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Definition: Wife of Bath, the, also known as Alisoun from Chambers Dictionary of Literary Characters

Fond of seeing and being seen, she acknowledges no superior. Over 40, a little deaf from a blow to the head from one her husbands and with widely spaced teeth – thought to indicate (among other things) lasciviousness – she surpasses others in everything, from the size and ostentation of her hats to the number of pilgrimages she has made. A loud and cheerful individual, she has had five husbands and now is on the lookout for number six. She has always had the upper hand over her husbands, and tells a tale of female domination in marriage.

Summary Article: “WIFE OF BATH'S TALE, THE.”
from Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

“The Wife of Bath's Tale” story from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400) is an exemplum answering the question “What do women most want?” A knight is given a year and a day to discover the answer to this question because he raped a young maiden; if he cannot answer correctly, he will be killed at King Arthur's court (see Arthurian Legend). When the time has elapsed, the knight returns none the wiser for his traveling and questioning. Just as he despairs, a group of dancing maidens capture his attention. The dancers all disappear, leaving only an old hag.

The hag promises to give the knight the correct answer if he will vow to do whatever she asks. They go to court and he answers as the hag tells him that women most desire to have sovereignty over their husbands. All of the women in court agree that this is true, so the hag demands that the knight marry her.

The knight is horrified at the thought of sharing a marriage bed with a foul witch, so she offers him a choice: She can be ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. The knight asks the hag to make the choice, which clearly indicates that he has learned his lesson. She rewards him by being both beautiful and faithful.

  • Bush, Douglas. English Poetry. New York, Oxford University Press, 1963.
  • Garbáty, Thomas J. Medieval English Literature. Toronto: Heath, 1984.
  • Lambdin, Laura C., and Lambdin, Robert T. , eds. Chaucer's Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in the “Canterbury Tales.” Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  • Laura Cooner Lambdin

    Copyright © 2000 by Robert Thomas Lambdin and Laura Cooner Lambdin

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