Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Alisoun (Alyson, Alys) is one of the most well-known characters in The Canterbury Tales, and her tale, one of the most studied. One of the themes of Wife’s tale — a man desperately seeking knowledge of what women really want — likely plays heavily into its popularity. Men have been trying to figure that out since the dawn of time. But though Alisoun herself has much to say on the subject of men and women and marriage, it is not she who delivers the jewel of the answer, it is her character, the fairy.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a romance wherein the lady rescues a knight rather than the norm of the hapless damsel in distress. This, for a fourteenth century text, makes it unusual. But what is particularly fascinating about the tale is where its credibility lies: not with female character telling the story (though she is certainly strong enough), but with the fairy character within the story’s story. Woman gets little credibility: Chaucer has Alisoun suffer being countered by her traveling companions. But in her tale, the fairy is wholly believed, instantly and completely… and twice.
This is the late fourteenth century, of course, and if studying it, we must think contemporaneously. Women had few rights and fewer areas where their opinion mattered or was even consulted. Yet Chaucer makes the Wife of Bath one of the most fleshed-out characters in his magnum opus. And over 700 years later, we are finding her one of the strongest female characters in literature. Books critic Emily Temple places the Wife of Bath as the third of the 10 of the Most Powerful Female Characters in Literature earlier this year on Flavorwire, but it’s clear she is talking about both Alisoun and her character the fairy:
The Wife of Bath is lewd and lascivious — but behind all the dirty jokes, she’s making an argument for female dominance and a woman’s right to control her body, using her considerable rhetorical skill to simultaneously underscore and attack the anti-feminist traditions of the time. Not too shabby for 14th century literature.
Alisoun’s “considerable rhetorical skill” lay both in her fairy character, as well as in her own words, for she actually tells two tales: the fairy-tale and her own story, which is delivered through her prologue. The Wife of Bath’s Tale includes both parts, and her prologue (not to be confused with Chaucer’s General Prologue) is twice as long as her Tale. But without her prologue we don’t know enough about Alisoun to place weight behind her fairy’s delivery of the tale’s message, which is that women want sovereignty over their husbands as well as their love. Liberally adapted for modern terms/situations, it is: love me, but listen to what I say and treat what I want as valid — I am as much in this marriage as you are.
That Alisoun has been married five times makes her, if not an expert in marriage, at least very experienced with it. But she is still a woman, and therefore could not possibly advise men. Even the hag in the tale is treated suspect at the outset, except that it is clear that she is not as she seems — the 24-plus disappearing dancing maidens preceding her entrance into the tale give us that clue. She’s clearly a fairy. Alisoun has even let us know at the beginning of her Tale that fairies will figure heavily into it:
In th’ olde dayes of the kyng arthour,
Of which that britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo,
Middle English (above) | Modern English (below): e-text from About.com
Now in the olden days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
I speak of many hundred years ago;
But now no man can see the elves, you know.
Alisoun is clearly intelligent and learned (despite how Chaucer dresses her: ostentatious rather than elegant). Though she speaks lasciviously and lowly for her time, her fairy-character brings up both Renaissance’s Dante and Rome’s Seneca in making her final point, and one did not make connective references like that in the reign of Richard II without being literate and somewhat studied. And in the end of the tale, well after her fairy gives the knight the words by which to describe what women want (words with which he frees himself from Queen Guinevere’s looming death sentence, but nevertheless, does not truly understand), the fairy-still-as-hag claims him as her husband. The punch of the story follows when the fairy then calls him on his lack of enthusiasm in the marriage bed (beautifully illustrated below in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones‘s wood engraving, 1896), and the knight replies by condemning her as ugly, old, and of low birth.
The fairy-hag gives him a dressing down, explaining that virtue is not dependent upon wealth, her age should earn his respect, and her ugliness will save him from becoming a cuckold. By the time she gives her husband the choice of old and ugly but faithful, or young and beautiful but suspect, he is listening and has decided that he will learn from her. Yet, this was the fourteenth century, a time when men were expected to chastise women regularly in order to keep them in line. Moreover, the story was taking place in the sixth century or thereabouts, an even worse time for women’s credibility. Men were thought to be actively upsetting the balance of what the church dictated if they gave power to their wives. No woman would have had that kind of sway over her husband.
And yet, in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, the husband learns from his fairy wife’s logic, and with that, everyone wins: the knight is rewarded* with the fairy-hag transforming into a young beauty who will remain loyal, and the fairy, now a beauty, gets her sovereignty in her marriage (and the Wife of Bath herself gets the last word**).
But in essence, the fairy’s words have already been said by Alisoun herself in her prologue when describing her own marriages: It was control over her position within her marriage that she strove to ensure, a state gained only by outright control of her husband’s since a modern understanding of a 50/50 partnership was unheard of in Chaucer’s time. It was an all or nothing era.
But the fairy, being magical, apparently does not emasculate a man the same way a woman would, and can therefore tell him how little he knows about being a man with a woman. A woman saying such gets called less-than-pretty names. But a fairy…she gets away with it. More to the point, however, as a narrator, Alisoun gets away with it, too.
*The knight is rewarded thusly, despite starting the tale as a rapist, but that is for a different study.
**Alisoun’s last word:
In perfect joy; and Jesus to us send
Meek husbands, and young ones, and freh in bed,
And good luck to outlive them that we wed.
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who’ll not be governed by their wives;
And old and querulous misers with their pence,
And send them soon a mortal pestilence!