Certainly God is pleased to see such adoration in our midst. Perhaps we will see his countenance on our mission and the road will rise to meet us. Whilst the common folk may look with wonder on such a lot as us; the good Lord in heaven must see our intentions in this travel or certainly he would not have made such a way for us. The path has been fair and lacking trouble and the strangers have been reasonable and quite tolerable. Bless us all for the kindness of the season… My dreams foretold of such a ride but me thinks the way has fared better than imagined. Bless me, Lord, for the patience I now show in the likes of such cunning behavior as we have heard.
What a strange and brutal world it is that I have come upon in the Wife of Bath’s retelling of her marriages! Is it really possible that marriage, that sacred and mysterious thing, can happen on such mundane and vulgar terms as a simple contract? And is it really ruled by something bodily and grotesque? I find it both impossible to imagine and impossible to tolerate!
Although all the knowledge I have of the world comes from my father, I would not consider myself to be foolish…and yet I am now coming to understand how much I have missed in not having a mother! Would she have told me how to deal with a husband so directly, so forcefully, so efficiently as the Wife of Bath? Is it possible, maybe, that there are a set of laws, directly separate from men’s laws, that are women’s laws?
I have grown up on an island with my father, and all I know and understand comes from his teachings; until now, I have thought these teachings to encompass the world and the universe… perhaps in some places he has painted the universe with broad strokes for me, leaving out the details, but I have always thought this picture correct; but now that I’ve seen the world from the point of view of this old woman, I am wondering if my father is unaware of her world, because it is a woman’s world…. Or worse yet – and almost unthinkable – that he is aware of her world, and has chosen to hide it from me!
I would not ever even think to accuse my father of such a thing until now. Why would he want to hide anything from me? Still, the words of the Wife of Bath were so difficult for me to understand, and what I did understand came at such a shock, that it does seem certain that my father has concealed life’s gory details.
Even more shocking than the idea that the bodily functions of marriage (I have known of their existence, but I’m still uncertain of what they are… though I found the prologue very enlightening) was the thought that a husband and a wife might not truly love each other… that a husband might abuse his wife, or that she might be shrewish or unpleasant to him. Isn’t the whole point of marriage for two people to love each other? And shouldn’t a man always respect and care for his wife? How can the Wife of Bath so matter-of-factly talk about Jenkin hitting her? And that horrible book about wives killing their husbands… who in their right mind would put together such a book? I don’t blame her at all for tearing pagest out of it!
Still, I find myself torn between two opinions. According to my upbringing, I should probably condemn the Wife of Bath – condemn her for her five marriages, for her hapless surrender to bodily needs, for her loveless and wanton contracts with her husbands; but on the other hand, how can I? She seems to be quite logical when she says,
“ But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
That gentil text kan I wel understonde.
Eek wel I woot, he seyde, myn housbonde
Sholde lete fader and mooder, and take to me;
But of no nombre mencioun made he,
Of bigamye, or of octogamye;
Why sholde men speke of it vileynye?” (ln. 27-34)
And indeed, we are instructed to wed in the Bible, but not instructed on the number of times; and as she goes on to say later, there is nothing wrong with marriage as a whole – in fact, we are encouraged by that same Book to wed and to reproduce. Quite rightly, why should any woman be ashamed of such ideas as the Wife of Bath? It occurs to me now that many are not, regardless of what public opinion or common knowledge might dictate. Perhaps women – both today, and in the days of Chaucer – held their own opinions in a sphere quite separate from public opinion and common knowledge, which are often occupied and formed by men. Even if those men are as wise and as good as my own father, they do not know – and how can they? – of that separate sphere of women’s knowledge and opinion. In fact, they are so unaware of it, that I think the two might exist entirely side by side without men ever noticing it! Just imagine: if I had had a mother, and a sister, my mother would teach my sister and I something similar to the Wife of Bath’s ideas, and we would go on and talk amongst ourselves about those ideas, and act on them… and our father would stay entirely unaware of it! We would have a world entirely to ourselves – would it be a right world, a correct or good world? I don’t know! But I wish now that I did not live on an island full of men and spirits, but in a place full of people of every sort – people that might teach me more about the world and its nuances, would show me the things that my father has concealed from me all this time!
Reread your bibles, dear friends, for your common beliefs on virginity, marriage, and women are confounded and nowhere ordained by God. I ask you, where would we be if all women remained chaste, as we are taught by men to do? We wouldn’t have much of a human race, that’s for sure. If you want good men in this world, we’ve got to have good lovin’; and that means letting women love whom they please, in whatever way they see fit, and marry as they wish. In my younger days I had plenty of company, and I’m still an honorable woman. My five husbands certainly thought so, for they were all proud to marry me in front of the church door.
My husbands would all tell you I’m the best around as far as wifely duties go, and that’s not from a lack of experience, I tell you. God didn’t make me gap-toothed for nothing! I’ve got some good equipment, if I do say so myself, and I’ll be as free with it as I please, especially in marriage.
While we’re on the subject of duties, I’d like to say a thing or two about husbandly duties. Why do you believe it is only the wife’s duty to love her husband? I’d say it’s also the husband’s duty to love his wife, in the parlor and in the bedroom. He owes me a debt, just as I owe him one, and I’ll give it to him morning and night, as long as he pays his debt to me in return. Ideally, I’d like a husband who’s my slave, just as so many wives are slaves to their husbands, and I believe that I should have the power to do with his body what I wish.
Furthermore, I’ve had just about enough of tales of wicked wives. If women were the ones who wrote the history books, there would be plenty of stories about wicked men. None of my husbands were saints, and one of them even hit me so hard he made me deaf in one ear! He even had the gall to say it was my own fault that he hit me! So I showed him what was what and hit him back. After that he gave me complete control of the house, the land, his tongue, and his hand, and he was as kind to me as I was to him, which was very kind indeed.
Now turn your ears to me, friends, for I’ve got a tale that will teach you a thing or two about how to treat a woman! You think you know what women want most in the world? Hah! We women are varied in our desires, to be sure, but in the end we all want one thing. I’ll give you a hint… it’s spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T!!
Looking back (a cruel colloquialism) at my tale as entertainment, I have to conclude that it was always as such. Oh, Oedipus of old, I worry for you, for someone must, and clearly the gods do not. What a farce I must have been: a comedy for the divine.
Venerable Sophocles, I do not fault you for your words. How could I? To do so would be to hold you higher than the Olympians themselves. I hold no ill will towards my fellow man, only pity for that tragic Oedipus, and endless questions for the gods that marked me.
Oh, wisest Apollo, did you laugh? Was there jubilation upon Olympus as Oedipus played the fool? What a silly man that was, who cared only to be a good king to his people, and to see no harm come of his family. Surely you must have smiled when I stated, “I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet.” For I was already blind, was I not, Apollo? I was ignorant of so many things.
Did you giggle, Athena, warrior-daughter, as I unknowingly played the straight man, vowing to bring about my own demise? What a joke it must have been when I declared, “I’ll rid us of this corruption. Whoever killed the king may decide to kill me too, with the same violent hand—by avenging Laius I defend myself.” Searching for a man who was with me at all times: such a paradoxical ruse your brother laid before me. Goddess of reason, you must have at least enjoyed the cleverness of it all.
I still must know why, scholar children of Zeus. What did I do to wrong you? Were you angry that, having doomed me from birth, I continued to live? Curse Laius! He failed both to expose me as a child and to strike me down as a man. Certainly you could not fault me for the demise of the Sphinx, or for searching to rid my people of the plague. These honorable people: your own worshippers! So what, heavenly directors, motivated this plot? What was my fatal flaw?