Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Wife of Bath’s Tale


In the magical days when England was ruled by King Arthur, a young Knight was riding home when he saw a beautiful young maiden walking all alone in the woods and raped her.

This outrageous act created a great stir and King Arthur was petitioned for justice. The Knight was condemned to death according to the law and would have been beheaded if the queen had not mediated on his behalf. After many pleas for mercy King Arthur finally told the queen to decide the Knight’s fate. The queen then told the Knight to answer the question what women desire the most in order to save his life. She also gave him a time period of one year to find an answer and appear before her.

Seeing no other solution the Knight decided to go in search of the answer. He visited every house and every spot in the country but couldn’t find any two people who agreed on the subject. Some women loved riches and wealth while others loved fine clothes. There were yet others who claimed that they best loved flattery and attentiveness. There were still others who took great delight at being considered as dependable and discreet. In short everybody held a different opinion.

The one-year granted to the Knight eventually drew to an end but he had still not found an answer. He rode back home with a heavy heart. On his way he happened to catch a glimpse of twenty-four ladies dancing but they miraculously disappeared when he reached the spot. There was nobody in sight except for an extremely ugly old woman. She asked the Knight, what he was looking for, as she might be able to help him since old women know plenty of things. The Knight explained his predicament. The old woman said that if he would pledge to do the first thing that she required of him then she would give him the correct answer before the night. The Knight promised to grant her a wish and they rode for the Court.

The Knight proclaimed that he had found the answer and told the entire court that women most desire to have mastery over their husbands and their lovers. None of the women assembled in the court could contradict the Knight and the queen spared his life. Thereupon the old woman sprang up and told the queen that she had taught the answer to the Knight in exchange for a wish. She now demands, that the Knight marry her and fulfill her wish. The Knight pleads with her to ask for something else but the old hag refuses to reconsider. Ultimately the Knight realizes that he has to marry her.

The Knight married her secretly in the morning. When he went to bed with her he kept tossing and turning while she lay beside him. She reprimanded the Knight and asked him whether this behavior was customary among Knights who marry. The Knight couldn’t bear his misery any longer and replied that her hideousness, low birth and old age were the causes of his unease and distress. The old woman replied that she could rectify these things within three days provided he behaved courteously. She then proceeded to reprimand the Knight for his affectations. Gentility doesn’t come with noble birth but with good acts and a virtuous way of life. Only noble deeds determine gentility. As regards poverty, Christ himself willingly chose a life of poverty. She says that poverty is a hated boon and a great enhancer of wisdom. She then tells him that old age should always be respected. As regarding her loathsome appearance she tells the Knight that now he need not fear about being deceived. Old age and ugliness are in fact the best guards for protecting chastity. She then asks him whether he would prefer her ugly and faithful or beautiful and faithless.

The Knight thinks for a moment and sighs that she may make the choice in their best interests. Delighted that she has gained "maistre" or sovereignty over him, she asks the Knight to kiss her. To the Knight’s utter joy she becomes young and beautiful. They live in perfect joy and harmony and she remained faithful to him at all times.


The Wife of Bath’s Tale continues the theme of sovereignty of women that she had dealt with in her Prologue. It also focuses on the issue of what constitutes a proper marital relationship. The tale is thus rich in meaning. The source of the tale can be traced to Jean de Meun’s "Roman de la Rose".

The protagonist of the tale is a Knight who has raped an innocent country girl. As punishment for his heinous crime he has to find out the answer to the question: what women desire the most. The Knight roams the entire country in search of the answer in vain. Suddenly he meets an old hag who gives him the answer: women most enjoy dominating their husbands. The Knight wins his pardon by giving the right answer in court. The old hag claims her share since she has told the Knight the correct answer and forces him to marry her. The old hag then presents him with the choice of having her old, ugly and faithful or beautiful and disloyal. The Knight allows the hag to make the choice herself. She is delighted to have won ‘maistrie’ and rewards the Knight by being both beautiful and faithful all the time. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is thus an appeal for the liberation of women. In the medieval age women were supposed to be subservient and expected to love, honor and obey their husbands. The Wife of Bath’s assertion that women should have ‘maistrie’ in marriage amounts to an apostasy.

Chaucer has portrayed a real woman in the Wife of Bath. She is not free from faults. Chaucer satirizes the frailties of women through her character. While she is a sinner, she does not earn our reprimand. She has had numerous affairs in her youth. She has flirted with Jankin while still married to her fourth husband. At her fourth husband’s funeral, she was less filled with grief and more occupied in taking notice of Jankin’s fine legs and resolving to marry him despite the vast gap in their ages. She is guilty of adultery but frankly acknowledges it. Chaucer does not pass any judgements on her and even asks the reader to have sympathy for her. Whether Chaucer sympathizes with her opinion on marriage and celibacy is not clear. But one thing is apparent that he did not agree with the existing ideas of celibacy of his times.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is an exemplum, which is a story told to illustrate a strongly held opinion. It presses home the point that women most desire sovereignty in marriage.

The Tale may also be read as a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which an old crone gets transformed into a beautiful lady, acquires a handsome Knight for a husband and leads a happy life. It has all the ingredients of a fairy tale. Some critics suggest that the old hag wasn’t literally transformed into a beauty but only acquired beauty of character.

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