Debate, dispute and resolution in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The Wife of Bath's Prologue

The essence of any plot is conflict and there is plenty of it in The Wife of Bath's Prologue. The Wife is in conflict with both texts and husbands. She can resolve her conflicts with texts because the texts can't reply, and move on with her discourse confident that she has won her point by making it. The husbands present a different obstacle to the Wife, although a related one, because some of them use texts as weapons against her. 

The Wife's victories

The arguments with the first three old husbands, who are treated collectively, are resolved by the Wife's victory over them. She employs a sustained programme of grinding down their attempts to restrict and control her, but her ultimate victory is the triumph of her youth over their age and death (see Synopses and commentary > Part five; Part six; Part seven; Part eight for lines 193 – 452).

The Wife's fourth husband presented her with more of a challenge. He took a lover and the Wife set out to torment him but the final resolution of their conflict came with his removal in a coffin. She engages in a little conventional grief, before catching sight of Jankin's legs following the bier (see Synopses and commentary > Part twelve for lines 587 – 599).

Jankin and his ‘authorities' 

The Wife's fifth husband Jankin, the clerk, preached to her citing a wide range of sources as authorities on wicked wives. These sources range from classical, to Judaic and Christian. They include ancient Roman and Greek stories, biblical references and stories from the Old Testament, and from the writings of St Jerome, Tertullian, and Trotula. 

This massive weight of authority is directed against women and their behaviour. Most of Jankin's examples seem to have come from his compendium of wicked wives. In defence, the Wife makes her much quoted ‘who peynted the leon…' (who painted the lion) point. Men have written the books and given their account of women; clerks will never give accounts of good women unless they are writing about saints, she claims. She adds that if women had written of men they would find more wickedness than any man who ever lived could redress. 

The dispute with the fifth husband is partly resolved by violence. The Wife recalls how she tore three pages out of his book and knocked him backward into the fire. He then gave her the blow in the head that made her deaf, but was aghast when he saw her unmoving on the floor. Quick to take advantage, the Wife accuses him of trying to murder her for her land. He begs forgiveness and they live happily together for not quite ever after. 

It seems that the dispute between is then finally resolved through mutual need. He concedes ‘soverayntee' (supremacy) to the Wife and she agrees to behave honourably towards him. She claims to have been kind to him. She thinks of him fondly, probably because he is now dead, although the Wife is not quite clear here. She refers to her time with him as in the past but does not actually make reference to his death.

Dispute and resolution in The Wife of Bath's Tale

In The Wife of Bath's Tale the dispute between the Knight and the Old woman is resolved. Their competing desires are reconciled by the magical transformation which allows the Old Woman to be a fair, young bride, l.1250-6, and produces a consensual marriage. (See Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century). 

In the course of the tale the Old Woman introduces a debate about the definition of gentilesse. Her sustained argument brings it to a resolution that has implications for the Knight and his behaviour. ‘Gentilesse' in Middle English can mean nobility of birth or rank, as well as gracious, kind, gentle or generous behaviour. The Old Woman argues for a meaning of ‘gentilesse' which would give her nobility of character through her gracious or generous deeds. She may be of low birth but she hopes through God's grace to act with nobility. 

She defines ‘gentilesse' as being something which cannot be passed down by inheritance. This is especially poignant since the Knight, who regards himself as her social superior, has committed a most ignoble act. (See Synopses and commentary > Part twenty-three for lines 1109 - 1176)

One aspect of the plot remains unresolved. The Knight's violent act against the young girl is dealt with through an attainable quest which allows capital punishment or further violence to be avoided. However, the violated woman disappears from the tale and there is no apparent action to ameliorate her situation. She is a device of the tale.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.