Wife of Bath's Tale
owes something to St. Jerome's Adversus ad Jovinian, to the French
troubador-poet Eustache Deschamps, to the British writer Walter Map, and to
Jean de Meun whose epic Roman de la Rose was translated by Chaucer.
One point of view from La Roman is the philosophically defended principle
of generation: opposition to any code like that of courtly love or even that
extreme position which makes chastity the supreme virtue and sees even in
marriage only a concession to the frailty of the flesh.
One wonders, in the Wife's total performance, whether it is not this philosophical view of plenitude, continuity, and replenishment which is the support for the Wife's justification of the natural instincts, and whether her experience, which she opposes to the dicta of conventional theology, does not have an underlying intellectual tradition opposed to that of the older Christian writers. The beliefs that the generative process is sacred, that chastity may be offensive to God, that the organs of generation may be honestly defended even at the risk of being offensive to fastidious audiences, have the authority of some theologians and even saints to support them. The vigorous defense of the physical side of love may be seen psychologically as an expression of a deep-seated and recalcitrant coarseness in the Wife or even as an overflow of the antifeminist literature and bias of the times. Nonetheless it has a history and tradition of its own in the MA. It is familiar as one aspect of a conflict within the medieval mind which could, with conviction, defend the world as good in all its phases, while at the same time reaching for another world attainable only by denying the pleasures of this one; or to put it another way, as one aspect of the rationale which seeks through the amatory instincts the clue to the higher love of God.
The point of view of the wife is comic and so she doesn't go as far as the school of Chartres (theory cited above). She defends virginity and continence for those who would be perfect. But she spiritedly defends the purpose of love and marriage to replenish the earth as long as it is not divorced from the pleasures which are the joyful part of the conjugal debt. She doesn't go so far as to say that by replenishing the earth, humans participate in the creative power of the Deity-- she can only affirm with vigor that the generative organs have both a physical and a pleasurable function which, within marriage, she will extravagantly exploit as is her right within God's law.
She is not as much interested in engendure as in sexuality itself. Her sensuality is the mark of Venus upon her, a force which has driven her into relationships that fall far short of love. With considerable pathos she evinces a desire to be wanted. (ll 631-32). Chaucer does not blame or praise her for what she is. He understands her lustfulness but also the melancholy that is part of her response to the passage of time and the loss of beauty and vigor. Despite her shameless exuberance and the defiance ofwishing to be right on her own terms, there shines through her a vigorous love of life untouched by contempt or hatred. Her looking forward to her 6th husband, whoever he may be, shows her opinion that the more love there is in the world, the better place it will be. Despite all this, there is a change in the relations of the Wife with her five husbands. Her relationship with her first 3 older and better husbands is not as good as her relationship with her "worse" husbands.
The tale itself ends in a series of lessons. The comedy turns serious as the wife (the hag) teaches the knight lessons in gentilesse. The conclusion to the tale is dimly descriable in the wife's own marriage to Jenkin (LL817-28); in the passage from rape to a robust and healthy sexuality, in the interplay of pagan law and Christian amendment, in the delicate balance between authority and experience, we recognize the Wife of the prologue. The gentilesse of which the Wife speaks by its very nature excludes mastery. The marital contract in the tale is sane and felicitous, and if we cannot imagine the Wife as having attained the level of morality reached by the sermon of the old lady, we are forced at least to see it as a wistful hope of which she is capable, and this has helped immeasurably to redeem her for posterity.