The Strong Wife of Bath
Alison of Bath as a battered wife may seem all wrong, but her fifth husband, Jankyn, did torment her and knock her down, if not out, deafening her somewhat in the process. Nevertheless, the Wife of Bath got the upper hand in this marriage as she had done in the other four and as she would probably do in the sixth, which she declared herself ready to welcome. Alison certainly ranks high among women able to gain control over their mates.
The Wife of Bath's personality, philosophy of sexuality, and attitude toward sovereignty in marriage obviously are offered as comedy. When Chaucer's short poem addressed to Bukton, who is about to marry, recommends that he read the Wife of Bath regarding "The sorwe and wo that is in mariage" (ed. Benson, p. 655), he has to mean the domination, real or attempted, or the nagging, of the husband by the wife, that is sure to follow his wedding. Why else recommend the Wife of Bath for the edification of a bridegroom-to-be? And how could such an admonition be meant as anything but jest?
The Bukton piece leaves Chaucer's present-day audience wondering whether he and Philippa, married in 1366, had lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, the Chaucer Life-Records tell us nothing personal such as this. As for Chaucer himself, although he uses the autobiographical first person pronoun, his allusions to domineering and/or nagging wives are presented through the voices of his persona and of the pilgrim narrators of the Canterbury Tales, of whom the persona is one, all as likely to be fiction as to be fact. Chaucer remains inscrutable regarding his own marriage.
What, then, are we to make of the Bukton piece; of Alison of Bath and her anti-Pauline views on marital obligations; of the Clerk's supposedly quoted retraction (by Chaucer) of his patient Griselda as dead, buried, and not to be looked for in other wives? To the Clerk's tale, Harry Bailly exclaims, "By Goddes bones,/ Me were levere than a barel ale/ My wyf at hoom had herd this legende ones!" (iv.1212 bd). There is also the Merchant's diatribe in his prologue, which follows all this, that he knows well about the woes of marriage after two months of it. This begins:
"Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,"
Quod the Marchant, "and so doon other mo
That wedded been. I trowe that it be so,
For wel I woot it fareth so with me.
I have a wyf, the worste that may be;
For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were,
She wolde hym overmacche, I dar wel swere." (Iv .121320)
Nor is Chaucer's persona silent on the subject in this vein, for, in an aside concerning the voice of his vehicular eagle in the House of Fame, he quotes, with an innuendo most scholars since Skeat have taken as domestic, " `Awak,' to me he sayde,/ Ryght in the same vois and stevene/That useth oon I koude nevene" (ii.56062).
If this is supposed to be a jest at...