Seth Cassel
October 2006

Consenting Power to the Wife

In the "Wife of Bath's Tale," a story in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the Wife of Bath, Dame Alison, supports her prescription for a happy and peaceful marriage in which the man freely concedes to the woman and gives her full sovereignty over their relationship. In the beginning of the tale, the Wife of Bath outlines the ill effects when a man takes control of a woman, as the Knight is nearly sentenced to death for rape. Later in her tale, she shows an example of an ideal marriage between the King and Queen, where the King submits to the Queen's wishes and gives her control over the Knight's fate. Lastly, the Wife of Bath uses the relationship between the Knight and the old women to show the origins of a perfect marriage. Chaucer, an educated diplomat, suggests that, as in marriage, rulers should also seek the consent of the people in governing.
In the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," Dame Alison conveys her idea of a successful relationship between a man and a woman, where the man freely permits the woman dominion. The Wife of Bath has been married five different times, the first four times to wealthy men who, when they died, would bequeath to her all their money and property. However, her fifth husband was different. She "took [him] for love and not for wealth" (272). With this husband that she loves, she presents her prescription for an ideal relationship. However, the marriage starts with much "trouble and heavy weather" (280), but eventually her husband gives "the bridle over to [her] hand" (280). The Wife of Bath's husband concedes control of their relationship to her and realizes on his own accord that he must give freedom to his wife, and thus not restrain her to society's stereotype of women during medieval times. As soon as this transfer of power takes place, there is "no debate" (280) between Dame Alison and her husband, and she is "kind to him/…/… And he to me" (280). The Wife of Bath sees that a happy and peaceful relationship is one where the man concedes control to the woman and gives her domination over the marriage.

In the beginning of the "Wife of Bath's Tale," Dame Alison gives an example of a relationship where the Knight abuses his power over a woman and is punished. When the Knight rapes a virgin and takes "her maidenhead" (282), he not only has the power in the relationship, but he takes advantage of this power and uses it to obtain that which he desires. The Wife of Bath illustrates her disgust at such an abuse through the King's response; "he [the King] condemned the knight to lose his head" (282). The Wife of Bath uses the Knight's rape of the virgin to state her case against those men of medieval times who abused their authority over women. She suggests instead that a situation where the woman has sovereignty over the man produces an ideal relationship.

The King and the Queen in the tale possess the ideal relationship that the Wife of Bath feels produces a happy and peaceful marriage. When the King passes the death sentence over the Knight, the Queen does not agree. However, instead of being silent and acting like the meek, stereotypical women idealized during medieval times, she states her wish to set the punishment of the Knight, and "he [the King] gave the Queen the case" (282). The relationship between the King and Queen is amiable; there is no indication given that the King reluctantly gives the decision regarding the Knight to the Queen. In fact, he "ceaselessly" (282) gives her authority over the ruling. With this exemplary relationship, the Wife of Bath strikes her main point concerning the state of power between the man and woman in a marriage. Unlike the seemingly corrupt Knight in the beginning of the story who rapes a woman and abuses his power over her, the King freely turns over power to his wife, the Queen. As a result, the Wife of Bath suggests, there is no abuse of power. The Wife of Bath implies that happiness and tranquility can be achieved in a marriage when the husband willingly gives power to his wife.

At the end of the tale, the Wife of Bath introduces another relationship between a man and a woman, the Knight and the old woman. At the beginning of their relationship, they hold none of the characteristics of the ideal marriage exemplified by the King and Queen. There is little agreement between the couple as the Knight is reluctant to stay married to the old woman. However, eventually the old woman convinces the Knight to remain married to her, and he consents, "[w]hatever pleases you suffices me" (291). With this statement, the old woman responds; "'[a]nd have I won the mastery?'… / '… I'm to choose and rule as I think fit?'/ 'Certainly, wife,' he answered her" (291). Thus, the Knight freely concedes sovereignty to the old woman, and therefore has fulfilled the Wife of Bath's prescription for a happy and peaceful marriage. Following this submission, the old woman turns into a young maiden and the two live "ever after to the end/ In perfect bliss" (292). The Wife of Bath attempts to convince her listeners that the man who does not misuse his power and gives sovereignty to his wife will have a relationship filled with happiness.

The Wife of Bath uses the examples of three different relationships to illustrate her idea that the man generally abuses his power over a woman and that in an ideal relationship the man should concede control to the woman. Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath's radical message during medieval times to make a veiled and gentle comment to rulers about monarchies, especially to the King of England, of his home country. Chaucer warns kings that if they abuse their power like the Knight when he rapes a woman, they are liable to receive scorn from their people, if not incite civil war. However, Chaucer says, if kings were to transfer some power, like the King in the tale, they would create happier and more peaceful countries. Lastly, Chaucer warns that kings should not wait until there is political unrest to shift power, and instead, to avoid tension, give some sovereignty freely in a way similar to the Knight giving "mastery" (291) to the old woman. Chaucer suggests, through the Wife of Bath, that kings have excessive amounts of power that are sometimes abused with detrimental consequences, and instead, some control should be conceded to the people to create stable and peaceful countries.