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Selling Alys: Reading (with) the Wife of Bath

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 141-171 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0030

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There is no real question that consensus over Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath continues to elude critics; even attempts to challenge the ongoing critical conflict directly, such as H. Marshall Leicester Jr.’s assertion that “of course there is no Wife of Bath,”1 have not really led to any resolution. Because of the Prologue and Tale’s complex intersection of class, gender, and rhetoric, there also remains substantial critical anxiety over this material: as Lee Patterson puts it, “[T]ell me what you think of the Wife of Bath, runs the implicit formula, and I’ll tell you what I think of you.”2 This sense of critical risk deepens when addressing the Wife’s economic identity, when one encounters the initial reaction to Mary Carruthers’ now-influential article “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions.” For her trouble in sorting out a reasonable economic context for a wife in Bath involved in the cloth trade, Robert Jordan in one letter to PMLA pats her on the head and suggests that Carruthers does not understand poetics, and James Wimsatt in another suggests that she is “seeking answers to questions that are beside the point.”3 Certainly that was the 1970s, and critical interests (and acceptable gender dynamics) have changed, but there remain tensions between multiple and largely incompatible strands of Wife of Bath criticism. We examine her and her textuality from a variety of overlapping perspectives, including her subjectivity as a wife or widow, her feminist and/ or antifeminist hermeneutics, her role as either a positive or negative pseudofeminine mouthpiece for a male author, her use or misuse of sources, her “glosing,” and so on.

While several studies have focused on socioeconomic issues concerning Alys,4 including Carruthers’s assessment of the cloth trade in Bath and discussions of her dower economics by such luminaries as D. W. Robertson Jr. and Lee Patterson, recent scholarship makes it increasingly worth our while both to gender the Wife’s estate status and “estate” her gender status specifically in terms of her textuality. As Jeanie Grant Moore points out in a discussion of the Wife’s widowhood, no one ever thinks of Alys as the “Weaver of Bath.”5 We ignore the Wife’s gender at our peril (and only rarely do),6 but if we read Alys in the London context of the poet, her estate status as a clothier, thin as it is, invokes an area of late fourteenth-century textuality that is becoming much better understood: the complex textual and material nexus of the guild classes, London scribes, and London poets, including Chaucer or John Gower. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale reveal the extent to which Chaucer’s blurring of the Wife’s economic and textual identities participates in a larger analysis of mercantile identity, and thus engages with the discursive communities of London poets and guilds that shared a common scribal community. More specifically, the complexity of Alys’s responses to both her sources and the varying discourses from which she is constituted reflects only in part her fictive gender; beyond her function as a male poet’s representation of a “wife,” Alys in her highly mixed textuality participates in what I have elsewhere seen as an available form of guild-class resistance to antimercantile satire, one that Chaucer critiques through his mercantile characters’ inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend complex discourse.7 By displacing this “mercantile” textuality in a somewhat altered form onto a figure much more subtly mercantile than the examples I have previously discussed, Chaucer is able to present his reader with a more biting satire of that textuality.

The Wife’s Economic Context, or, Getting Alys to London

Before looking at how the Wife’s Prologue and Tale enable Chaucer to develop his ongoing analysis of the nature of satire, however, it is important to address what we do know about Alys’s economic identity and estate position and ultimately justify reading her in a London context. While Chaucer generously informs us about the character’s personal life, most notably her five marriages and her friendship with her namesake “gossib” (529), he dedicates only a few lines directly...

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