The Wife of Bath – The Battle of the Sexes

The Wife sees the relationship between men and women as a battle in which it is crucial to gain the upper hand, ‘Oon of us two must bowen, douteless’ Her armour was indeed necessary, as in Medieval England, women definitley were second class citizens who were viewed as goods and chattels, with no financial independence. They were often beaten, and it is clearly in the Wife’s nature to protect herself. She uses weapons like her sexuality and her youth to make her husbands suffer, so much so that they feel impotent. ‘How pitously a-night I made hem swinke! ‘

This weapon was highly effective with first three husbands who she managed to dominate, ‘I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond’ and they handed over ‘lond and hir tresoor’ as she with held sex in order to get her own way with them. The Wife also used a weapon of deceit and she clearly comments that women have this weapon from birth, ‘Swere and lyen as a womman kan’ She tells her audience that she would deliberately pick arguments and accuse her husbands of the very sins she herself is guilty of, because she admits that attack is the best form of defense, ‘Whoso that first to mille comth, first grint;

I pleyned first, so was oure werre ystint’ The Wife claims that all the other wives are better treated than herself, ‘sire olde kaynard, is this thyn array? Why is my neighebours wyfs so gay? ‘ and commonly uses her weapon of nagging. She accuses them of being miserly, ‘Why hidestow, with sorwe, The keyes of thy cheste awey fro me? ‘ She easily attains power over her first three husbands in this way, as they usually always capitulated for the sake of peace, as she notes, ‘They were ful glad whan I spak to hem faire For, God it woot, I chidde hem spitously. ‘

These weaponry methods were highly effective with the Wife’s first three husbands but less so with husband 4 and 5. Her fourth husband had a mistress, and from this relationship we catch a glimpse of the wife’s pain; as we know she seems to have already lost the weapon of sexuality and youth. She claims that she was ‘young and ful of ragerie’ and yet her sexuality did not hold him. She tried flirtation but this failed her depite her claims ‘I made him of the same wode a croce’.

She went on pilgrimmages in order to secape her ungappy marriage and we notice that her tone is part wistful, part dimissive… In her fifth marriage, the Wife claims that she make her 4th and 5th husband suffer, but we already know that she is a conspicuous liar. She really throws away her best weapons and Jankyn has the upper hand. She marries him for love and it is he who holds the weapon of sexuality. The Wife relinquishes her financial advantage, ‘yaf I al the lond and fee’ which she later regrets. Jankyn now uses the weapon of nagging, constantly bombarding her with tales of wicked wives. The position only changes when she fights back, tearing his book. A literal fight ensues and here, the Wife pulls up a new weapon, that of her feminine vulnerability.

She plays his cruelty to the hilt and he is guilt ridden. The consequence is that she is once again in control as ‘he yaf me al the bridel in myn hond To han the governance of ous and lond’ Although her marriage with her 5th husband is never resolved and there is no winner because he dies whilst she is on a pilgrimmage, she has a good battle, and probably the most difficult of all her husbands. The overall picture is of a Wife who has certainly fought the good fight. Not surprising as her astrological sign is Mars, implying strength in war. She is still confident and looking to welcome husband number 6.

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