The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

‘NOW WILL I tell you truth, by Saint Thomas

Of why I tore from out his book a leaf

For which he struck me so it made me deaf.

“He had a book that gladly, night and day

For his amusement he would read always.(5)

Called ‘Theophrastus’ and ‘Valeriou’,

At which book would he laugh uproarious

And every night and day ’twas his custom,

When he had leisure and took some vacation

From all his other worldly occupation,(10)

To read, within this book, of wicked wives.

He knew of them more legends and more lives

Than are of good wives written in the Bible.

For trust me well, it is impossible

That any cleric shall speak well of wives,(15)

Unless it be of saints and holy lives,

But naught for other women will they do.

By God, if women had but written stories,

As have these clerks within their oratories,

They would have written of men more wickedness(20)

Than all the race of Adam could redress.

Therefore no woman by a clerk is praised.

A clerk, when he is old and can naught do

Of Venus’ labours worth his worn-out shoe,

Then sits he down and writes, in his dotage,(25)

That women cannot keep vow of marriage!

“But now to tell you, as I started to,

Why I was beaten for a book, pardieu.

Upon a night Jenkin, who was our sire,

Read in his book, as he sat by the fire,(30)

Of Mother Eve who, by her wickedness,

First brought mankind to all his wretchedness

For which Lord Jesus Christ Himself was slain,

Who, with His heart’s blood, saved us thus again.

Lo, here plainly of woman may you find(35)

That woman was the ruin of mankind.

Then read he out how Samson lost his hairs

When sleeping, his mistress cut them with her shears;

And through this treason lost he either eye.

And nothing escaped him of the pain and woe(40)

That Socrates had with his spouses two;”

“Of Clytemnestra, for her lechery,

Who caused her husband’s death by treachery,

He read all thus with greatest zest, I vow.

“Of Livia and Lucia told he me,(45)

For both of them their husbands killed, you see,

The one for love, the other killed for hate;

Then did he tell how one Latumius

Complained unto his comrade Arrius

That in his garden grew a baleful tree(50)

Whereon, he said, his wives, and they were three,

Had hanged themselves for wretchedness and woe.

‘Dear brother,’ Arrius said, ‘and did they so?

Give me a graft of that same blessed tree

And in my garden planted it shall be!’(55)

Of wives of later date he also read,

How some had slain their husbands in their bed

And let their lovers shag them all the night

While corpses lay upon the floor upright.

And some had driven nails into the brain(60)

While husbands slept and in such wise were slain.

And some had given them poison in their drink.

He told more evil than the mind can think.

And therewithal he knew of more proverbs

Than in this world there grows of grass or herbs.(65)

‘Better,’ he said, ‘your habitation be

With lion wild or dragon foul,’ said he,

‘Than with a woman who will nag and chide.’

‘Better,’ he said, ‘on the housetop abide

Than with a brawling wife down in the house;(70)

Such are so wicked and contrarious

They hate the thing their husband loves, for aye.’

And when I saw he’d never make an end

Of reading in this cursed book at night,

Three leaves of it I snatched and tore outright(75)

Out of his book, right as he read; also

Upon the cheek I gave him such a blow

That in our fire he reeled and fell right down.

Then he got up as does a wild lion,

And with his fist he struck me on the head,(80)

And on the floor I lay as I were dead.

And when he saw how limp and still I lay,

He was afraid and would have run away,

Until at last out of my swoon I made:

‘Oh, have you slain me, you false thief?’ I said,(85)

‘And for my land have you thus murdered me?

Kiss me before I die, and let me be.’”

“He came to me and near me he knelt down,

And said: ‘O my dear sister Alison,

So help me God, I’ll never strike you more;(90)

What I have done, you are to blame therefor.

But all the same, forgiveness now I seek!’

And thereupon I hit him on the cheek,

And said: ‘Thief, so much vengeance do I wreak

Now will I die, I can no longer speak!’(95)

But at the last, and with much care and woe,

We made it up between ourselves. And so

He put the bridle reins within my hand

To have the governing of house and land;

And of his tongue and of his hand, also;(100)

And I made him burn his book, right then, oho!

And when I had thus gathered unto me

By mastery all sovereignty,

And he had said: ‘My own true wedded wife,

Do as you please the term of all your life;(105)

Keep your honor, and also my estate’—

After that day we never had debate.

God help me so, I was to him as kind

As any wife from Denmark unto Inde,

And also true, and so was he to me.(110)

I pray to God, that sits in majesty,

So bless his soul for all his mercy dear.

Now will I say my tale, if you will hear.”

Footnotes

  1. The burning of this book is symbolic for the end of her husband's authority. The Wife and her husband have switched roles: she now governs the lands while he dotes upon her. Alison's personal story foreshadows the story that she will tell the pilgrims. However, notice that in her personal story, she need to both use and endure violence in order to gain her authority, while the character in the story does not.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Latiumius and Arrius are stock characters from a story popular in Chacuer's time. Latiumius tells Arrius that a certain tree on his property is cursed as three of Latiumius's wives have hung themselves from it because they were wicked women. Arrius asks for a slip of the tree because he wants to plant the tree in his yard in order to test his wife.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. In ancient Roman history, Livia was the wife of Drusus. She posioned her husband after the idea had been planted in her head by Sejanus, an ambitious soldier and friend of her husband. Lucia was the wife of Lucretius, a famous Roman philosopher. She prepared a potion that she believed would make her husband love only her. Unfortunately, the potion ended up killing him.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. In ancient Greek mythology, Clytemnestra was Agamemnon's wife. Accounts of the story vary, but in every one, Clytemnestra is in some way responsible for Agamemnon's murder. In one, she kills him because he brings home a concubine from the Trojan War; in another she kills him because he sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia. In the account that the Wife seems to refer to here, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon so that she and her lover Aegisthus can take over his rule.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Samson is a character from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament who was given supernatural strength from God. His power comes from his long hair. His love for a woman named Delilah causes his downfall. Delilah allows his mortal enemies, the Philistines, to shave his head while he is sleeping, rendering his strength non-existent before a major battle. The story of Samson and Delilah is another Biblical story that Alison's husband uses to show her that women are wicked.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Venus was the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, and desire. The Wife uses Roman mythology to argue that old, impotent men paint their wives as wicked because women are unfaithful when their husbands can no longer perform "Venus's labors," or sexual intercourse. The "vow of marriage" was traditionally thought of as a vow of fidelity between a man and his wife. However, with this statement, the Wife seems to be suggesting that the "vow of marriage" is physical intimacy. Rather than women being the unfaithful ones when they search for intimacy outside the marriage, she argues that men break the vow when they become old and cannot please their wives.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Here the Wife demonstrates the importance of perspective in shaping a narrative. She notices that because stories about women are written by men, women are perceived as wicked. In this acknowledgement, the Wife denies that women are by nature evil or deceitful. This acknowledgement is interesting coming from a female character written by Chaucer, a male author. It highlights the theme of perspective and its ability to shape a narrative, which is prevalent throughout Chaucer's *Canterbury Tales*

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Theophrastus was an ancient Greek philosopher who took over the Peripatetic school after Aristotle. Valeriou was his wife. The book that her husband reads to her is about the most deceitful wives that great men have had throughout history. Notice that he is reading a book written by a man about women's nature in order to educate her about her own nature. This could suggest that the Wife's relationship serves as a critique of the gender politics of Chaucer's time.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. "Leaf" in this context means a page within a book. Alison, the Wife of Bath, is talking about tearing a page out of a book that her husband owns. Metaphorically, this signifies that she is challenging his authority, since in Chaucer's time men controlled learning and women were generally illiterate. To punish her, the Wife's husband hits her in the ear and causes her to go deaf.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. In Catholicism, Saint Thomas the Apostle was one of Jesus's 12 Apostles. He initially doubted that Christ had been resurrected after his crucifixion. After making a confession of faith Thomas witnessed Jesus's body and was reaffirmed in his belief. This caused him to travel as far as India preaching the gospel and baptizing converts.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor