte Scot' (dappled grey and called Scot). 

When Chaucer the Pilgrim concludes his description of the ‘Marchant' (merchant) he comments ‘I noot how men him calle.' (I don't know what men call him.) The implication might be that the narrator knows the names of the other characters but does not care to tell us, and is making a special point here about his distance from the ‘Marchant'.

Encouraging ‘jugement' (judgement) 

The idea of pilgrimage suggests both a particular journey, e.g. to a revered place, and operates as a metaphor of the journey through life. An assessment of the stage reached in this metaphorical journey inevitably involves judgement.

In The General Prologue, Chaucer's narrator encourages the reader / listener to make judgements about the pilgrims through claims about their worthiness. These comments are often ironic. For example, at the end of the account of the ‘Frere' (friar), who makes an excessive profit from his begging, comes the conclusion that he was a ‘worthy limitour' (worthy friar licensed to beg within certain regions).

Judging the Wife

When Chaucer the Pilgrim refers to his protagonist as ‘A good Wyf…' what does he mean? Is he indicating that she is a good example of a wife / of a type of person, or that she is an exemplary spouse? In what ways does the portrait reveal her to be a good wife? 

There are ambiguities about the Wife. The term ‘Haunt' (l.447) has a range of meanings in Middle English. As well as skill, haunt(e) could also mean (and does now) a place of frequent resort. These meanings are connected through the idea of habit, i.e. habit or practice produces skill. In connection with women, the word ‘haunt(e) conveyed the idea of frequently resorting to or visiting women, so the word has a sexual connotation. It is difficult to know whether or not this nuance of meaning would register with contemporary listeners, but if it did it would add to the aura of sexuality associated with the Wife.

Juxtapositions and connections

Chaucer invites readers to make judgements about the Wife through ironic juxtapositions and connections. For example:

  • It is ironic that the Wife's lack of charity, pride and anger in l.449 –l.452 are displayed as she attends church, where the virtues of humility and peace were taught
  • The lustful significance of the Wife's widely spaced teeth is foregrounded by the previous line's information that she enjoyed ‘wandringe', with its implications of sexual adventure
  • Chaucer uses rhyme to link words and thus create an ironic juxtaposition of ideas. The rhyming of ‘carpe' (talk) with ‘sharpe' (sharp), links the Wife's sociability with the image of her spurs. She may be good company but are her views sharp and pointed?
  • The narrator emphasises the Wife's proficiency in the art of love at the end of the portrait. At this point we already know about her ‘wandringe / wandrynge' (wandering). The text invites us to make connections. 

The Wife of Bath as fictional pilgrim

The framing device of The Canterbury Tales is a fictional pilgrimage. The pilgrims come from a wide range of backgrounds and include a knight, a prioress, a cook and a miller. The many voices contribute many different kinds of narrative to The Canterbury Tales, from the Franklin's elegant tale of generosity to the Merchant's cynical tale about lust, and the bawdy tale contributed by the Miller. Amongst the Wife's travelling companions are clerical figures who are the target of her verbal attacks. 

To summarise, it is important to remember that the Wife is a female narrator constructed by a male author, our perceptions of whom are shaped by Chaucer's account of her in his General Prologue.

Investigating the Wife's character and her role as narrator...

  • What have you concluded about the character of the Wife of Bath by studying her portrait in The General Prologue?
    • In the light of this, write down 5 words to describe the kind of prologue that you might expect from her.
  • Return to these ideas when you have studied The Prologue. Consider
    • How accurate your assumptions have been
    • Whether or not reading her Prologue changes your initial idea of her character.
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