- Beaten for a Book:Domestic and Pedagogic Violence in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
While education is a recurrent theme across Chaucer’s work, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue contains perhaps his fullest engagement with the subject.1 His portrayal of Alisoun’s fifth husband Jankyn not only provides an important focus for pedagogic concerns, but develops into a complex interrogation of the larger implications of study. Jankyn himself is a virtual personification of formal instruction: as well as being characterized as “clerk of Oxenford” from the moment he appears in the text (III.527), his emphatic youthfulness at “twenty wynter oold” suggests he has little knowledge beyond the classroom (III.600), painting him as “all ‘auctoritee’ and no ‘experience.’ “2 But what complicates Chaucer’s portrayal in particular is the way that learning infuses Jankyn’s behavior as a husband. Not only does the Prologue conflate wedlock with instruction at several points, most tellingly in Alisoun’s boast “five husbands scoleiying am I,” but Jankyn seems to call on the schoolroom to sustain dominance over the Wife (III.45f.). His interactions with Alisoun invariably position him as teacher and her as pupil: his harangues from the book of “wykked wyves” are specifically intended to “teche” her, and he is evidently responsible for the detailed knowledge of classical and patristic material she displays [End Page 163] (III.642).3 Even the term Chaucer uses to denote supremacy in the household recalls education. Alisoun’s desired “maistrie” evokes both magister and the specialist learning of clerks: hence it is used in The Seven-Sages of Rome (c. 1275) to describe “twei clerkes” who have “maistri on honde,” and in Kyng Alisaunder (c. 1300) to refer to “clerkes wel ylerede … in her maistre.”4 Schooling is therefore at the center of Jankyn’s marriage, both cementing and conceptualizing his authority in the household.
Much of this is of course widely recognized in existing criticism, as Jankyn’s reliance on pedagogy has been frequently discussed.5 However, less often appreciated is the way that Jankyn’s clerkliness affects the most active manifestation of his power, his use of violence. In fact, most interpretations of his beating tend to turn away from education altogether, instead regarding aggression as a product of marital norms. Elisabeth Biebel, for instance, argues that he is driven to beat Alisoun as part of his role as “breadwinner” and “head of household,” while Angela Jane Weisl situates the Prologue within a “history of normalized violence against women” that sees “battery” as “a kind of duty for leaders of households.”6 Eve Salisbury likewise treats Jankyn’s behavior as an extension of “accepted disciplinary practices reflecting ‘natural’ social relations,” and even Sara Butler’s careful analysis sets his behavior against a wider acceptance of “physical violence as a remedy” for “the dangers of giving a wife too free a rein.”7 Such a line of reasoning therefore swerves away from the classroom in which Jankyn grounds his [End Page 164] authority, looking to a different discourse altogether to make sense of his assaults. For all four commentators, Jankyn’s use of discipline is treated in purely matrimonial terms, as a direct outgrowth of the “violence that accompanies medieval marriage,” arising out of the implicit rules and hierarchies of the medieval home.8 In short, “Jankyn oure clerk” tends to be eclipsed by “Jankyn … oure sire” in most discussions of his beating (III.595, 713).
Nevertheless, these conclusions only succeed in giving a partial account of the forms violence assumes in the text. As this essay will argue, Jankyn’s aggression is more complex in its underlying imperatives than such judgments can allow. Just as the medieval classroom penetrates the space of the household via Jankyn, so it penetrates his use of corporal discipline against the Wife. Pedagogy in fact proves to be a vital component of the beating he inflicts on Alisoun, coloring its execution, guiding the forms that it takes, and conditioning the type of authority he is able to claim over her. It is not the only mode of violence the text evokes: marital discourse is clearly at work in the Prologue, as the...