The Wife of Bath is, arguably, the most notorious of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims in his unfinished work, The Canterbury Tales (1387)—consisting of 116 tales and narrated by 29 distinct pilgrims. The generally accepted notion among scholars is that Jankyn (the Wife’s fifth husband) and his book, The Book of Wicked Wife (an anthology of women-on-men violence), is misogynist. On the contrary, Jankyn’s book is a collection that narrates male victimization, violence against men, and misandry.
The Wife is a skilled cloth-maker, self-identified nymphomaniac, and an out-spoken, dressed-for-battle veteran of a traveler who has been analyzed in light of psychoanalytic theory, feminism, Marxism and queer studies. Despite feminist scholars who celebrate the Wife of Bath as the representation of resistance to Church-imposed patriarchy, her qualities (feminist and anti-feminist alike) are violent and destructive.
Most importantly, they revolve around a systematic manipulation of men into subhuman positions of silence. Using the instance of the Wife’s assault on Jankyn as the premise for this analysis, I interrogate the erasure of male victimization that occurs in the Wife’s Prologue as well as a similar, but more damning, omission of these narratives throughout the critical history of The Canterbury Tales.
The Wife of Bath provides a sharp juxtaposition to the meekly dressed and soft-spoken nuns among the pilgrims. Her Tale recounts the story of a knight who is convicted of rape and must pay penance by traveling the world in order to find the secret behind what women most desire (which turns out to be absolute sovereignty). Setting up a direct precedent for her Tale is a Prologue that focuses on what she’s learned throughout her five marriages. The Wife’s convictions on matrimony and the dynamics of wife/husband can be identified as existing on the following tenets, (which implicate each corresponding point):
- The husband’s marital obligations are to provide money, property, and sexual fulfillment to his wife. The Wife explicitly refers to these obligations as “debts.”
A) A wife’s obligation(s) to her husband is/are (for the most part) non-existent, despite the fact he is perpetually indebted to her.
In the Middle Ages, a woman’s only way of experiencing her sexuality was through multiple marriages by way of widow-ship.
B) The death of the husband is the sexual freedom of the wife, all the while she reaps the deceased’s possessions.
A woman’s education is defined by her experiences in matrimony and the knowledge on men and masculinity passed down by her mother.
C) Perspectives on men and masculinity are defined by female agents.
Women are inherently irrational and deceptive.
D) The Wife is an unreliable narrator who, perhaps, shouldn’t be taken at face-value.
Women most desire complete control over men.
E) All the world’s qualms can be solved by giving women tyrannical rule over men—an ideal echoed in mainstream feminism by mantras such as: “The future is female,” and so on.
Jankyn is the Wife’s youngest, most handsome, Oxford-educated husband. He is also the only one of the five husbands that she claims to truly love. He’s good in bed, has a possessiveness comparable to that of the Wife’s, and enjoys routinely reading from his Book of Wicked Wives. Intriguingly, the Wife prefaces the stories Jankyn recounts from the Book of Wicked Wives by echoing a medieval version of the Fable of Aesop: “Who peynted the leoun, tel me who?” (692). This version goes: a man and a lion were arguing over which of them were the stronger animal. The man shows the lion a painting of a man killing a lion, to which the lion asks, “Who painted the lion?” Then the lion eats the man (Boenig and Taylor 159). When the Wife asks: “Who painted the lion, tell me who?” she’s suggesting that the painter’s product directly correlates with his/her biases. Therefore, the male theologians that she spends the entirety of her Prologue disagreeing with are prejudiced to depict women in a negative light because, she claims, they are angry and sterile (707-8).
Contrary to the general consensus among scholars, the stories in The Book of Wicked Wives are not misogynist. In fact, there is no question about how vividly they convey misandry. The more relevant examples from Jankyn’s book convey two significant points of contemporary misandry, 1) The feminine objectification of men by way of enforcing male sexual fidelity, and 2) The masculine obligation to fight in war, but most importantly, the social erasure of the pandemic male genocide that is war. These are as follows:
- Hercules sets himself on fire, after his wife, Deianira, gives him a poisoned shirt in the hopes that he would remain faithful (Boenig and Taylor 159).
Socrates’s wife, Xantippa, throwing urine on his head. “He sits still, as if he were dead,” (729-30).
Clytemnestra conspiring with her paramour and murdering her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from war (Boenig and Taylor 160).
When Amphiaraus hides in order to avoid a mandatory draft, his wife, Eriphyle, betrays his hiding place for a brooch of gold, and Amphiaraus is consequently killed on the battlefield (741-45).
Jankyn goes on to tell the Wife about other women who poisoned their husbands for political prominence and to avenge being cheated on. There is also more than one instance of murder via botched love potion. Perhaps the most grisly of these tales is when Jankyn speaks of an unidentified woman killing her husband and then proceeding to have sex with her lover next to the deceased’s corpse.
If we treat The Canterbury Tales as a contained piece of poetry, whether it does or doesn’t parallel reality, it nonetheless presents narratives of men being forsaken and murdered by women. Further, as we turn to the assault scene between the Wife and Jankyn, an uncanny and perplexing result becomes of it: Jankyn’s submission to the Wife.
After hearing the complete aforementioned stories and more, the Wife gets so angry at Jankyn that she rips a page out of his book and punches him on the cheek so forcefully that he falls backward. In a moment of instigated anger, he gets up and hits her on the head, making her deaf in one ear. She falls to the floor, feigning death (or perhaps she was actually knocked unconscious). In a dramatic moment of utter nonsense, the Wife accuses Jankyn of having killed her for her land, and then goes on to kiss him one last time before she “dies.” It is important to note that as the Wife recounts this story to her fellow pilgrims, she puts emphasis on how “gently” Jankyn kneels beside her, begs for forgiveness, (she then hits him on the cheek, again, and pretends to be dying, again). Ultimately, Jankyn grants the Wife absolute sovereignty over their estate and domestic life, burns his Book of Wicked Wives, and they (supposedly) live happily ever after.
Chaucer is known for his sense of humor. The assault scene in the Wife’s Prologue might be hilarious in its incoherence, except when one begins to look at what really happened during this quarrel. Drawing from the Wife’s unreliability as a narrator and her desire for absolute power over men, we can conclude that many, if not all, of the details she recounts are either entirely fabricated or edited to meet her needs.
Most suspicious is what makes Jankyn have such a sudden change of heart; strong enough to burn his beloved book and submit all of his independence to the Wife who just punched him (twice). This can easily be read as an example of the actual dominance women hold over men, especially when they’ve committed perhaps the most condemned of actions: hitting a woman. Plausibly, this is enough for Jankyn to give up all of his freedom and livelihood. If anything, we can see how Chaucer explicitly initiates narratives of male victimization and consequently exemplifies their erasures through the burning of the book, but also through Jankyn’s Othering into a position of silent obedience.
In medieval times, misogyny (which consisted mostly of philosophers and theologians claiming that women were inferior to men) and agents of misandry (chivalry, matrimony, and pretty much everything the Wife says) existed on separate spheres. They were then, and still are now, forms of bigotry that have no relation to each other, except when feminists say misogyny! at the expense of misandry! Thus, erasure of violence against men perpetuates. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is the epitome of misandry, and in a cleverly ironic narrative construction, her Prologue both emphasizes male victimization and shows how easily, seamlessly, and without question it undergoes erasure.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor. Broadview, 2012, pp. 147-162.
The featured image depicts an 1812 painting of the wife of Bath by Swiss painter Henry Fuseli.