The Wife of Bath is one of Chaucer’s most famous characters. He makes her a vivid presence here in the Prologue and enlarges the portrait later in The Canterbury Tales in her own prologue to her own tale. The geographical notation “biside Bathe” is not as vague as it sounds. It meant the small parish just outside the north gate of Bath called “St. Michael-without-the-walls,” and it was probably at the door of St. Michael’s church that the Wife’s many marital encounters took place.
The Wife’s great talent is for cloth-making, and we get Chaucer’s tongue-in-cheek touch again when he asserts her superiority over the cloth-makers “of Ypres and of Gaunt,” an opinion that we suspect came straight from the Wife herself. There follows an illuminating little touch concerning her character. No woman in the parish, Chaucer says, ought to precede the Wife to the “offrynge” in church. And if any did “certeyn so wrooth was she/ That she was out of alle charitee.” We can well imagine it, and so the tone is set for the development of this boisterous, egotistical, but fundamentally very likable character later in the Tales.
Two points are made about the Wife: her amorous nature and her habit of going on pilgrimages. The reference to the husbands “at chirche dore” is explained by the fact that medieval marriages were performed at the entrance of, the church; since most of the service was not in Latin, the wedding group proceeding inside afterward for the nuptial mass. But the striking thing about the line is the number of mates the Wife has had. In part the reason is economic- the Wife is a woman of property and the possessor of a commercially valuable skill. The Middle Ages were more romantic in their literature than in life, and just as a dowerless woman found it difficult to get married, so one with money found it easy. But the main reason for the many marriages is simply that the Wife enjoyed the company of men. How would a woman of the Wife’s ebullient and garrulous nature get on in marriage? Here we are told that she is “somdel deef,” but later in the Tales, we discover that this is because her fifth husband once became so infuriated with her that he beat her about the head and impaired her hearing
There is no real inconsistency in a woman of the Wife’s worldly nature going on a series of pilgrimages to holy shrines. By the fourteenth century, the pilgrimage had become for some a social excursion as well as a religious act, a fact reflected in some of Chaucer’s other less-than-devout pilgrims. Some of the contemporary writers complain of married women going on pilgrimages, and it may well have been a device for escaping the restrictions imposed by a husband. Jerusalem was, of course, the principal destination for pilgrimages. The Wife has been there three times, where she would have been shown the white stone on which the True Cross stood, and near which the first crusaders were buried. She has also been to Rome, where the major pilgrim attractions were St. Peters, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the stone on which St. Paul was beheaded was said to cure the sick and maimed who touched it.