I think about the Wife of Bath’s Tale a lot. I think about it when I ask my husband to fetch me a cup of tea and I lie on the sofa in state playing Mario Kart and waiting for it to arrive, and then again when I ask him to help me change the bed and he disappears for 45 minutes to do something ‘important’ and I have to do it on my own. But most of all I think about it because even now, more than ten years after I first encountered it, I still can’t make my mind up about it. I don’t know who has ‘Mastery’ over the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale, but it certainly isn’t me.
The Wife of Bath’s prologue is a kind of medieval listicle that’s a mix of half-funny half-upsetting confessional tidbits, the most terrible romantic advice you could find (including pretending to be wildly jealous of any woman your husband speaks to in order to make him feel appreciated) and some contortions with the Bible that speak to the Wife’s wilful disregard of anything an author – or indeed any other reader – might have intended or found in a text.
The Tale itself has received much attention, including this fantastic article by Carissa Harris that not only contextualises its uncomfortable relationship to rape and justice within the medieval law, but also within our understanding of restorative and community justice now. At its core is a story of redemption that it’s hard for a modern card-carrying feminist like myself to get on board with: a knight rapes a young woman, in order to save himself from execution goes off to find out what women truly want, and only at the eleventh hour runs into a hag who promises to give him the answer. This answer is ‘mastery’. What women desire more than anything is ‘mastery’ over their husbands. This answer not only spares the knight’s life, but comes in handy on his wedding-night to the hag, when in offering her ‘mastery’ he outwits her puzzle that would have him choose her either beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful, and he is rewarded by her transformation into a beautiful and obedient wife.
So far, so disappointing to this Beyoncé-loving advocate of female empowerment. But one of those things that holds me back from some of the interpretations that see this as a wish-fulfilment exercise for the wayward male is the ‘moral’ that the Wife appends to the end of her tale.
After all of this, the wife glosses her own tale with a handy little moral:
And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende
In parfit joye;-and Jesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke, yonge, fressh abedde,
And grace t’overbyde hem that we wedde;
And eek I praye Jesu shorte hir lyves
That nat wol be governed by hir wyves;
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soone verray pestilence!
So the moral that the Wife offers is this: women deserve young husbands of remarkable sexual prowess that they will be able to outlive. Men who do not obey their wives deserve to swiftly die. Anyone who nags their wife deserves the plague.
I think it’s fair to say you’d have to read The Wife of Bath’s Tale with a fairly creative eye in order to see that in there, and yet doesn’t the Hag end up with a young husband who has – at least nominally – promised her mastery? If we see the Hag as the central character (and to an extent the analogue for the Wife herself, who is older, offers advice and has married men younger than her and outlived them) then the tale becomes a lot more slippery. The Hag certainly doesn’t seem like an ideal feminist ally, but it shows the tale in a different light.
So who has mastery over the text? The Wife of Bath appreciatively describes how her husband could ‘glose’ her so well, offering up the sexual pleasure of the marriage bed as a parallel to the interpretative pleasure of reading. If wives seek mastery over their husband, do women also seek mastery over the text? Do they get it?
The Wife of Bath tells a story in which – in essence – a rapist is rewarded. But at the end she asks us to see it as one in which a wise old Hag is rewarded and in which the knight’s position is still precarious. Jesus will ‘shorte [the] lyves [of men] that nat wol be governed by hir wyves’.
Does the teller get to set the rules of interpretation? We see the Wife of Bath interpreting the Bible with the same wild and reckless creativity early on in her Prologue. She gives this assessment:
But me was toold certeyn, nat longe agoon is,
That sith that Crist ne wente never but onis
To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee,
By the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholdė wedded be but ones.
Herkne, eek, which a sharp word for the nones,
Biside a welle Jhesus, God and man,
Spak in repreeve of the Samaritan:
“Thou hast y-had fyve housbondes,” quod he,
“And that ilk man that hath now thee
Is noght thyn housbonde”; thus seyde he certeyn.
What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn;
But that I axe, why the fifthe man
Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?
How manye myghte she have in mariage?
Yet herde I never tellen, in myn age,
Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
Even the passages she chooses from the Bible are explicit here. (1) Don’t get married more than once. (2) Getting married five times is bad and Jesus has said he isn’t down with it. And yet she says ‘herde I never tellen, in myn age,/ Upon this nombre diffinicion’, that is ‘IDK no one ever told me’. Yes they did, Allison. They said just now you can only get married once. But she exerts her mastery over the text here, wilfully reading as ambiguous what is explicit.
The same contortions happen in her oft-repeated assertion:
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
That gentil text kan I wel understonde.
She seems to be saying that God recommends reproduction ergo her marriages are A-OK. However she doesn’t actually say that. She just says she can ‘wel understone’ the Bible. She doesn’t actually offer her own gloss or reading on the exhortion to ‘wexe and multiplye’. She simply states that she has mastery over the Bible: That gentil text kan I wel understonde.
I think about this a lot because Chaucer is an author who makes his presence felt. He’s a character in his own poem, he inserts himself among the Classic poets in The House of Fame. His name is everywhere in a time when most poets were still anonymous. And yet he seems, here, to be offering both the trouble and the pleasure of authorial emancipation from the text. That is to say, to show how – like the floating scraps of discourse in The House of Fame – once words are out there, we no longer control their interpretation or meaning. The power of readers and glossers to shape texts to their own wills.
I don’t think it’s mastery in marriage that is the Wife of Bath’s only concern. She – as Chaucer’s creation – teases us with our power as readers, to wilfully misinterpret, to take what we want from a text and cast the rest away. But in such a shifting interpretative environment, mastery is – of course – never possible.