In her Prologue as part of “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath offers readers a complex portrait of a medieval woman. On the one hand, The Wife of Bath is shameless about her sexual exploits and the way she uses sexual power to obtain what she wishes. On the other hand, by doing exactly these things she is confirming negative stereotypes about women and proving that women are manipulative and deceitful. Even though her actions might at first seem to be rebellion against the male-dominated society in The Canterbury Tales, and more generally, the medieval period for women, there is very little that she does that is truly revolutionary or empowering for women of her time.
Based even just on her introduction in “The Canterbury Tales” via the Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale, it appears from the onset that The Wife of Bath from “The Canterbury Tales” simply uses her sexual attributes for personal gain instead of trying to prove her equal status. In general, this female character stereotype is meant to be seen as a parody of sorts since she embodies a number of negative female characteristics including stupidity and arrogance; deceitfulness, and lewdness. Although she is striking back at men it is not for any deeper reason other than personal profit. It appears that in this section of the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer wants his readers to laugh at this character rather than admire her for her proto-feminist stances on life and marriage.
If the Wife of Bath is a character that is meant to shatter a misogynistic stereotype of women, one could imagine that she would engage in intelligent and informed conversation with some of the members of her party. As it stands, however, the closest she comes to this is by offering her twisted understanding of the Bible. Rather arrogantly she states in one of the important quotes from The Canterbury Tales (and The Wife of Bath’s Tale specifically), “Men may divine and glosen up and down / But wel woot I express withouten lie / God bad us for to wexe and multiplye / That gentil text can I wel understone” (lines 26-30). While it can be found in the Bible that humans should procreate, it is worth noting that she prefaces this statement with a few words about how men sit and interpret the Bible. In her Prologue in the “Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer, the Wife of Bath is claiming that she too is capable of doing this and that the text is not beyond her reach. Still, the problem with this is that she is not proving anything about her intelligence, she is merely trying to confirm or justify her loose behavior with the word of God.
Even more importantly than this, in her prologue, the Wife of Bath from “The Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer is not trying to present herself as a woman capable of independent thought and action because she is merely using the Bible, a text associated with the male authority, to back up her assertions. In other words, as expressed in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue within the “Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, she is simply working within the patriarchy rather than outside of it and thus only confirms negative stereotypes about women, especially since the insights she offers are twisted, misunderstood, or simply wrong. For instance, at one point she talks about the Bible again, saying, “Where can ye saye in any manere age / That hye God defended marriage / By expres word? I praye you, telleth me / Or where he commanded virginitee?” (lines 65-68). She is simply justifying bad behavior with the Bible and her botched misinterpretations of it and this makes her appear foolish rather than educated. It confirms the stereotype of women in medieval times that women are not as capable at understanding the deep meanings and mysteries of the Bible and that if they are given some education about it, they would only use it to justify lewd or sinful conduct.