From The February 2000 St John's Eagle
Chaucer's Wife of Bath" - By John Harcourt
The Canterbury Tales, although left unfinished by Chaucer, is certainly the greatest poem of late-medieval England. In it, the poet assembles some thirty pilgrims at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. They are to set out the next day for Canterbury, to visit the great shrine of Thomas à Beckett — a journey of some three or four days.
The innkeeper, their host, is caught up in the excitement. Not only dies he decide to join them but he proposes that each of them shall tell two tales on the way down and two more during the return. He, Harry Bailly, will judge who had performed the best, and the winner will be the guest of honor at a banquet on their return to London.
Chaucer's pilgrims are hardly a cross-section of fourteenth-century England. The highest ranking male is a mere knight; a prioress from a minor religious house, heads the list of clerics: most of them are middle-class characters, plus a sprinkling of out-and-out rogues. The Wife of Bath stands out as one of literature's greatest creations.
She is probably in her late forties, still vigorous, irrepressibly earthy. She has done well in the cloth industry and, for a medieval woman, is remarkably well traveled — three trips to Jerusalem, as well as one to Rome, one to Bologna, one to the shrine of St. James at Compostella, and one to Cologne, where the Three Magi were especially venerated. In Chaucer's world, pilgrimages were as much for leisure as for religious devotion — rather like pilgrims in our own time or high holy days spent in the Poconos. The Wife of Bath also has an eye open for a new husband, perhaps to be found among the pilgrims proceeding with her to Canterbury.
Of husbands, she already has outlived five ("apart from other company in youth") — all tempestuous relationships. The Wife keenly relishes the sensuous pleasures of marriage. Chaucer describes her as having a space between two front teeth, "Venus's birthmark," as one translator puts it — a sure sign of an intensely passionate nature. indeed, it is hard to say which she has enjoyed more — the joys of sex or the challenge of the power struggle engaged in with each of her successive husbands.
Now, in middle age (statistically old for her century), she looks back upon it all with self-evident satisfaction:
But Lord Jesus! When I do remember me
Upon my youth and on my jollity
It tickles me about my heart's deep root.
To this day does my heart sing in salute
That I have had my world as in my time.
She permits herself a brief sigh as she considers the ravages of time, but her spirit remains undaunted.
The flour is gone, there is no more to tell.
The bran, as best I may, must I now sow;
But yet to be bright merry I will try.
The tale she tells after her Prologue is a miracle of delicacy, an old woman's dream of renewed youth, frankly recognized as just a dream and nothing more.
"I have had my world as in my time." These words say it all. The Wife, like all of us, has been granted a certain space, a certain segment of time, to make of them what she would. Her "time" must have an end even as it had a beginning, but that fact, while recognized, does not dominate her consciousness. Whether long or short, life for her is to be lived to the fullest measure. It is a present joy, it is an eternal truth — part of the indelible record of the goodness of God's creation.
To have, to enjoy, to let go when we must without rancor, to be merry to the last — therein, she seems to say, lies true wisdom. She refuses to pick a fight with the Church Fathers and their misogyny, their curious preference for virginity, their tendency to bless even marriage with the little finger of the left hand. She does not argue with them; she simply refuses to believe a word of it. Self-denial, sacrifice, other-worldliness no doubt have their place in the scheme of things, but they are not for her. Life is good; she refuses to write off this world as a place of exile, a valley of tears. The good Lord, after all, made it, and who is she to quarrel with his decision?
"I have had my world as in my time."
"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10)
Harcourt is the Charles A. Dana Professor of
English Emeritus at Ithaca College.