Wife of Bath's Prologue - Annotatations
1 "Experience, though noon auctoritee
"Experience, though no written authority
2 Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
Were in this world, is good enough for me
3 To speke of wo that is in mariage;
To speak of the woe that is in marriage;
4 For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
For, gentlemen, since I was twelve years of age,
5 Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Thanked be God who is eternally alive,
6 Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve --
I have had five husbands at the church door –
At the very beginning, the Wife establishes a pattern of opposition between experience and ‘auctoritee' (authority). The Wife does not begin with any modest reservation about her ability to tell a good tale or her concern to please the listeners. (By contrast, the courteous Frankeleyn (Franklin) apologises in the short prologue to his tale for his plain speech. He then delivers a rather elegant tale about a marriage threatened by a rash promise.) Instead she launches in with an abrupt direct statement about her competence to speak about marriage. The Wife claims that ‘wo' in marriage is her main theme and it is not until we have listened to more of her prologue that we come to understand the irony of the use of the word ‘wo'. Initially we might well assume that the ‘wo' is mainly the pain that she has endured, but we come to learn that most of the ‘wo' is the pain that she has inflicted. The Wife claims to have been married at twelve, which was the youngest age at which a female could make a valid marriage. She has been legitimately married five times.
9 But me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is,
But to me it was told, certainly, it is not long ago,
10 That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
That since Christ went never but once
11 To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee,
To a wedding, in the Cana of Galilee,
12 That by the same ensample taughte he me
That by that same example he taught me
13 That I ne sholde wedded be but ones.
As the Wife speaks, the nature of the opposition she professes between her experience and male authority is made evident. She does not dismiss the Bible outright but questions it and claims her right to interpret it for herself. The number of times that the Wife might be legitimately married now becomes her concern. She could legally be married several times, providing that after each marriage she was a widow. Behind the Wife's comments lurks the awareness that widows were sometimes regarded with unease. St Paul in 1 Timothy 5:13 had highlighted their potential moral frailty, and questioned their suitability for remarriage, seeing some as idle, tattling women with nothing to do but wander from house to house. These are charges which could be held against Chaucer's fictional Wife! The Wedding at Cana is recounted in the New Testament, John 2:1-11. At the wedding, Jesus, prompted by his mother, turned water into wine to satisfy the wedding party when the original supply had run out. The Wife relates the ‘authoritative' comment that she heard on this passage, which has no logical validity. Performing a miracle at only one wedding is no proof that Christ either approved or disapproved of more than one marriage. On the face of it the Wife has simply exposed the illogical interpretation to the listeners. The Wife seems to be taking on an ‘authority' on its own terms and winning the point.
24 Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
I never yet heard tell in my lifetime
25 Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
A definition of this number.
26 Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
Men may conjecture and interpret in every way,
27 But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
But well I know, expressly, without lie,
28 God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
God commanded us to grow fruitful and multiply;
Medieval clerics were not expected to be original in their thinking about the scriptures but to study the ideas of other authorities (hence the importance of ‘auctoritee'). These were often produced as textual notes or glosses (‘glosen') in manuals about the teaching of scripture. Although the immediate concern is the ‘nombre diffinicioun’, the Wife makes an interesting contention. The authority of the scriptures depends to a large extent on what ‘Men may devyne and glosen.’ Hence, she reserves her own right to interpretation. Not surprisingly, the Wife prefers God's repeated command to mankind to marry (Genesis 2:24) and procreate in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:28, Genesis 9:1, Genesis 9:7).
Th' apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
The apostle, when he speaks of maidenhood,
65 He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon.
He said that he had no precept concerning it.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
Men may advise a woman to be one,
67 But conseillyng is no comandement.
But advice is no commandment.
68 He putte it in oure owene juggement;
He left it to our own judgment;
The Wife again refers to Paul's teaching on marriage, and quotes that this was his advice rather than a command 1 Corinthians 7:12 – except that by then he has gone on to talk about separation from non believers, not about the virtue of virginity. This again confirms that the Wife is not at all authentic in her reference and interpretation of scriptures. She has mastered the habit of which a section of the friars and monks were notorious in the medieval era. And Chaucer’s butt of satire is targeted against the clerical order, rather than the Wife herself. What really radical is her next line of argument. Preferring one's own judgments on scriptural or moral matters might well resonate with the Wife's listeners. They would be aware of the challenge to the Church presented by Wyclif, his call for reforms and his English translation of the Bible. This meant that ordinary people could understand it for themselves, rather than relying on what they were told about the Latin Bible by a priest.
142 I nyl envye no virginitee.
I will envy no virginity.
143 Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,
Let them be bread of pure wheat-seed,
144 And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed;
And let us wives be called barley-bread;
145 And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan,
And yet with barley-bread, Mark can tell it,
146 Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man.
The need to exercise a little caution briefly overcomes the Wife and she praises Christ and the saints for their virginity, but she quickly returns to her main theme of self-advertisement. The Wife now alludes to Paul's teaching about the merits of virginity, from the same chapter of Corinthians as previously 1 Corinthians 7:25-35. The Wife distinguishes between fine wheat bread and coarse barley bread, and unsurprisingly identifies herself with the stronger tasting, more filling loaf. The Wife's willingness to compare her own form of generosity with Christ's miracle must have seemed audacious. She refers to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, in which Jesus fed over 5000 people with the contents of one boy's packed lunch is recorded in all four of the gospels (eg John 6:5-13, Luke 9:12-17).