I’ve been living on an island!

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!

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About Alex Mueller

Alex Mueller can be found running and cycling the streets and suburbs of Boston, taking long sojourns in rare book archives whenever he can. He teaches English at UMass Boston, serves as Book Review Editor for Arthuriana, and writes about digital pedagogy, open access publishing, and medieval literature.

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