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English 451 Study Questions for Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue

Vocabulary: mock sermon, Lollard, heresy, antifeminist literature, incubus

Lecture or Handouts: What does the trait of being gap-teethed indicate about a person according to medieval beliefs about anatomy? What was the medieval attitude toward widows and remarriage? Who was Saint Jerome?

Identify the following characters:
The first three husbands
The fourth husband
The Clerk Jankin (the fifth husband)
Alison, the Wife of Bath
The Pardoner
The Friar
The Host

Reading Questions:

  • Which is better, actual experience or scholarly authority, according to the Wife of Bath's opening lines?
  • At what age was the Wife of Bath first married according to line four?
  • How many husbands has the Wife of Bath had "at chirche dore"?
  • What scriptural evidence from Christ's life was thought to be proof for medieval Christians that a woman should only be married once in her life? What scriptural evidence from Christ's life does the Wife of Bath hold up as evidence that a woman could be married multiple times?
  • Review the account of the Samaritan woman at the well from the New Testament. What error has the Wife of Bath introduced concerning the number of husbands the Samaritan woman has had? Does this error render her argument invalid, or does her point still hold true even if the details are a little off in her citation?
  • What, according to the Wife of Bath, is one clear commandment from Genesis that clearly indicates she should be married?
  • What does the Wife's point about "different schools" making diverse perfect students and "different methods" making workmen perfect? How does this connect to her own argument?
  • What Old Testament figures does the Wife of Bath point to as evidence that various "righteous men" and "wise men" could have multiple wives?
  • What does the wife of Bath mean when she sasy, "if there were no seed sown, /Virgnity--where then should it be grown?"
  • What is the Wife of Bath's counter-argument to celibate clergy who claim that the genitals are made (1) merely to pee and (2) merely to distinguish men from women?
  • Who are some of the characters that interrupt the Wife of Bath as she speaks? (List two or three of them).
  • What were her first three marriages like?
  • The Wife of Bath lists several complaints men typically make about women. What are some of these common complaints? (List two or three.)
  • What were the Wife's first three marriages like? What common features were found in each marriage match?
  • What made problems in the Wife of Bath's fourth marrige?
  • What did the Wife of Bath do to make her fourth husband loyal?
  • What problems did the Wife of Bath have with her fifth husband?
  • What revelation does the Wife of Bath have about the tears she cried at husband #4's funeral?
  • What sort of reading material did husband #5 read to her each night before going to bed? How did the Wife of Bath react to this?
  • What is the Wife of Bath's point when she asks "Who painted first the lion, tell me who?" To what fable is she alluding? What does she mean to imply about all those old books written about how evil women are?
  • What did the Wife of Bath do to anger her husband?
  • How did she become deaf in one ear? Might this be symbolic?
  • What trick did she employ to sucker-punch her husband and knock him back into the fireplace?
  • How did she achieve mastery over the last husband, and what was their marriage like afterwards?

Identify these quotations from the text by explaining the author, the work, and a sentence or two explaining what the passage is about, the passage's context, or why it is important:

A. "Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in marriage;
For lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be to God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve--
If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee--
And alle were worthy men in hir degree."

B. "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.

C. "Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes,
And diverse practyk in many sondry werkes
Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly:
Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I
Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal.

D. "Telle me also, to what conclusion
Were membres maad of generacion,
And of so parfit wys a [wright] ywroght?
Trusteth right wel, they were nat maad for noght.
Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun
That they were maked for purgacioun
Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale
Were eek to knowe a femele from a male
And for noon oother cause--say ye no?
The experience woot welit is noght so.
Sot that the clerkes be nat with me wrothe
I sey this: that they maked ben for bothe:
That is to seye, for office and for ese
Of egendrure,ther we nat God displese.

E. Up stirte the Pardoner, and that anon;
"Now, dame," quod he,l "by God and by Seint John!"
Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.
I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas!
What sholde I bye it on my flessh so deere?
Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere!"

D. "I seye, I hadde in herte greet despit
That he of any oother had delit.
But he was quit, by God and by Seint Joce!
I made hym of the same wode a croce,
Nat of my body, in no foul manere,
But certeinly, I made folk swich cheere
That in his owene grece I made hym frye
For angre, and for verray jalousye.
By God, in erthe I was his purgatorie,
For which I hope his soul be in glorie.

E. "Now of my fifthe housband wol I telle.
God lete his soule nevere come in helle!
And yet was he to me the mooste shrewe;
That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe.
And evere shal unto myn endyng day.
But in oure bed he was so fresshe and gay,
And therwithal so wel koude he me glose,
Whan gthat he wolde han my bele chose;
That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,
He koude wynne agayn my love anon.
I trowe, I loved hym best, for that he
Was of h is love daungerous to me.

F. He was, I trowe, twenty wynter oold,
And I was fourty if I shal seye sooth;
But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth.

G. Allas, allas! That evere love was synne!
I folwed ay myn inclinacioun
By vertue of my constellacioun:
That made me I koude noght withdrawe
My chambre of Venus from a good felawe.
Yet have I Martes mark upon my face,
And also in another privee place.

H."And wh;an I saught he wolde neverer fyne
To reden on this cursed book al nyght,
Al sodeynly the leves have I plyght
Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
I with my fest so took hym on the cheke
That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.
And he up stirte as dooth a wood leoun,
And with his fest he smoot me on the heed
That in the floor I lay as I were deed."


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