Masculinity in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
The Wife of Bath, with the energy of her vernacular and the voraciousness of her sexual appetite, is one of the most vividly developed characters of 'The Canterbury Tales'. At 856 lines her prologue, or 'preambulacioun' as the Summoner calls it, is the longest of any of the pilgrims, and matches the General Prologue but for a few lines. Evidently Chaucer is infatuated with Alisoun, as he plays satirically with both gender and class issues through the Wife's robust rhetoric. Scholars and students alike have continued this obsession with her, and as a consequence Chaucer's larger than life widow has been subject to centuries of scrutiny. Indeed, she is in the vast minority amongst the Canterbury bound pilgrims; apart from the in-vogue Prioress she is the only female - though she appears in no way daunted by the apparent inequality in numbers. It seems almost a crime to examine masculinity in her prologue and tale, but as I hope to show, there is much to learn both about the Wife and about Chaucer from this male presence.
When we consider that Chaucer chose his pilgrims with careful precision to present a cross section of late-medireview society, the small number of women travellers can be seen as a clear reminder of the patriarchal culture in which the Wife existed. Nevertheless, despite Alisoun's vigorous assault on 'olde and angry nigardes' she is the first to recognise the political ascendancy of men. Her prologue is peppered with allusions to great biblical patriarchs such as Abraham and Jacob:
Lo, heere, the wise king, daun Salomon;
I trow he hadde wives mo than oon. (35-36)
Here, the Wife makes no attempt to deny Solomon's sovereignty - she even praises him as a 'wise king'; her marital arguments are social and it is for this purpose that she invokes his name. Importantly, Alisoun refers to 'ancient' patriarchs - not only is she prepared to acknowledge the male monopoly on politics, but also the deep rooted nature of their hegemony, a recognition reinforced by the setting of her tale in ³th'olde dayes of the King Arthour². Chaucer has created a woman who in spite of her fierce social ambitions, remains acutely aware of the civil order of her time.
Masculinity also manifests itself clearly in the scholasticism to which the Wife continually refers: St. Paul, St. Jerome and Theophrastus. Once again these are historical figures, and though she aims to castrate their learned authority with her own experience, the very fact they are mentioned is an assertion of their erudite dominance. Ironically the bombast theology of such figures is applauded as much as it is assaulted: Ovid's Midas is cited for her own purposes in the tale, while Ptolemy is exalted in the prologue:
Of alle men yblessed moot he be,
The wise astrologien, Daun Ptholome... (323-324)
Her reference to 'the wise...