First up, the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue. I really enjoyed this description. A deaf, gap-toothed, red-stocking-wearing woman, the Wife of Bath sews like a pro, rides well, talks easily, and travels widely. Most importantly, she is well known for her love of men. She has been married five times, and that’s not including the men she’d gone with when she was younger. These experiences made her quite knowledgeable about “remedies of love” (477).
The whole description of the Wife suggests sex. The red stockings and red face, the many men she married or kept company with, even her gap-toothed grin. Apparently, this physicality was “thought to be a sign of amorousness” (Greenblatt 254). Hilariously – and horrifyingly – “a gap-toothed devout virgin had to fill the space cosmetically, or refrain from smiling” (Cosman 476). That. Is. Hilarious.
This focus on sexuality carries over into the very naming of the Wife. While the other pilgrims are named by profession – Miller, Franklin, Cook, etc. – the Wife is not called Seamstress. Barbara Daniels argues that this change in the naming system “makes her more personalized”, but I argue that this also highlights the importance of sexuality to the character. Even though her trade is in sewing, her true profession is Wife.
I remember the first time I read this back in high school. I was surprised by how bawdy it all was, and I wasn’t even catching half of the suggestions or double entendres. Was/Is anyone else surprised by this? Do you see any other indications of sexuality in this passage? What do you think Chaucer meant, specifically, by the phrase “remedies of love” (477)?
Side Note: Do you know how many sexy women of today have a freaking gap between their teeth?!?!? Check it out.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue”. Trans. Simon Armitage. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 243-263. Print.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, and Linda Gale Jones. Handbook to Life in the Middle Ages. Infobase Publishing, 2009. Google Books. Web. 17 June 2015.
Daniels, Barbara. “The Wife of Bath: Her Description from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Classics of English Literature. Web. 17 June 2015.
Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.