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Quite the Conundrum: The Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Loathly Lady

Perhaps one of the most problematic of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”  While it was written in the 1300s and one must read it with the attitudes of the time in mind, it’s quite difficult to read critically as a feminist without giving it some major side eye. Just to summarize very quickly, a young knight in King Arthur’s court rapes a young maiden, and Arthur is ready to sentence him to the ultimate punishment of death. However, King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, intercedes on the young knight’s behalf, and tasks him with finding the answer to the question of what women want most. If the young knight is able to find the answer within a year, his life will be spared.

The knight travels the kingdom and asks as many women as he can this question, but he’s always given a different answer. As time grows short, he begins to despair, until he meets a hideous crone in the woods. She tells him that she can help him find the answer to this question if he will grant her any favor she asks of him in return. The knight and the crone return to King Arthur’s castle, and the knight gives the answer, provided to him by the hag, that all women desire sovereignty over their husbands. Arthur is pleased with the answer, and the knight’s life is spared. However, the loathly lady now wishes to have her favor granted. She makes it known that she wishes to marry the knight, and so the wedding takes place. When the dejected knight and the loathly lady are left alone on their wedding night, he is repulsed by her and dejected about his lot. The lady assures him that since she is ugly, she will be a faithful wife, but on seeing that the knight is still displeased, she asks him what is better: a wife who is beautiful and whose faithfulness he doubts or an ugly wife who will always be kind and loyal to him. The knight allows her to make the choice, and the ugly hag transforms into a beautiful woman, assuring her husband that since he has discovered a true answer to what a woman would like most, she will choose to be both beautiful and faithful to him, and they live happily ever after.

There is also another version of this tale, The Wedding of Gawaine and Lady Ragnell for Helping of King Arthur.* This story is a rather sanitized version of the first, and it is King Arthur who, after entering an enchanted land that weakens and sickens him, encounters the Loathly Lady in the forest. The Loathly Lady offers to help King Arthur return to his own land if Arthur will arrange a marriage to his nephew, Sir Gawain, for her. Arthur refuses and leaves the crone in the forest. Sir Gawain, though, has left the castle in search of his uncle, and he finds the crone in the forest. She tells him of what has just occurred, and Gawain, who is honorable, takes the woman back to court and weds her despite her hideousness. When they are left alone in their bridal chamber, a dismal Gawain sees not his ugly wife, but a beautiful woman standing before him. The lady –the Dame Ragnell – asks Gawain what he would prefer: a wife who was ugly by day and beautiful by night, or a wife who was beautiful by day and ugly by night. Gawain answers that she must make the choice and he would abide by it.  The lady, thrilled at her husband’s cleverness and his respect for her wishes, informs him that she has decided to be beautiful by day and night, for he has discovered that a woman wants her own way the most.

Illustration of a knight kneeling before an old lady
Image via Wikipedia

Both stories follow the same general plot line. The only difference is between the characters of the knight and of Sir Gawaine. The knight, who has committed a crime that would have resulted in his death if not for Queen Guinevere, escapes recompense for his crime and is almost rewarded for it when he allows his wife to choose what kind of woman he wishes to be. It is almost as though, through marrying an old hag and then giving his wife her own way in her choice of appearance throughout their marriage, he pays for what he did to the first young maiden in question. Gawaine, however, is shown in a much more positive light. He is a far nobler man than the knight in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale;” he steps up to the plate and fulfills the promise that his uncle could not make. As he has shown to be nobler and wiser than even his uncle, he is rewarded for it when he gives his wife her own choice of being beautiful during both day and night.

The stories, though, are a reflection of the times in which they were told. The Wife of Bath’s Tale depicts knights as they would most likely have been at that time, particularly during strife or war. The Wedding of Sir Gawaine and Dame Ragnell for the Helping of King Arthur, however, gives a more ideal picture of a chivalrous knight in the character of Sir Gawaine. While The Wife of Bath’s Tale, in a way, gives us a dose of the cold, hard truth, The Wedding of Sir Gawaine and Lady Ragnell for Helping of King Arthur gives us a version of what knights should aspire to be.

*Source of tale of Ragnell: A Keeper of Wordsby Anna-Marie Ferguson. The one linked is another version of it.

4 replies on “Quite the Conundrum: The Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Loathly Lady”

It’s important to remember that Chaucer’s prerogative throughout the Tales in their entirety is to critique un-careful interpretation. The tales aren’t separate from their tellers, and there are some major problems with the Wife of Bath’s inability to interpret carefully (that may be the real misogyny here–although many of the men don’t interpret their own tales correctly either: he Knight, who opens the tale-telling in the Tales, sets the tone for fantastical interpretation in his idealism of “knighthood”). As such, she thinks she’s telling a story about women’s sovereignty (“maistrye”), but it’s clear from her prologue that she has misinterpreted just about everything she quotes and doesn’t really understand the incongruencies her tales presents (the guy totally goes scot free for raping a woman! and actually ends up getting rewarded for it!). Chaucer means for the reader to see the disconnect & critique accordingly–but you really have to read the tales as a whole. Chaucer is wonderfully complicated & nuanced this way.

Well said, Claire.

I think, too, that much of what seems problematic about Chaucer’s works would have seemed problematic and complex to his audience, too. An issue like rape, for example, was viewed differently yet still seen as a crime. Chaucer himself was charged with “raptus,” (rape), though it’s unclear if the charge was for the physical act or for kidnapping, both of which fall under the heading “raptus.”

Chaucer was also interested in what makes people noble, and whether peasants can be noble. Here we see a knight of the Round Table acting most ignobly and an ugly hag acting…well, more noble than he is. And maybe we can view the story somewhat positively as a redemption tale.

But adding in the Wife’s background certainly adds another layer to things. What disturbs me about her Prologue is how easily she accepts domestic violence….but again, that was an issue that was viewed differently in the Middle Ages, though not positively. That she accepts a certain level of violence and misogyny makes her story a little easier to understand.

Oh, yes, I do understand where it’s coming from in terms of Chaucer’s purpose, but when comparing it to the tale of Sir Gawaine–which is more or less a different version of the tale–you can see a lot of differences. But then there is an element of satire to many of The Canterbury Tales, so The Wife of Bath’s Tale might be a sort of satire of the tale of Sir Gawaine and Dame Ragnell.

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