The wife of Bath Summary

The wife of Bath Summary



Introduction to the Poet:

Chaucer’s life & works:

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London almost certainly in the year 1340. His father John Chaucer was a wine merchant of considerable wealth and reputation in the city. As a boy Chaucer was probably sent to St. Paul’s school, one of the best schools in England at the time. He studied arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. He spoke French as well as English from his childhood. He worked as a page boy in the house of King Edward III’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of Ulster. We do not know how the son of a tradesman became a page in a royal household. He was in the courts of many kings such as Edward, Richard II and Henry IV and worked as a poet and a gentleman. The war in 1359-1360 made him a soldier in France.

He went abroad many times on diplomatic work in France and Italy. He was trained at a law-school called the Inner Temple and became a Justice of peace in Kent in 1385. In 1386 he represented the area in the parliament. Married to Philippa, he had two sons and a daughter. In 1369, he wrote The Book of the Duchesse, which is full of French influence. This poem was based on a French tradition, which uses dream as a vehicle for love poetry, and it is believed that Chaucer composed this as a lament on the death of Blanche of Lancaster, John Gaunt’s first wife.

In 1372, his King sent him to Genoa and Florence where, it is quite possible, herubbed shoulders with the famous Italian poets, Boccaccio and Petrarch. It isbelieved that these two poets and also Dante were a great influence on Chaucer’swork. In 1374, Chaucer was appointed Controller of Customs for the port of Londonand lived in a fine house above Aldgate.

In 1376, he was attached to the Embassies of France and Lombardy. He wasrewarded for his faithful service by being made the Knight of Kent and he sat inParliament from that time.Chaucer’s first great work was Troilus and Criseyde, which was completedaround 1385. His wife died in 1387, but he still enjoyed the patronage of John of Gauntthroughout his lifetime.

In April 1388, Chaucer embarked on a Pilgrimage to Canterbury to pay homageto the martyr, St. Thomas Becket, who was Chancellor of England in 1155, and wasa close friend of Henry II. Henry made Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury with aview to obtaining more control over the church in England. However, Becket’sloyalty was to the church and he was exiled for six years. When Becket eventuallyreturned, he was

still a thorn in the side of King Henry, and four misguided Knights, wishing to ingratiate themselves with the King, murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Henry did penance for this crime and Becket was acclaimed a martyr, being canonized in 1173.

The experiences Chaucer obtained from his Pilgrimage led him to write his mostfamous work, The Canterbury Tales in 1387. This was a huge project, whichChaucer never managed to complete. However, it does give an incredible insight intoMedieval England and can be rightly acclaimed as a classic. The work was written using a dialect, which originates from the London area, and went on to become the basis of modern English. So, he is called the father ofmodern English. Around 1390, Chaucer became the Clerk of the King’s Works, and then in 1399he became Deputy Forrester.

He died in 1400. Chaucer’s life gave him rich opportunities for the observation of men and their affairs in great variety from the lives of Kings and diplomats to those of soldiers and bailiffs, carpenters and peasants.

Chaucer & The Canterbury Tales:

In Medieval England, most people were illiterate. This is why Church stain glass windows and wall paintings depict bible stories- it helped the congregation follow the biblical stories. If you were lucky enough to receive an education, however, then you would have learnt French and Latin, the language of the Court and the Church. Chaucer, due to his family’s wealth and connection, was one of the fortunate people who learnt to read and write.

Chaucer was not a professional writer but wrote for pleasure, for his own amusement and that of his family and friends. His poetry was a great favourite of the King’s. Chaucer wrote in Middle English, writing works such as Troilus and Criseydeand House of Fame. Though not the first to write in the vernacular, he appears to be instrumental in popularising it. Whilst working as Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace in 1386, however, he began writing his most famous works- The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales, written in a combination of verse and prose, tells the story of some 30 pilgrims walking from Southwark to Canterbury on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Beckett. On route, the pilgrims engage in a story telling competition to win a meal at the Tabard Inn! Thus, The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories, told as the pilgrims make their journey to Canterbury Cathedral.

The device of the pilgrimage to link up a collection of tales is part of a general tradition of a frame story, or a series of tales enclosed within a narrative. But Canterbury Talesare different than most of the classical or medieval examples we can find, because here the framework does not remain merely a mechanical device to link the stories. In fact, it is a means of maintaining smooth flow of action and also of keeping a certain group of people engaged quite naturally in a certain form of entertainment.

This ingenious device of the pilgrimage not only creates a happy occasion but also an opportunity for bringing together all sorts of people from various areas of life. Though the group of thirty pilgrims is not schematically representative of English society, yet it covers well enough the main social classes. Only the very rich or the very poor are excluded from the group, otherwise we have a whole gamut of characters. There is a Knight, a Squire and a Yeoman who reflect on the changes in the feudal set-up. The Monk, the Friar and the Prioress are used to expose the corruption in the regular order of the Church. The five Guildsmen i.e. the haberdasher, the carpenter, the weaver, the dyer and the tapestry maker, accompanied by their Cook and dressed in clothes above their station, flaunting their riches, represent the growing industry and the rising middle-class of Chaucer’s England.

The daring Shipman brings in the sea, which had opened immense possibilities for trade; the Physician brings in the state of medieval medicine. The Wife of Bath who is a cloth merchant, is once again representative of the expanding trade of the fourteenth century as well as becomes a vehicle for information on the position of women in fourteenth century England. The portraits of the clergy (which form nearly one third of the company) are significant for the tolerance with which Chaucer points out the foibles of the monastic orders in describing the Monk and the Prioress. He is more severe in describing the worldliness of the Friar and openly attacks the corrupt Summoner and the Pardoner. His ideal portraits of the Clerk of Oxford, the Parson, the Knight and the Ploughman, perhaps reflect his own admiration of the basic ideals of earlier medieval society, during these times of changing standards.

Chaucer’s work is not simply a story; the Canterbury Talesis also a comment on English society at the time. The very fact that Chaucer wrote in English demonstrates his dismissal of accepted practices. Chaucer’s characters offer various social insights and raise various questions concerning social class, spirituality and religion. The work was unfinished when Chaucer died.

Introduction to the General Prologue:

In the General Prologue, the Wife of Bath is described as one of the pilgrims assembled in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London to undertake a journey to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Chaucer joins them as a pilgrim. The host of the Inn also decides to join the group and proposes a competition during the journey, where each pilgrim would tell two tales on the outward journey and two on the return. He announces himself as the judge of this competition and states that who tell the “tales of best sentence and most solaas” should be the winner. This is followed by a portrait gallery of all the pilgrims, whose manner of dressing, habits and speaking is indicative of their social positions. While Chaucer describes the pilgrims in details, he refrains from passing any judgements on to them and clarifies to the readers that the choice of tales rests entirely on the pilgrims.

As it turns out the tales not only turn out to be shocking revelations but also provide an opportunity to the teller to critique, mock or ridicule individuals of other social ranks that apparently enrages other pilgrims who then retaliate with their own tales of revenge. Thus, the General Prologue elucidates the occasion that brought the pilgrims together and how Chaucer as a pilgrim recorded the tales told by his fellow travellers.



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