Anti-Clericalism and the Problem of Authority in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue
By April Joyner
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue presents a perspective on “auctoritee,” or authority, that challenges that offered by the other, mostly male pilgrims’ tales. Critics debate whether or not the Wife of Bath finds success in embodying an antithetical persona to the anti-feminist doctrines widely espoused in Chaucer’s era and thus in challenging the anti-feminism of the other pilgrims. Yet, given Chaucer’s avoidance of moral absolutism, reading the Wife of Bath’s character at face value cannot fully answer such a question. Instead, critics have compared the precursors to The Canterbury Tales along with social and religious principles of the era against the tales themselves to glean further meaning from the tales, if not possibly to suggest Chaucer’s own perspective on the social and religious issues surrounding them. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue particularly renders this procedure both instructive and fascinating because the Wife of Bath acts as interpreter to texts of her era, just as Chaucer often modified preexisting tales to incorporate into his own work.
The opening of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, in fact, marks the whole as a discourse on authority and experience; in essence, who wields the power and responsibility of interpretation. Much analysis of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue has divided this analysis along gender lines: male reading versus female reading of texts. Indeed, the issue of male versus female interpretations rests at the core of Carolyn Dinshaw’s analysis of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in her book Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. While examining the feminist implications of the Wife of Bath’s interpretations in the Prologue, however, Dinshaw does not consider the more immediate implication of the Wife of Bath’s textual interpretation, for the textual passages at the center of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue include not only secondary antifeminist sources but also, and foremost, the Bible, the primary source of authority itself. Because the Wife of Bath interprets the Bible herself, she takes on a role usually reserved for clerical figures and in turn adopts their interpretive techniques. Her occupation of this role and application of clerical interpretive techniques, however, results in unorthodox interpretations that run counter to the views held by the usual clerical authorities: the authors of the antifeminist sources whose ideas she rejects. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue thus can be seen not only as a challenge to anti-feminism but also to clericalism. Through her manipulation of interpretation and resultant unsettling interpretations of the Bible, the Wife of Bath not only argues against traditional doctrine but also questions the notion of authority as a whole.
The middle of the Wife of Bath’s challenge to authority provides a blueprint of her interpretive strategies. The Wife of Bath uses Biblical passages to support her primary argument that successive marriages are permissible. Although her interpretation of the Bible seems self-serving—it foreshadows her later desire for “maistrye” over her husbands—what is compelling about her selection is not the passages and direct interpretations themselves but their response to previous anti-feminist interpretations. In fact, the core of the Wife of Bath’s argument for marriage consists of a revision of anti-feminist arguments. Much of her Biblical references stem not only from the original verses but also St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, as Robert Longsworth points out in his analysis of the Prologue’s Biblical references (374-375). One of the Wife of Bath’s main revisions to St. Jerome concerns the first part of her argument for marriage: that virginity is an ideal rather than a commandment. She supports this claim with the following paraphrase from St. Paul: “He seith that to be wedded is no synne; / Bet is to be wedded than to brynne” (WB 51-52). In the same chapter of Paul, however, is the observation that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (Paul 7:1), which St. Jerome used as the basis of his argument for virginity (Longsworth 381). Thus, just as St. Jerome picked and chose certain extracts to lead to one conclusion, the Wife of Bath selects others to lead in the opposite direction. This process of deliberate selection and revision characterizes the Wife of Bath’s treatment of Biblical passages throughout the first part of the Prologue. As she illuminates alternate readings of a single text, she calls into question long-standing interpretations. At the same time, however, her manipulation casts into doubt her own arguments. By incorporating untrustworthy techniques into her arguments, she inherently taints them, even as she illuminates the problems of others’ arguments.
The first Biblical reference that the Wife of Bath incorporates into her prologue is not actually her own. Although her literacy level may play a role in this reliance upon interpretation rather than actual text, her decision to begin with Biblical interpretation immediately after her discussion of experience and authority calls attention to the arbitrariness of interpretation. Her first reference exposes the flawed logic of one interpreter: “But me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is, / That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis / To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee, / That by the same ensample taughte he me / That I ne sholde wedded be but ones” (9-13). First, the transition into this reference exposes its anecdotal nature; someone unknown, for the Wife of Bath does not specify the source, gives her this interpretation. This anonymity sheds doubt upon its credibility, for it pales in supposed authority to statements prefaced by phrases such as “God bad us” (28). Apart from the source’s anonymity, the reference itself does not contain persuasive logic. The conclusion that one should only marry once does not account for the leap from Jesus’ wedding attendance to one’s wedding participation, even accounting for a figurative reading of the passage (in which Jesus’ actions represent mankind’s proper actions).
The central problem of the Wife of Bath’s cited interpretation hinges upon its distortion of the actual text, which the Wife of Bath later exploits herself to demonstrate the lack of authority in interpretation. Robert Longsworth’s analysis of the prescription upon marriage highlights this prominent fault of interpretation. He notes several problems with the argument for single marriage, including social and legal principles of the period, which permitted successive marriages, the possibility of other marriages Jesus attended that are not recorded in the Bible, and the purpose of the Biblical passage in question, which goes on to describe one of Jesus’ miracles, not to prescribe marriage laws (374). Of these observations, most compelling is the last one, that the Biblical passage in question, in which Jesus incidentally attends a wedding, does not expound upon marriage prescriptions but describes Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine. To use this passage to prescribe a set number of marriages thus grossly misrepresents it by applying figurative interpretation to secondary details.
The Wife of Bath’s own first Biblical interpretation, of the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at a well, copies this technique of misrepresentation. As does the unnamed source in the passage immediately preceding hers, she focuses exclusively upon the detail of marriage:
What that he mente thereby, I kan nat seyn;
But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?
How many myghte she have in mariage?
Yet herde I never tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun. (20-25)
The account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, like the previously referenced Biblical passage, does not prescribe a specific number of marriages; rather, it illustrates Jesus’ ability to prophecy as well as to lead the Samaritan woman, once her sin is exposed, to redemption. Yet, like the unknown source of the previous interpretation, the Wife of Bath only inquires about the number of husbands the Samaritan woman had. Two lines of the passage indicate the Wife of Bath’s recognition of her mimicry and the distortion it lends to the passage. After she paraphrases Jesus’ words, she comments, “What that he mente thereby, I kan nat seyn” (20). Although seemingly ignorant of the meaning of Jesus’ words, she nonetheless implies that a deeper understanding lies beneath the surface. This deeper understanding relates to Jesus’ ability to prophecy and to detect sin, but the Wife of Bath ignores this “meaning” and moves on to illustrate her point: the arbitrariness of marriage proscriptions. The last two lines of the passage, “Yet herde I never tellen in myn age / Upon this nombre diffinicioun” (24-25), illustrate this arbitrariness. That no one has determined the exact number of the Samaritan woman’s husbands illustrates its minor role in the message of the narrative. The Wife of Bath’s own observation, then, exposes her distortion of the passage. Furthermore, it demonstrates the problem of extracting marriage proscriptions from the passage, for no exact number is given. Thus, like her previous interpreter, the Wife of Bath commits a fallacy of interpretation by trying to read irrelevant Biblical passages as marriage tracts, but she demonstrates an awareness of this arbitrariness, thereby mocking her predecessor.
After exposing the problems of others’ interpretations through the distortion of selected Biblical passages’ underlying meaning, however, the Wife of Bath goes on to commit the same fallacies in her arbitrary selection of texts. In fact, she does so immediately after she illustrates the problem of interpretation in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Unlike the previous distortions of Biblical passages, however, this interpretation relies upon a wholly textual base: “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye; That gentil text kan I wel understonde” (28-29). The Wife of Bath uses this solitary verse to justify her multiple marriages, for she understands marriage to be the source of generation (rather than out-of-wedlock births, which actually renders her argument slightly more sympathetic). She conveniently ignores the source of the verse and fails to provide context; in fact, just as past Biblical references have fallen outside the topical scope of marriage, so does this verse from Genesis. But while the past references involve misrepresentations through figurative liberties, the Wife of Bath misrepresents through omission.
Despite their submission to the same interpretive fallacies that plague their predecessors, the Wife of Bath’s omissions ultimately legitimize her feminist, pro-marriage arguments as potentially tenable alongside long-standing anti-feminist, virginity tracts. This effect results most notably in her discussion of the marriage debt. While the original verses of St. Paul described the marriage debt as a mutual obligation for both husbands and wives, the Wife of Bath eliminates this mutuality: “I have the power durynge al my lyf / Upon his proper body, and noght he. Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me, / And bad oure housbondes for to love us weel” (158-161). The Wife of Bath achieves this one-sided portrayal of the marriage debt through partial omission of the verse, 1 Corinthians 7:4, which states that “the wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife” (King James Version, emphasis added). Her omission thus attributes more power over the body to the wife than originally specified. This misinterpretation, however, stands in contrast to the many tracts that deny women control of their bodies, let alone the power to gain pleasure from them. The Wife of Bath’s entire character marks an exception to this anti-feminist paradigm, for she, unlike the female characters of previous tales (notably Emelye of the Knight’s Tale and Constance of the Man of Law’s Tale), exerts control over her married fate as well as her physical body, refusing to resign herself to chauvinism (as does Emelye in the knights’ unsanctioned battle to win her) or masochism (as does Constance in her sequence of trials without complaint). Thus, as past tales have altered the equilibrium of St. Paul’s writings in men’s favor, the Wife of Bath has shifted it once more in women’s favor. Again, as in other instances of misinterpretation, the Wife of Bath demonstrates her knowledge of the tricks of conventional authority and uses them to undermine their trustworthiness.
Another of the Wife of Bath’s misinterpretations, though a seeming logical non sequitur, actually supports her central position on marriage and virginity through its clever manipulation of previous interpretive techniques. After she declares her satisfaction and pleasure in being a married non-virgin, the Wife of Bath uses the story of one of Jesus’ miracles to justify her point of view: “Lat hem [virgins] be breed of pured whete-seed, / And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed; And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan, / Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man” (143-146). This passage, as with previous examples, has no immediate relevance to the ideas of marriage and virginity; only excessively liberal interpretation seems to link the passage and ideas. The Wife of Bath’s decision to portray wives as “barly-breed,” in particular, places doubt upon the credibility of her conclusion, for such a characterization seems arbitrarily chosen for the sole purpose of matching the “barly-breed” Jesus serves to the crowd of five thousand in Mark. Her portrayal, however, proves a useful metaphor. Her bread analogy places women in two groups, the “pured whete-seed” virgins and the “barly-breed” wives. Though one type of bread may seem appealing to a consumer over the other, the Wife of Bath positions both types as equally nourishing. The reference to Jesus’ miracle reinforces this idea through the observation that “with barly-breed… / Oure Lord Jhesu refreshed many a man.” The suitability of the barley bread as sustenance transfers to the notion of wives as godly women. Although virginity, like white bread, remains the ideal, wifehood, like barley bread, is an acceptable alternative, according to both the Wife of Bath’s argument and analogy. Far from aimlessly incorporating random verses into her argument, the Wife of Bath uses figurative interpretation to complement her textual support for her argument.
The Wife of Bath’s privileging of figurative interpretation, however, stands contrary to her earlier rejection of figurative readings in her mockery of her first cited Biblical passage. This tension results from the fact that no text can escape interpretation. Lesley Lawton acknowledges this condition in her ironic observations that “the Wife, a sceptic about glossators, was herself the subject of glossators” and that “everything the Wife leaves out is systematic reinserted and thus her definitions become subject anew to masculine redefinition” (163, 164). As a character composed of text, the Wife of Bath inevitably faces interpretation, as both Lawton as well as Dinshaw in Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics recognize. Just as the Wife of Bath revises previous religious treatises and reveals their trappings, the reader, equipped with standard Biblical knowledge, can identify the Wife of Bath’s own textual manipulations. But, the Wife of Bath engages in her own interpretations long before such secondary oversight even takes place. She references Biblical passages not by quoting them directly but by either paraphrasing them or citing others’ interpretations. Both types of incorporation involve preliminary interpretations. Others’ interpretations already include a degree of bias, which is compounded by the Wife of Bath’s own, and even her paraphrases contain the assumption of accuracy as a prelude to her arguments. The Wife of Bath’s challenge to authority thus serves as an overall critique of authority, for the reading of the Prologue compounds interpretation upon interpretation, muddying the reliability of each argument as it stacks upon another. While the Wife of Bath reveals the problem of St. Jerome’s argument, the reader and the glossator reveal the problem of hers.
Alcuin Blamires’ exploration of Lollardy in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue sheds light upon this compounded challenge to authority. Blamires prefaces his analysis by acknowledging several qualities of the Wife of Bath that undermine her as a Lollard. Nonetheless, he presents several observations that link her to Lollardy, including her adherence to direct Biblical text. This insistence is signaled by her use of the word “expres” (Blamires 226). Although Blamires concentrates upon the similarity between “expres” in the Prologue and its appearance in Lollard texts, even more significant are the contexts in which both early instances of “expres” appear in the Prologue. The first instance occurs in her faulty reference to Genesis to support sexual activity: “Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun, / But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye, / God bad us for to wexe and multiplye” (WB 26-28). Even though she pulls her Biblical reference out of context, she insists upon the “expres,” or clear, nature of the text. Her distortion of the text, however, proves that her argument is not “expres” after all. Ironically, the Wife of Bath accounts for this circumstance herself in the observation that “men may devyne and glosen, up and doun.” Although she presents this line in contrast to her own arguments, ultimately it includes her own Biblical interpretation. The second instance of “expres” reveals this nature of the Wife of Bath’s arguments. In it, she questions challenges to marriage: “Wher can ye seye, in any manere age, / That hye God defended mariage / By expres word?” (59-61). She finds support for her argument not by the presence of a statement confirming her position but by the absence of one opposing her position. Her argument thus contains a logical flaw, for it assumes that not to forbid a behavior implies its acceptance. While on the surface, the Wife of Bath insists upon the “expres” urgings of the Bible, she proceeds with her arguments despite not having “expres” support but an ambiguous absence. Her interpretation of that absence, not the explicit wording of an existent statement, provides the basis for what follows. Thus, she engages in the “glosing” of omissions despite her Lollard-like opposition to “glosing,” demonstrating the inability to escape interpretation.
At the end of the Wife of Bath’s challenge to authority through Biblical interpretation, the beginning of her prologue actually provides the best means of establishing her position in relation to authority. The first three lines of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue pit the entities of “experience” and “auctoritee” against one another: “Experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me / To speke of wo that is in mariage" (WB 1-3). This opening statement indicates the Wife of Bath’s preference for experience over authority, for she asserts that experience “is right ynogh” for her to expound upon her tale. Furthermore, the Wife of Bath denounces outright the existence of true authority: “though noon auctoritee / Were in this world” (1-2). By doing so, she positions herself as one giving a mere opinion on the “wo that is in marriage,” using experience to support her claim rather than feigned authority. This disclaimer in turn introduces mistrust of those who claim authority, thereby contrasting in their arrogance with the Wife of Bath’s acknowledged humility. Although the Wife of Bath goes on to undermine this acknowledgment by trying to impose her radical views upon Biblical text, this opening illustrates the impossibility of absolute authority. It thus serves as a prelude to the subsequent layering of interpretations, which as it proves one argument insufficient, opens itself to further scrutiny.
As the Wife of Bath successfully challenges the arguments of anti-feminist clerics, she undermines her own arguments by using similar manipulative techniques of interpreting the Bible. She thus fails to convert her audience fully to her point of view. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue thus serves not as a treatise for or against feminism or any of the views expressed by the Wife of Bath but as an alternative to the more conservative philosophies outlined by the previous tales. Although the Prologue, through its layering of interpretations, contains a strong argument against the absolutism of clerical authority, this position only complements Chaucer’s avoidance of overall didactics. By revealing the complications of authority of interpretation, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue makes itself available to multiple interpretations, as do the rest of Chaucer’s seemingly moralistic tales. Ultimately, the Prologue, in line with Chaucer’s other works, complicates the effort to determine the socio-political leanings of its underlying voice, denying any claims to contextual authority of its interpreters.
Blamires, Alcuin. “The Wife of Bath and Lollardy.” Medium Ævum 58:2 (1989): 224-242.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Complete. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Lawton, Lesley. “‘Glose Whoso Wole’: Voice, Text, and Authority in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales. Ed. Wendy Harding. Toulouse, France: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003. 157-174.
Longsworth, Robert. “The Wife of Bath and the Samaritan Woman.” The Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism 34:4 (2000): 372-387. Project Muse. Johns Hopkins University. Yale University Library, New Haven, CT.
© April Joyner