Last week, as Americans and others watched testimonies before the Senate Judiciary Committee pertaining to a Supreme Court nomination, millions of people relived their own moments of traumatic assault and discussed why women fear they won’t be believed. And I taught “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In fact, we were discussing how survivors are treated (and were in the middle ages) at the same moment Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was under oath.
The Wife of Bath is, sadly in some ways, still screamingly relevant.
Her name is Alisoun and she is from Bath. Let’s start there. She is the only pilgrim among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims whose prologue is longer than her tale, because in a very real sense her prologue is her tale.
She begins by establishing the basis for her authority, and it is not the standard. In the medieval period writers based their stories on previously attested, authoritative works.
People who wrote (and read) were overwhelmingly male, educated by studying languages and literature and theology–what Chaucer affectionately refers to as “olde books.”
Alisoun, traveling in a group of mostly men, of clergy and members of the lesser nobility, as well as tradesmen and middle class managers, asserts her voice and her authority and their basis in experience.
Her subject is marriage, or more precisely the relationship between married men and women. Really she’s interested in who has what she calls “maisterie” or “mastery” in the relationship. She has been married five times and is ready for a sixth; she describes herself as being of “five husbands’ schooling.” And she has a lot to say on the subject.
There are several remarkable things happening here. First, Alisoun is claiming authority for herself in an environment where it is both challenged (by the Friar, who tells her to leave off “preaching” and tell a nice story) and sought out (the Pardoner asks for tips, for her to teach him her “practice”—the same word you might use to describe work in law or medicine).
Second, her tale really is biography and a kind of testimony, where she explains how her marriages worked and gives voice to her experiences, some of which we would characterize today as abuse. She enters the masculine, patristic arena as she challenges St. Paul’s doctrine of chastity and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan, where Jesus tells the Samaritan her current husband is not her “real” husband.
Surely God gave us sexual organs, she argues, not just to purge urine, but also to make begetting children pleasurable. How many of the Samaritan’s husbands “counted,” she wonders aloud, and why would Jesus fix a number on marriages? She advocates for gentler rules—for acknowledging that the highest goal is virginity, but that people who do not maintain such austerity can be virtuous too. In a century of plague and a society with an outrageous mortality rate, she advocates for remarriage as a necessity, but also as humane.
When she’s done arguing, she recounts an overview of her first three marriages, but it’s structured as a laundry list of all the anti-feminist ideas circulating among scholars at the time. She knows these stereotypes and biases, and she manages to turn them back on her husbands, gaining mastery—of her husbands and their finances. These are all the accusations she’s had levied at her since she first married at the age of twelve.
The last part of her story recounts her fourth and fifth husbands, one of whom kept a mistress, and the other of whom beat her regularly, but these two were the ones she loved. That was the problem, she deduces.
Chaucer has done something here. He has let a woman speak, validated her experience, and given her a full, flawed, beautiful character. She explains herself on her own terms and enters a discussion that has not been designed for her presence.
We literally haven’t gotten yet to the Tale she tells about a rapist knight whose life is forfeit to the queen and who is rehabilitated when he discovers that all women want authority over their own lives. Today we don’t need to.
What we need to do is hear Dame Alisoun’s story. We need to believe her. We need to learn from her not exactly what she says, but what she shows—that these problems are centuries old, and it’s past time to fix them.