Is there justice in The Wife of Bath's Tale

The crime

At the beginning of the tale the young knight commits a crime. He takes advantage of a situation in which he is unlikely to be observed to rape a young woman, using force to overcome her resistance l.883-888. 

The Knight is brought before the court

When news comes to the court of the Knight's deed, he is initially sentenced to death. However the Queen Knightpleads with her husband the King for the ladies of the court to be given the choice of saving him or not. The Knight's fate becomes the gift of the Queen who decrees that he shall be sent on a quest to discover what women most desire. The rapist is ‘punished' by the educative ordeal of the quest and the initial threat to his life, but there is no requirement to make any act of restoration to the victim of the crime who disappears from the tale. 

The worst that happens to the Knight is that he has to keep listening to women's various accounts of what they most desire and nearly ends his allotted year and a day quest with a failure to come up with a single answer which will save his life. 

The magical intervention and the Knight's reward 

The Knight is saved by the intervention of the Old Woman who gives him the answer he needs, but his salvation is gained by promising to agree to whatever the Old Woman's first request of him will be. The Knight then embarks on his second ‘punishment' – marriage to an old woman who wants him to be a proper husband to her. She presents him with a choice of having her foul, old but faithful until the end of her life, or beautiful, young and fair with the possibility that she will dishonour him.

The Knight, after much thought, gives the choice to the Old Woman; he thus concedes mastery to her. She has the sovereignty that women most desire. She is then magically transformed into a beautiful young bride which enables the Knight, a rapist, to be rewarded in the tale with a beautiful and virtuous wife. 


There remains a gap in the tale. The victim of the rape, the young girl, is merely a device of the plot. The tale is silent on her fate and on her view of the ‘justice' of the Knight's punishment and reward. 

Investigating the Young girl's silence: Creative writing

  • Read l.882-88 about the rape of the young girl. Think about her absence for the whole of the rest of the tale
    • Write two short accounts of the young girl's story:
      • In the genre of a fairy tale beginning e.g., ‘Once upon a time …..'
      • As a diary entry in the first person, you could begin, e.g., ‘I shall never forget …….'
    • Think about the significance of the powerless young girl in The Wife of Bath's Tale.
    • Note down
      • The differences between your two different versions of her account
      • The limitations and opportunities of each way of constructing the young girl's story.
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