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Looking at literary history – Niamh Clarke goes back to Chaucer

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Niamh Clarke is originally from Dundalk, Co.Louth. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from NUI, Galway. She is currently studying a Diploma in Journalism from The Irish Academy of Public Relations and has a FETAC certificate in Print Journalism from Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute. She is the writer at the blog The Essay Yeti. She has edited several books and has an ITEC certificate in Proofreading and Editing. Niamh is based in Louth and is working as a freelance journalist. She is also editor and writer for the newsletter at National Leing Network, Dundalk branch.


Are Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Clerk’s performances opposed or aligned?

By Niamh Clarke

Geoffrey Chaucer was writing in the middle ages and is known as the Father of English Literature. He wrote many works including The Legend of Good Women, Trolius and Criseyde and, most famously, The Canterbury Tales. He wrote in middle English vernacular which was an unusual move at the time, moving away from the dominant French and Latin verse of writers at the time.

The literary historical context of Chaucer feeds nicely into contemporary literature. His poetry and themes are as relevant today as they were in the middle ages. He reaches out to readers with his humour, his succinct language and his marvellous plots. His poetry is timeless in this respect. Whether you’re new to literature or a well-seasoned reader, Chaucer holds appeal for all. His relevance today is felt – he is fresh, funny, profound and thought-provoking.

The Canterbury Tales tells of a group of people on pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, who provide tales as part of a story-telling contest. On the journey, two pilgrims – the studious Clerk and the garrulous Wife of Bath offer their tales. The relationship between the two characters and their stories has been highlighted by many readers. The two characters are seemingly opposed – as people they could not be more different: the Clerk is reserved, precise and learns from books – the Wife is unreserved, outgoing and claims to learn from experience. Both tales are a justification of their approaches to life.

Because the pair contrast so much on the surface of things, the question of their performances being opposed or aligned is one that is worth examining. What is the nature of their performances that make them so connected? Are the Wife and Clerk’s performances opposed or aligned?

I come from a long line of men,
who saw words not as decorations
but weapons, knives with which to cut
others down to size.

Kevin Higgins[1].

‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not’, urges Staretz Silouan[2].  That the mind will protect against experience and all its adversity is still a commonplace place idea. And Chaucer’s Clerk certainly embodies the mind: books, learning and teaching are not just his livelihood – they make up who he is; books are his life (GP, 300). What the Clerk reads becomes what he is; Chaucer fuses activity with ontology in his tale. Books keep the Clerk’s identity protected even as he sleeps at night (GP, 293). Like a sailor or a young man drowning for the first time in oceanic experience, the patristic clerk clings to his books like a buoy. We glean, in the description of him in the General Prologue, how book-learning assimilates itself into the Clerk’s being. While it might be hard or even a mock-able offense nowadays to sleep with books instead of women, the General Prologue signals to us the grave, if not extreme, importance of books to the very essence of the ideal Clerk. He lives for nothing else than deciphering other people’s words. He has committed himself to his own mind, or in terms of the Arcade Fire song _My Body is a Cage_:

‘My mind holds the key’.

In a dualistic sense, the Clerk’s identity is centred on that of mind over matter. He thinks, therefore he is. In ontological contrast – there is the elemental Wife of Bath – lover of experience, lover of herself. She is, therefore she makes us think. Books inseminate the Clerk’s life with sacred meaning, but, within the Canterbury Tales, the Wife germinates the Clerk’s response to her in the first place[3]. The Wife is by virtue of her being an explosive and deeply paradoxical terrain. She is paradox of both water and fire[4]. She is paradox of natural elements (for example, she embodies water, she embodies the material, and explicitly promotes the sexual) and artificial elements: we meet with her synthetic identity (for example, she is a hotchpotch of man-made ideas and words, she is heavily clothed). She paradox of both surface and depth (her being is very superficial but the level of her reference creates a sense of depth, however confusing). She is paradox of meaning and meaninglessness. In terms of semantics, the Wife could be summed up in the words of Yogi Berra:

‘I never said most of the things I said[5]’.
But what does it really mean to ‘say what you mean’ via other people’s words? The Wife through her over-exaggerated reference to other people’s words causes us to question both her identity and her autonomy. But the situation is still muddy: when one uses the words of others, as the Wife does, is one a puppet or a puppet master? Moreover, does the paper-thin Wife of Bath even have a human voice? – Because even her ‘love’ of all that is sexual is forced and ruthless: sex is economical; sex is a Darwinian debt owed to her: ‘for my profit’ (WP, 214). She flirts with meaning and other authors’ texts so much so that she reaches the point of committing hermeneutic sadomasochism: ‘For myn entente nis but for to pleye’ (WP, 192). And we instinctively do not believe a word she says, because of her over the top performance, and because she openly confesses that she is a liar[6]: no-body can believe a liar even when he is telling the truth. Furthermore, what do we make of how her devious ambiguity stimulates the lyrical growth of the Clerk[7]? Is her threat to meaning the ideal-landscape where a Clerk must enter, and attempt to keep his mind against her hellish ways? It certainly seems so.

The Wife’s prologue is a wasteland of human voices, mocking the very act of men who ‘devyne and glosen up and doun’ (WP, 26).  She spits upon the scholar’s gabardine:

‘For truseth wel it is an impossible

That any clerk wol speke good of wyves’ (WP 688 – 689).

She ‘maugree’[8] not only the moral integrity of clerks, but also she sullies their pursuits of meaning, preferring experience, notably sexual experience, above and beyond book-learning.  And the fervent debate over her status as a feminist or misogynist is further testimony to the hermeneutic difficulty she displays. That the Wife oscillates between misogynistic as well as feminist positions[9] heralds her profound ambiguity. The flirtatious nature of her affair with stable meaning causes me to seriously question my reading of her. Within the text she is not just a Wife or a female character. She functions as a metaphoric entity. She is inherently standoffish, and her instance in the text entices us to go beyond her speech, to not trust her, and to interrogate gender, discourse, relationships, identity, experience, intellectualisation[10], and reading. This is achieved through her seductive language games, her openness, her unavailability, and her body. Her flits between aggression for her own female gender and for masculine intellect are disorienting and evasive. She is, of course, readable as an all-too-human comic character, but the Wife’s over-arching embodiment of sexuality, materiality, her demand for absolute power, and how she is a consumer of so many human voices – this all transfigures her being and her behaviour. In many ways she thus becomes a garrulous landscape within the Tales rather than a believable human being. And while Chaucer’s Clerk is an ideal template of a good Clerk, he still maintains a sense of grounding in his humanity. The Wife is completely out of touch with her own humanity. She neither displays nor betrays any reasonable reality to her person or levels with us as readers. The Wife journeys beyond ‘wife’ or ‘human’, not because she is a victim of patriarchy, but because she defies even our ideal expectations of any single person. Her general dearth of genuine, human affection[11] for her husbands, the wide-ranging extent of her travels, her inexhaustible appetite for sex and for marriage, and her aggressively Darwinian attitude towards relationships causes the mind to blank at the glare. All of this causes serious doubts over the believability of the Wife as representing an individual with a gripe against scholars. The Wife is a metaphorical landscape[12]. When we observes the contours of her Prologue especially we realise she has seduced us into a metaphor of ‘Wife’ itself. She becomes the allegorical vehicle in which to As Lee Patterson states, ‘The Wife’s analogy between her “joly body” and the corpus of her text invokes a powerful medieval connection between sexuality and reading’ (Patterson, p.6).  The Wife is a hellish experience for the Clerk’s chaste mind[13]. She represents a threat to his very being, and poses a profound possibility for his mental anguish. She tries to provoke his despair, to burn his books in her fire, and to abandon all hope in his mind. She is the hell he must keep his mind in. The performance of the Clerk is in total response to the Wife, and in the reading of their relationship I witness how both performances oppose and align at different points. To further analyse how the characters oppose we focus on the Wife’s overuse of glossing:

At first, the mind is in danger of drowning in her sound-bath. The Wife’s Prologue stitches together echoes of other human voices[14]. She lays down scholarly sound-bites in order to impose her ‘own’ views on them and persuade that experience trumps intellectualization, that her being trumps the Clerk’s being. The Wife de-familiarises well-known biblical stories through her immediate naturalisation of them. She places her own sexualised interpretation on religious works as she attempts to penetrate the clerical sphere:

‘And certes, if ther were no seed y-sowe,
Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it grow?
Poul dorste nat comanden, atte leste,
A thing of which his maister yaf noon heste. (WP, 71-74).

Her attempt to interpret authority marks her rejection of exegesis in favour of her immediate, self-serving ethos: experience is ‘right ynough for me’, she says (WP, 2). She draws on a multitude of religious and patristic writings. She ambiguously floats once sacred and meaningful phrases upon the flood of her garrulous performance. Her Prologue is fragmented, a textual wasteland. Her speech is impregnated with patriarchal teachings plucked out of their respective contexts. The Wife attempts to pour cold water over the endeavour of glossing, and clerical voices are tossed about so exhaustively that they drown in her diatribe. No-one could ultimately know what she was doing. In opposition to this, the Clerk by his very being stands for precision and for the integrity of reference. He is intellect and love of coherent meaning.  He initially honours his sources:

‘I wol yow telle a tale which that I
Lerned at Padowe of a worthy clerk.
As preved by his words and his werk’ (CP, 26-28).

The Clerk values proof, meaning and work. All good clerks desire this pinpointing, accurateness, and scholarly integrity. The Wife eschews authority, and this positions her as his archenemy. By feigning glossing through her own exaggerated ‘referential mania’[15], the Wife irresponsibly bandies about other people’s words so as to undercut the Clerk and disorientate him. Doing this isolates herself and the Clerk[16]. Their different use of referencing destines them to be rivals. Her referential mimicry is a direct attack on the Clerk’s way of life. Caroline Dinshaw describes her mimicry of clerical glossing:

The woman’s desire must be merely mimetic; the Wife chronicles her own busy “purveyance/ Of marriage”(570-571). The gloss undertakes to speak (for) the text; the Wife maintains that the literal text – her body – can speak for itself (Dinshaw, p. 571).

The Wife, a ‘knower manqué’ (Carney, p.61), situates herself in favour of the literal reading of the feminine text[17]. The challenge is as follows: Experience is feminine, and unless the male Clerk burns his books, his sense of self, and submits to the Wife’s experience then he is living in ignorance. Her mimicry signals to her sense of higher, metaphorical consciousness and didactic purposiveness, and ‘embedded deep in this story is the untraditional idea that men must learn from women (Knappe, p.127).

In terms of the performances’ opposition, there is a fundamental power-struggle between the Clerk and the Wife. The Wife ties her all husbands to her kitchen chair – and from their lips she draws their masculine powers:

‘Upon his flesh, whyl that I am his wyf,
I have the power during al my lyf
Upon his proper body and noght he’ (WP, 157 -159).

Here the Wife’s demand for her husband’s sovereignty, his body, his ‘lyf’, is stated in non-negotiable language. She does not phrase herself in the hypothetical. ‘I have the power’ (WP, 158): this is an unequivocal statement about the pattern of every one of her marriage arrangements. She is confident of her ability. All of her husbands submit their complete power to her even if it pains them: ‘How pitously a-night I made hem swinke’ (WP, 203), says the Wife unfeelingly. Hellish Experience herself displays nothing but callousness; she has no real emotions. In darkness, in martial hell, she induces her husbands’ suffering. She ignores their voices, as she exploits their bodies. They labour defencelessly in her marriage bed:

‘I sette hem do a-werke, by my fey,
That many a night they songen weilawey!’ (WP, 215-216)

The Wife’s self-description here is important: she sets men to work as though she were a landscape to slave on. And it is significant that she causes men to sing. Man’s response to her is nothing but a desperate song in her night-time.  All her husbands inevitably die. She describes her relationship to men in diurnal and nocturnal language’: Myn housbond shal have it bothe eve and morwe’ (WP, 151-152). This places her in the role of Mother Earth as opposed to an intimate human Wife[18]. And even though they are as near to her as they physically can be — there is no sense of intimacy: her husbands obtain no pleasure. Still men sing, and Alisoun has ears in vain.

We need to seriously ask who are the Wife and the Clerk? J.A Alford looks to the General Prologue as providing the best insight by virtue of the ontological description there. Alford posits that ‘From the very start, not because of what they say but because of what they are, these two are destined to clash. Look at their portraits side by side. They are mirror opposites’ (Alford, p.108). Alford’s point that they are destined to clash is correct, but his idea that the two characters are exact mirror opposites fails to capture the wider relationship they share within the text. Alford’s mirror opposites rigidly play out ‘the recurrent tension between two modes of discourse, rhetorical and philosophical’ (Alford, p.110). While his argument begins with a focus on their very being, Alford’s reading goes on to silence the wider dramatic context of the tales. This drama is essential to furthering our understanding of Wife and Clerk. That they are precise mirrored historical rivals is attractive, but merely viewing the Wife as the Clerk’s opposite number ignores the ontological clues that she offers us in her overall performance. It also ignores the unfolding nature of their dialogue from within the organ of the text. To not move outside their opposition binds the two characters together in a misleading way. It is misleading because crucial to the relationship between the Wife and the Clerk is their imbalance and not their exact ontological mirroring.  The Wife teaches us to not view her solely in human terms when we examine the contours of her Prologue especially.

The Wife comes first; the Wife’s speech dominants.  Her Prologue and Tale is a thicket through which any Clerk must wade. She brambles out wildly and inaccurately to other texts. Her performance grows over the Canterbury Tales like ivy. Her aggression, her sexuality and her vulgarity is wide ranging and domineering.  The Wife is the biggest personality in the Canterbury Tales, and her experience creates an imbalance between herself and the Clerk in particular. Her scope is seismic, far reaching and geographical[19]. Her swallowing of scholars’ language reminds of Spenser’s monster, Errour. Like Errour, the Wife also consumes books and regurgitates them, but whether the Wife is correct or erroneous is not the topic. The point is that she is depicted both as being monstrous or larger than life. She is not realistic; no-one could marry that many men, or unconsciously consume so many books. Viewed from the wider perspective of her function within the text as a whole, the Clerk’s performance is an attempt to penetrate the verbal landscape of the Wife. In this sense he is dependent on her for his response, his tale and his lyrical transformation. Like Redcrosse, the Clerk enters the cavern of the Wife and tries to keep his mind in the midst of her experience.

The ultimate deciding factor in the relationship between the Clerk and the Wife lies not only in the Clerk’s envoy but in his account of Petrarch’s Griselda and Walter.  ‘God is to Man, as Griselda is to Walter’ (Condren, p.125.). Edward. I. Condren, in his interpretation of the Clerk’s Tale, rejects the critical reading that ‘Walter equals God, Griselda equals human being’ (Condren, p.125). Instead, Condren highlights evidence from the text that supports how the opposite is the case in Chaucer’s appropriation of Petrarch’s tale. Chaucer changes details from both Petrarch’s and the French version, and achieves a transformation of ‘Griselda from merely a heavenly creature into a figure of Christ’ (Condren, p.128). Condren’s argument positions Walter in a postlapsarian quagmire, and explores the equivalences that Chaucer’s text makes between Griselda and Christ. In particular, Chaucer’s emphasis on Griselda’s place of birth, according to Condren, echoes the Nativity; her willingness to die for Walter and her constant, perfect love for her material husband, her community and her children alike transcends the boundaries of Walter’s human infallibility, and elevates Griselda’s identity to that of Christ:

‘If Grisleda’s humble birth in a stable, her description as a saviour and a lamb, as well as her perfect love all suggest parallels with Christ, her career as Walter’s wife also follows a pattern similar to Christ’s life on earth’(Condren, p.129).

Condren is correct to equate Griselda with Christ. But although Condren recognises the dramatic context of the Wife and the Clerk, he prefers to emphasize the Clerk’s response in relation to the Host and by doing this misses a vital point in the necessity of the Wife.  While the host is the prime mover of the tales, the specific impetus of the Clerk’s performance is the Wife.  The dynamic of the two characters is of crucial importance. The Clerk’s equation of Grisleda with Christ has implications on his wider relationship to the Wife of Bath. Seen in this light, Walter’s relationship to Griselda thus mirrors the relationship of the Knight to the Old Woman in the Wife’s Tale. Griselda transfigures Walter just as the Old Woman transfigures the Knight. Therefore in the telling of his tale, both Clerk and Wife’s performances align. Both tell of the transformation of lusty bachelors (WT, p.883) who must undergo a process of personal change in relation to their patient Wife. The female guides the sinful, power-hungry male to willingly submit all sovereignty to her. In making Griselda Christ, the Clerk admits something crucial to the Wife of Bath: that ultimately he is in subjugation to her experience, and although his sect forbids him to openly admit it, a husband must always hand over his trust, his intellect, and his worldly power to his Wife.  Often the Wife is explained as being trapped within patriarchal discourse but when one considers Chaucer’s change of Petrarch’s material that subtly places a Wife in the Christ position, then we get the suspicion that it is the Clerk who is really the one trapped with his discourse. His sect demands coherency, and his lyrical transformation[20] is a move away from the ideal, serious clerk and an acknowledgement the Wife’s experience. The Clerk is transformed by the experience of the Wife.

The Clerk then encourages ‘archewyves’ who undergo marital hell to stand strong against abusive husbands; in other words – to ‘despair not’ in marriage: ‘Ye archewyves, stondeth at defence –’ (CE, 1195).  It is worthwhile to interrogate the meaning of his sentence. In light of Grisleda transfigured into Christ by the Clerk, this can be read not just in straightforward terms of patronising advice to archeswyves, but rather as a statement about archewyves –they stand defensive, mysterious, and unknown. In the end, the Clerk recognises the impenetrability of archewyves, and admits to the defensive nature of them through his song. Similar to the way the Wife’s husbands sing ‘weilaway’, the lyric is sung by the clerk in the aftermath the wife penetrating his clerical domain.  The Clerk signals to the fundamental impenetrability of experience itself at this point. His lyric is an extended ‘weliaway’ in this sense. He is changed by his encounter with the Wife but he by no means understands her. The Wife of Bath is the ultimate and impregnable archewyve who stands defensive. And because of her defensive nature the performances will always oppose: the Clerk embodies intellectualisation, the Wife consumes male intelligence. But their performances align in the sense that the Clerk still enters into a necessary dialogue with the Wife, and ultimately his tale bequeaths her the sovereignty she craves. The Wife is often read as the strict polar opposite of the Clerk. This reading places the two characters on the same playing field, whereas as stated the Wife is not only a character but she is also a landscape within the Canterbury Tales. She is the oppositional field upon which the experience between herself and the Clerk takes place. That the duo is forever conjoined is true, but that they are equally weighted opposites needs questioning. It is not just a straightforward battle of one tale in mortal combat with another, or of two characters at symmetrical loggerheads.  The two tales both reciprocally inject each other with deeper meaning, as well as eternally deprive each other of semantic fixity.

The performances oppose and align at various points – they cloud, eclipse, and illuminate each other. The relationship of Clerk and Wife teases out a tension between a frustrating and a fascinating reading-experience, and this is precisely because they are not only ‘mirror opposites’ as Alford argues (Alford, p.108). Their relationship within the text goes further than one of binary oppositions. Their relationship is of course contrapuntal in many superficial ways, but it is an infinitely more far-reaching relationship than simply being one of opposition. In terms of the performances theirs is a necessary connection. Imagine if the Wife of Bath’s tale did not exist in the Canterbury Tales – if this were the case, then the Clerk’s tale would mean very little. The Clerk’s tale is to the Wife’s tale, as man is to landscape.  The fruition of his lyrical maturation is forever determined by her performance. The Clerk is always in relation to the Wife. She always has sovereignty over him in this respect. The Clerk’s Tale is completely dependent on the Wife’s Tale. Although they may be rivals on some levels, the Wife ultimately transfigures the Clerk into song-bird. Experience herself, primarily the Wife of Bath, sets the very climate in which their dialogue occurs. Finally, to give the final word to the scholar Gillian Rose who embodies the best of both the Wife and the Clerk:, because she embraces both the validity of experience and the reflection of the mind:

‘I will stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing – in this sin of language and lips’ (Rose, p.135). 


Alford, J. A.  “The Wife of Bath versus the Clerk of Oxford: what their rivalry means”. Chaucer Review 21 (1986), 108-32.

Carney, Clíodhna. ‘How to Say “I”: the Clerk, the Wife and Petrarch’, in Chaucer’s Poetry: Words, Authority and Ethics (Dublin, 2013), pp. 61-74.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue, ed.  V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson, 2nd ed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2005).  Print.

Condren, Edward. I. Chaucer and The Energy of Creation The Design and Organisation of The Canterbury Tales.  Florida: University Press of Florida, 1999. Print.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Print.

Higgins,Kevin. The Boy With No Face. Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2005.Print.

Knappe, Peggy. Chaucer and The Social Contest. London: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Miller, Mark. Philosophical Chaucer Love, Sex, and Agency in the Canterbury Tales. United Kingdom:  Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

O’Brien, Timothy. “Troubling Waters the Feminine and The Wife’s Performance”. Modern Language Quarterly, 53.4(1992), 377-391. JSTOR. Web.

Patterson, Lee. “For the Wyves love of Bathe”: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales”. Medieval Academy of America 58.3(1983) 656-695

Rose, Gillian. Love’s Work. London: Vintage, 1995. Print

Tuttle, Elaine. The Wife of Bath and The Mark of Adam. Women’s Studies, Dec, 1988, 15.4 (1988) 399-417. JSTOR. Web.

[1] From the poem ‘Knives’ by Kevin Higgins, p.15.

[2] Quote taken from the inscription at beginning of Gillian Rose’s book Love’s Work

[3] As the course description by Dr.Carney’s seminar states: ’The Wife’s performance stings the Clerk into telling a tale about a submissive wife’. The Wife is also discussed in terms of her ‘ambivalent encroachment on the clerical discipline (which earns her the rebuke that is the Clerk’s Tale) brings up the whole question of limits, in How to say I: The Clerk, the Wife and Petrarch, Clíodhna Carney, p.64.

[4] Timothy O’Brien explores the idea of the source of the Wife of Bath name in his article ‘Troubling Waters: The Feminine and The Wife of Bath’s Performance’. But although her name signifies water, she paradoxically imposes fire and burning on her husband at once: ‘And made him brenne his book anon right tho’ (WP, 816); she also has earthy material elements composing her being, if we appeal to her material dress in the General Prologue, for example, (GP, 445), as well as her actual profession as practiced cloth maker. She spins her tale; she marries all sorts of men – young and old; she spins her wheel like lady fortune.

[5] Quote taken from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/paradox

[6] ‘And by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor’ (WP, 203).

[7] Clíodhna Carney treats the Clerk’s lyric in her How to say I: The Clerk, the Wife and Petrarch.

[8] ‘Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed’ (WT, 887).

[9] As Elaine Tuttle states, ‘The Wife, both consciously and unconsciously, endorses the antifeminist stereotypes she cites’ (Tuttle,  p.6)

[10] Many commentators have explored fruitfully the two tales in terms of their gender. See Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, by Carolyn Dinshaw, who posits how the wife ‘represents independent feminine will and desire, the literal body of the text that itself has signifying value and leads to the spirit without its necessarily being devalued or destroyed in the process. The woman traded must be silent; the Wife talks. The woman’s desire must be merely mimetic; the Wife chronicles her own busy “purveyance/ Of marriage”, Dinshaw p.570-571. See also Peggy Knape in Chaucer and The Social Contest. London;  Mark Miller in Philosophical Chaucer Love, Sex, and Agency in the Canterbury Tales;  Chaucer’s Women by ; “The Mark of Adam” by Elaine Tuttle Discusses the sexual as does Chaucer’s Women and The Mark of Bath. Lee Patterson’s article “For the Wyves love of Bathe”: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales”.

[11] She does express ‘love’ for Jankin the Clerk, but I don’t believe that she loves him. Her ‘love’ comes at the expense of his intellectual happiness, and she only has affection for him because he does exactly what she desires. He is a mouse that she played with for a bit, but he is none other than another cog in her cavalcade of disposable partners. She is more than ready for her sixth husband: ‘Welcome the sixth, whan that evere he shall’ (WP, 45).

[12] As Peggy Knappe says of the Wife: Her “self” is also a demonstration of and figure for the garrulous, incongrible, inexplicable text, always, “wandrynge by the weye”, always escaping from any centralizing authority which attempts to take over her story. She wants to be glossed and gives out a wealth of clues to reading her enigma, but no-one reading will master the rest. Like the plenitude of Mother Earth herself (and Father Logos) she offers too much rather than too little (Knappe, 128)

[13] Patterson goes on to say: ‘The locus classicus for this connection is Augustine’s misreading of the Aeneid, when he was seduced into weeping for the death of Dido while remaining unmoved by the dying of his own soul. This monitory scene recurs through- out the later Middle Ages: Paolo and Francesca (and Dante) relive it, Boccaccio anxiously argues against it, Chaucer – in the House of Fame and in the Troilus – reenacts it. For each of these writers the relationship between the lovers in the text becomes a warning figure for the relationship that might develop between the reader and the text. What Dido did to Aeneas the Aeneid did to Augustine: how can the reader protect himself against the “joly body” of the text?” (Patterson, p.6); or, in my words: ‘how can you “keep your mind in hell and despair not”?’

[14] The idea of the Wife being stitched together or made from ‘old bits of clothes’ is taken from the Wife of Bath seminar by Dr. C. Carney.

[15] ‘Referential Mania’ is a diagnostic term from Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols.

[16] Dr.C. Carney, speaks of the ‘secondariness’ of both the Clerk and Wife p.62. They both are similar in how they are composed of other people’s words, but the way they are composes differs radically.

[17] Miller, Mark in Philosophical Chaucer Love, Sex, and Agency in the Canterbury Tales states that“Experience” is a more reliable source of knowledge than “glossing”, it would seem, because, like “the body”, it constitutes a realm of authenticity free of the idealizing and prudish distortions that attach to a supposedly authoritative clerical hermeneutics. What is more, not only does the Wife claim that experience has an epistemic privilege over glossing, in the first words of her prologue she declares that experience would be a reliable source of knowledge even in the absence of any public authority…In imagining a world with no authoritative discourse, but in which experience would still authorize her to speak, the Wife indicates the conceptual center of her attempt to carve out a space for feminine agency, p. 198/199.

[18] To repeat Knappe: ‘Like the plenitude of Mother Earth herself (and Father Logos) she offers too much rather than too little’ (Knappe, 128).

[19] Timothy O’Brien explores the symbolism of her elemental name in “Troubling Waters the Feminine and The Wife’s Performance”.

[20] Lyric of the Envoy explored in ‘How to say I: The Clerk, the Wife and Petrarch’ by Dr. Carney.



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