Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Wife of Bath

Of all of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, the "sely" Wife of Bath -- Alisoun, by name -- has been, from the very start, the most vivid and memorable. Her passion, her "wandering by the way," and her battles with each of the five husbands she had "at chirche door" are the stuff of legend.

And, as with other Canterbury pilgrims, the variants in Chaucer's manuscript reveal rich and complex possibilities that are lost in a standardized text or translation.  For instance, the Wife of Bath's Prologue famously begins:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right y-nough for me ...

Except that, in many manuscripts, it doesn't. In the Corpus Christi manuscript -- one of the oldest and finest known -- it runs this way:

Experiment though noon Auctoritee
Were in this world, is ryght ynough for me ...             (folio 100r)

What difference does that make?  An enormous one, both then and now, as the renowned British author Jeanette Winterson has noted:
I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
So, if you were editing the text of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, which word would you choose?  And why?
NB: If you like, you can look up the words experiment and experience in the Middle English Dictionary, which will show you how those words were used in Chaucer's day.

15 comments:

  1. Wife of a Bath is kind of funny actually. I think I would choose experience. Her point is the many husbands she has had from a young age. It is her experiences with those men that made her who she is. She had 5. I suppose she was rich in experience of common sense rather than intellect. She gained her particular knowledge thru the husbands she had. She learned only thru being "a wife". She had no other experiences to offer the prologue.

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  2. I would choose "experience" to use. As Erin stated above, the Wife of Bath is telling her story, the story of a woman who has really known very little other than being a wife. However, I don't necessarily see this with a negative connotation, the way Jeanette Winterson did. It's true that there was and maybe still is a difference in the way female and male writers are viewed, but I don't think the idea of women writing from "experience" makes their stories any less relevant or notable. The Wife of Bath is telling her tale with a point, giving the literature a strong perspective that would be lost had she been a different character with different experiences.

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  3. I would also choose the word "experience" since the prologue tells the tale of her five marriages. It is her experience with those marriages that made her the woman she is today. One could see her five marriages as experiments and through those experiments she gained life experience. And the prologue speaks of what she had gained so I feel the word experience is more fitting.

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  4. I think "experience" is the better word, as the whole prologue speaks of experiences. In addition, I feel it would be better to remain close to the original meaning Chaucer intended, and if experience works better, then that should be the proper translation.

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  5. I would agree with everyone else and choose "experience" as the better word. This woman was shown marriage at a young age and took it a toll on her life. She went through suffering and troubling times. She had not just one, but five husbands. Each one of these husbands have given her new memories and have had a part of her life. So I believe "experience" best describes the prologue because if it wasn't for experience, she wouldn't be where she is right now.

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  6. The wife of Bath certainly has to be the most iconic of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I still wonder what he thought of her. She can be taken two ways, as a snobbish, shameless, manipulative woman. She can also be considered an incredibly free women. I think both are true. When you said the others liked her prologue, I thought they hated it, they kept telling her to hurry up. Did you mean her story? I can't really say too much, I prefer the explanations you give in class.

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  7. I am going to go a bit off the norm and choose "Experiment" Her story is one of experimental experiences that make up her life. As Zara stated above, she can be taken two ways, and both paint a picture of her accurately. I think that because of her different experiences and ways of life with each of her husbands and within those marriages that "experiment" is a word that fits her, trying and figuring out what she wants and how her life to be.

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  8. If I were to rewrite the tale in order to better describe the wife of bath, I would go with the term experience. I choose this word because the wife of bath is a woman of trial and error, one who has gone through life living day to day and searching for what she truly desires. She has become old and undesirable and yet still finds meaning in life and is able to enjoy it.

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  9. For a women in that time period, what a liberal and exciting way to live one's life! I'm thinking her behavior would be considered quite scandalous during that time, being a woman and getting married more than once. Other than the aristocracy, who loved marrying off their kin for more land, money or other strategic reasons, not many women went out and married multiple times of their own accord. I envied her bravery for comparing herself to the men of the time who took many, MANY wives. Way to go for women's lib in Chaucer's time! If I were to edit the text, I actually would use BOTH words. I start with experiment, because how else can one figure out how to manipulate people? Although she did this with each husband, they were technically all individuals, and each has a different trigger for her to exploit. From each of her marriages, she basically experimented on each one to see how she could get what she desired, and then applied that experience to the next. Clearly she had to draw on all of the previous experimentation and apply that experience when figuring out how to dominate her fifth husband, who was a tough one to break, but she also enjoyed the physical aspect of that relationship the most. But all of that past experience paid off when she finally figured out his achilles heel and he bowed to her whims.

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  10. I would use the word "experience" to describe the life of The Wife of Bath. She is not a character who follows rules, and she lives by trial and error, by experience. She isn't afraid to try and make mistakes (I mean, seriously, there aren't many folks out there who would get married five separate times and look forward to a sixth that aren't serial spouse killers, but I digress....). Experimentation is all right, but she learns from experience how to control her husbands so that they do what she desires of them. She experiences all of her pilgrimages. She lives a life many would not: a life of actually experiencing rather than hiding from the very aspects of life the way many of us do now.

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  11. While I agree with some of the comments above regarding how the Wife of Bath is a very liberal and free character, I also think that it is important to keep in mind that she is only that, a character. Also the text was written by a male, so to claim she represents some sort of female empowerment isn't entirely accurate. I do however love her character, I think that she is extremely cunning and essentially does whatever it takes to get what she desires. Experience is definitely the better word to use, as her general experiences tend to help her manipulate future situations.

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  12. Experiment.
    life itself is nothing but trails and errors. its about trying new things experimenting what life has to offer.

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  13. “Experience” is a better representation of the prologue seeing as it appears to be based off experiences. The woman experienced many troubles in her life. Upon having five husbands she experienced five different lifetimes and memories throughout each, whether they be good or bad.

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  14. I'll go with the minority and say "experiment". As Mackenzie said above "life itself is nothing but trials and errors. It's about trying new things experimenting what life has to offer". I would have to completely agree with that, life is about testing things out to see what you like and dislike, that's what I feel like the Wife of Bath is trying to do as well.

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  15. The Wife is known to be a devotee to wanderlust and a devotee to lust itself, having lived with five husbands. She seems cultured and independent, experiencing the ways of the world through love and sex. The Wife lives a carefree life, using her body and wit to retain things from men. Because of the era of when this story was written, it is difficult to not ask the question, is the Wife of Bath meant to contradict the misogynist ideas of her time, or to sustain them? The Wife uses her sexual attributes for personal gain instead of trying to prove her equal status to men.

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