Language in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The effect of first person narration   

These are a number of advantages and disadvantages inherent in the use of a first person narrator.


First person narration can be a powerfully persuasive tool for:

  • Establishing a character's point of view
  • Giving a sense of authenticity
  • Engaging the reader's or listener's sympathy. 


As a narrative device it has limitations:

  • The reader / listener can only know what the narrator knows of the story
  • Although other viewpoints can be introduced, e.g. by allowing the narrator to introduce dialogue and to give accounts of the views of other characters, these are mediated by the narrator, who is understood to be introducing what she wishes us to know
  • In an account of a marriage, we will be given only one half of the story! 


An author can use first person narration in a subtle and clever way to allow the narrator to tell the story so that the reader understands by implication more than the narrator is explicitly saying. Chaucer achieves this with the Wife so that ultimately our view of her is both ironic and more revealing than the account she gives of herself.   

The language of The Wife of Bath's Prologue 

The language of The Wife of Bath's Prologue ranges widely in its register and reference, from the bawdy to the vocabulary associated with sermons and debates, full of biblical and classical references. 

Reading a section with special attention to its vocabulary shows how different levels of language, are woven together within a short section of text to create the special language texture that is the Wife's narrative voice. 

An example of language variety

l.481 ‘I seye …', (the Wife begins to talk of her fourth husband's death and her new opportunity), to l. 542 ‘Had told to me …'

The way in which Chaucer interweaves the learned and the bawdy means that the lower level vocabulary subverts the seriousness of those words with the more elevated or learned associations:

  • ‘God', ‘Seint Joce', ‘purgatorie' (purgatory), ‘Jerusalem', and ‘rode-beem' (rood-beam) are all words which have biblical or ecclesiastical connotations and connections
  • ‘Darius' and ‘Appelles' are proper nouns denoting figures from ancient Persian history
  • Oxenford (Oxford) is a centre of learning and scholarship.

In the same section occur:

  • ‘queynte fantasye', a witty and daring play on ‘queynte' meaning strange, and ‘queynte' as the word the Wife has previously used for her vagina in l.444. Its sound suggests the Middle English ‘cunte'
  • bel chose' (pretty thing), another reference to the vagina. This time Alison adorns her biography with a little French. Traditionally, French had been the culturally dominant language of the court, so there may be some irony about the bourgeois Wife's brief excursion into French at this moment
  • grece (grease), ‘gossib' (gossip an Old English word) and ‘pissed' - all words used in domestic, everyday life. 

(See also Chaucer's language)

Investigating the language of an extract...

  • Read from line 303 (‘And yet of oure …') to l.347 (‘I wol nat wirche …')
    • Examine the range of vocabulary the Wife uses and its effect.


The language of the Wife's Prologue is very subjective. There is a high level of repetition of ‘I', ‘me' and ‘myn'. The Wife keeps relating ideas to her own experience and views. She also uses her own experience to generalise about how other wives should behave in order to get what they want. The opening sets the tone. (See Synopses and commentary section on the opening of The Prologue.)

Investigating the language weave of The Wife of Bath's Prologue as an image...

Make a diagram of the language and ideas of The Wife of Bath's Prologue based on the image of a woven fabric

  • Select the vocabulary and ideas that you see as fundamental to the Wife's idea of ‘auctoritee' (authoritative texts and clerkly attitudes) as the warp (the threads stretched along the loom as the basis for the weaving), e.g.
    • ‘virginitee' (virginity)
    • Continence
    • Eve
    • ‘Th'Apostel' (Saint Paul)
    • Add your selections to these.
  • Select the vocablulary and ideas generated from her experience and desires as the weft (the cross threads woven in by the weaver with the shuttle) e.g.
    • Experience
    • ‘bel chose'
    • ‘maistrye' (mastery)
    • ‘barley-breed' (barley bread)
    • Profit
    • ‘jolitee' (gaiety)
    • Janekyn
    • Add your selections to these.
  • What colour or combinations of colours would you use for the warp and which colour yarns would you select for the weft?
  • Would you create patterns or images in the weave?

The language of The Wife of Bath's Tale 

Chaucer makes the Wife herself a presence in the narration of the tale, but unsurprisingly, it contains far fewer references to the Wife and her views than does her Prologue:

  • ‘I', ‘me' and ‘myn' are not such prevalent words as they are in her Prologue
  • Whilst The Wife of Bath's Prologue is presented as the Wife's story, her fictional biography, the tale is not her story. 

Expectations disrupted

The Wife's tale begins as a Romance tale set in the times of King Arthour (Arthur). The language of the opening – ‘In th'olde dayes' sets up a narrative expectation that the tale will be a courtly tale. But the narrative expectation of the Romance opening is soon disrupted by the Wife's intervention in which she attacks contemporary friars.

The Wife of Bath's Tale is written with the economy of a fairy-tale (little description, brief dialogue, characters are types rather than realised as individuals) except where two significant female speakers dominate the narrative:

  • The Wife in her own voice, in first person narration, interjects her views, e.g.:
    • L. 862-881 and l.1257–1264 (her desire for husbands young and fresh in bed)
    • Her interjections through l. 931-950 (she claims women can be ‘caught' through male attentiveness and don't care much for discretion).

    • The bawdiness, so evident in The Wife of Bath's Prologue is not a significant feature of her Tale
    • The Wife (l.1074 and 1077) actually reflects on her own handling of the tale, explaining why she hasn't spoken of the celebrations on the wedding day.
  • The Old Woman who, in her dialogue with the Knight:
    • Engages in a lengthy account of the concept of ‘gentilesse'
    • Refers to Dante, Valerius, Boethius and Seneca

Learned references are not the stuff of fairy-tale.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.