Monday, February 19, 2018

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.


  1. If I were editing this, I think I would use the word experience. I think it connotes more meanings of being and existence. The female "experience" is so unique and the Wife of Bath embodies that.

    - Alana Perez

  2. I would choose the word experience because, the wife does experience many marriages throughout her life. An experiment was more by chance or an accident according to the middle English dictionary, while an experience you have felt it, it’s something that has happened to us and it can shape who we become. Although they both have to do observe, Experience is being able to observe it one on one. The wife describes her marriages with all of her husbands. She was able to experience with them one on one and experience the many different relationships. Experience has to do with emotions while an experiment is a test. Also, when I think of experiment I think of science and doing things to find more about that specific thing. I think "experienced" would be what i choose because the wife wanted to experience these men one on one and feel a connection.-Jaimee Barrett

  3. When reading this proluge and learning about exprience vs authority, i cant help but thing about a recent debate on woman rights in health care that happen a few years ago. Just like in the proluge, many religious authority figures wanted to determine how women should be treated in the work place. The right choice was for women to have to the right to determine how they act and be treated. The wife with her exprience brings up great points, that her exprince is much better then following the church. She using the bible aginst the church by talking about king Solomon's wife is one great point.
    Richard young

  4. Using experience vs. experiment makes a huge difference in the text overall, the same message is not perceived. I would use the word experience because I feel it more accurately depicts what the wife has gone through. I felt as thought the text were trying to communicate more so her journey or process of observation rather than the action, when considering both of the Middle English Dictionary definitions.

    - Crystal Agyemang

  5. I believe that educating yourself on the differences between experiment and experience is very beneficial when relating it to the Wife of Baths tale. While analyzing the Middle English dictionary definitions and adding my own interpretation, I believe that an experiment is basically a test. You have a thesis, a motive behind it, and you want to figure out your conclusion so you can relate it back to your beginnings. An experiment should not have any emotions or deep, personal relations behind it. Meanwhile, an experience is an occurrence that can touch someone and their life tremendously, thus what the wife is going through with her marriages.

  6. The Wife of Bath’s story is very descriptive of her own life experiences. For that reason, I would choose the word experience. I believe that experiences shape the way a person acts or behaves in given situations. For example, the Wife of Bath’s own personal experience with her previous husbands, led to her strong opinions of her lustful life and feminist ideals. Due to her experience and personality, the Wife of Bath was able to control all of her previous husbands. She seduced them and would make them buy her frivolous things. In addition, the particular vibrant scene of her throwing pages from the book into the fire, show how much of a feminist she was. Had the word experiment been used, it would have made it seem that each husband was an experiment in a game she was playing, rather than a critical part to the development of her character. The word experience implies that one has learned from the event, “The action of observing, seeing with one's own eyes, hearing with one's own ears, investigating, testing, or experimentation”, which I believe perfectly describes the Wife of Bath.

    Sarah Basler

  7. The correct word to depict the Wife of Bath would be experience. An experience is something one goes through, in the Wife of Bath’s case, she experienced many husbands. Using the word “experiment” would show the life of the Wife of Bath as something that needed to be scientifically proven. We knew as readers the Wife of Bath had many husbands, but could someone possibly prove all of her husbands? Therefore “experience” would be a better way to communicate everything the Wife of Bath has gone through.
    Jenna Cipriano

  8. The Wife of Bath is all over the place. There is so many topics it seems confusing to me. It talks about marriage, God, liquor. Many topics that would have been important in this era. But how can you talk about God and then having several husbands or wives, seems sacrilegious to me. Nothing seems to flow. Crystal Ruger

  9. I would choose the word experience because the Wife of Bath is very experienced with her five marriages and affairs. She is very controlling and she's good at arguing. I think her different husbands were her own experiments. An experiment usually doesn't involve romance so I think since her husbands were a experiment for her she didn't get attached to them so it was easy for her to have many.

  10. The difference between experiment and experience ranges and could go two separate ways allowing a difference to be made with which word you choose. If I were editing this, experience is what I would choose. Even though Henry James tries to say that Jane Austen only writes the tiny observant, women writers are seen to experience more such as the Wife of the Bath. All of her marriages and affairs making her very experienced throughout the text. Experiments are shown as she goes from husband to husband but her experience is what jumps out of the text to me.

  11. The question of Experience vs. experiment is a good topic to discuss when studying the Wife of the Bath story. I think experience is a better word to use in this context, but I think the two words work together in some ways. Since the Wife of the Bath has been married four times she may have changed her preferences on the men she was attracted too and maybe wanted to "experiment" with others. Her attractions would lead her to new "experiences" which would ultimately allow her to take control of her 5th husband. Interesting way to think of things!

  12. I think I would choose experiment because even though I can argue that the Wife of Bath has many experiences, Chaucer makes this vivid figure complex by having her claim to be a pious woman despite her non-normative (in regards to medieval times) relationships with men, which is a type of experiment in itself with a woman character in this time period. She is independent and unapologetic about her past and sexuality. Her sexual rigor and aggressiveness which are qualities frowned upon are hinted by her wide hips and gap tooth. She has had 5 husbands so the sanctity of marriage doesn’t seem important even though she claims to be pious. She believes in God and is religious, but also believes using her body to inflict power in a patriarchal society is okay as well. She does this to obtain money and financial support which allows her to move freely in the world. In short, The Wife of Bath is a proto-feminist who experiments with customs and upends them freely, which I think is more appropriate than suggesting that experiences is what defines this fiery character. –Arrissa Tavares

  13. Chaucer portrays, The Wife of Bath, to be very independent and an "expert" on what women desire. She emphasizes on women wanting dominance or power over men. If I were editing this I would chose the word experience. Although she had 5 husbands, I think her marriages did not last because she was not getting what wanted out of her marriage. I believe she used her past experiences to figure out what she really desires.
    -Leony Lopes

  14. Nair GonçalvesMay 1, 2018 at 5:47 PM

    If I were editing this, I would use the word experience. I would use that particular word because The Wife of The Bath is not like a typical woman from this time. She is liberated in a way many would view as taboo, and she lives her life defying the stereotypical role of a woman. Even in today’s time, I think she would be looked at as revolutionary. She has many husbands, she is dominant, she is comfortable in her sexuality and expresses it. This is all an experience for her, rather than an experiment. She is experiencing life as a Woman who refuses to confine herself to the small box women are often shoved into, and this story is all about her experiences. I feel like experiment alludes more to uncertainty and that she’s just trying new things out but I don’t believe that is her case.