The Canterbury Tales The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Summary
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is even longer than her tale. She begins by announcing that experience trumps knowledge and summing up her own experience in marriage: she has had a total of five husbands, and she is looking for her sixth. Her first three husbands were old men, to whom she was married young and whom she outlived; they all died in old age, leaving her with considerable property.
Her fourth husband was a man she chose to marry while she was “sowing her wild oats” after the death of her first three husbands. Although they both liked to party, it hurt her that her fourth husband kept a mistress and refused to give her up after they married. Her fourth husband was also frequently away from home on business, and while he was gone, she cultivated a relationship with a potential fifth husband, a clerk named Jankyn. During one such visit, she tells Jankyn that she dreamed he had killed her in her bed and left her covered in blood, but that “blood bitokeneth gold” and that the dream therefore meant that if they married, Jankyn would be rich.
In time, the Wife of Bath’s fourth husband died and she married Jankyn. However, despite the fact that she claims to have married Jankyn for love, their relationship did not go smoothly at first. Jankyn was fond of scolding his wife by reading to her from a book about “wicked wives” and comparing her to them. One night, the Wife of Bath gets so fed up with Jankyn’s scolding that she tears a page from his book. He responds by hitting her so hard that she becomes deaf in one ear. When she comes to, Jankyn apologizes for hitting her and promises to obey her will in their marriage from then on. She makes him burn his book, and they live together happily from that moment on.
With this Prologue over, the Wife of Bath begins her tale, which is about a knight in King Arthur’s court. While out riding one day, the knight finds a young peasant girl and rapes her. Although the penalty for his crime is death, when the knight is brought before King Arthur’s court, the Queen and her ladies beg to have the case turned over to them. They tell the knight that they will spare his life if, within the next year, he discovers the answer to the question “What thing do women most desire in marriage?”
The knight wanders about the kingdom for a year, trying desperately to find the answer. As the year ends, he discovers a “loathly lady” in the forest. She promises to tell him the answer, as long as he gives her whatever she asks. The knight agrees and takes her back to the court, where the loathly lady tells him the answer to the question “what thing do women most desire in marriage?” is “mastery over all things.”
The Queen and the ladies of the court agree that this is the answer to the question and spare the knight’s life, but the loathly lady points out that the knight must now give her whatever she wants – and she wants him to marry her. Although he tries to beg his way out of the deal, the Queen holds him to it, and the marriage is celebrated.
On the wedding night, the knight and the loathly lady are alone in their bedchamber, but the knight can’t bring himself to get into bed with her. The loathly lady gives him a lecture on the true nature of “gentilesse,” or a noble nature, and then offers him a deal: either he can have a wife who is beautiful on the outside but has the “mastery” to do whatever she wants, or a wife who is ugly but leaves the “mastery” to him. The knight agrees to give her the “mastery,” at which point the loathly lady takes on the form of a beautiful young woman. She agrees to obey him in public for the sake of appearances, and they live happily ever after.