The Wife of Bath Depicted in the General Prologue
At the first reading of the "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath seems to be a fairly straightforward character. However, the second time through, the ironies and insinuations surface and show the Wife's bold personality. For example, she is rather opinionated. The second line in the passage, "But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe," seems only to indicate that she is a little hard of hearing. However, coupled with a line from the end of the passage noting that she liked to talk, this deafness could mean either that she is really deaf and talks because she cannot hear what others say to her or that she simply does not listen to what anyone else says (Nardo 126). The next line, "Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt," is obviously the Wife's own opinion of herself and not objective at all. This is ironic because she is from near Bath, in western England, where the weavers were not very good, so she is probably not very talented at all (Bowden 215). She, however, does not doubt herself. The Wife is also very practical. In lines 469 through 473 she is described in traveling gear:
Upon an amblere esily she sat,
Y-wympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe,
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
And on hir feet a peyre of spores sharpe.
Her overskirt keeps off the dirt of travel, and the pacing horse, trained to move both feet on one side together, is comfortable on long journeys (Rowland 117). The fact that she is wearing spurs implies that she rides sensibly astride, like most women of her class. However, her hat is compared to a shield, and spurs were a symbol of knighthood (Serrailler 41), so with those two warlike items she resembles a knight dressed for adventure (Herman and Burke 31). The practicality of her dress certainly shows her assertive nature.
Part of the Wife's boldness lies in her ostentatious dress and behavior. For example, although her dress on the pilgrimage is practical, her hat, "as brood as is a bokeler or a targe," is very exaggerated and showy. Also, the third stanza describes her
customary dress on Sunday: "Hir coverchiefs ful fyne were of ground; / I dorste swere they weyden ten pound / That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed." Her ten-pound headdress is grossly overstated. However, the point is that the cloth is finely woven, and during this time period coverchiefs were so valuable to women that they were even included in wills. The Wife's hose are scarlet, which at that time was the most expensive of all woolens (Herman and Burke 23), tightly and neatly drawn, and her shoes are new. The Wife is so conspicuously overdressed that her purpose in wearing this outfit is unquestionably to show off her wealth (Bowden 216). Furthermore, she always has to be first to the offering in church:
In all the parisshe, wyf...