Sheri Smith introduces us to the character of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and her modern-day counterpart, Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa. Read on to find out more!
And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende
In parfit joye; and Jhesu Crist us sende
Housebondes meeke, yonge, and fresh abedde,
And grace t’overbyde hem that we wedde;
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves;
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God send hem soone verray pestilence!
[And they lived so until their lives’ end in perfect joy. And Jesus Christ send us husbands who are meek, young and fresh in bed, and the grace to outlive those whom we wed; and also I pray that Jesus will shorten the lives of those who will not be governed by their wives, as well as old and angry misers. May God soon send a plague upon them!]
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, ll. 1257–64
Perhaps Chaucer’s most memorable pilgrim, the Wife of Bath is given a prologue longer than the tales of some of her fellow storytellers. In it she tells her travelling companions about her several old and rich husbands, the ways in which she managed – or rather, manipulated – them, and her troubles with her youngest ‘toy boy’ husband. Along the way, she challenges clerical antifeminist teaching, recalling the moment she was driven to ripping leaves from her husband’s misogynist book.
Yet the tale Chaucer assigns to this prosperous businesswoman is a deeply problematic one, in which one of King Arthur’s knights, found guilty of rape, is saved through the intercession of the Queen, given a quest to discover what precisely women want, and ordered to return with the answer after a year and a day. After discovering that women want ‘maistrie’ above all, and proving that he is willing to obey his wife, he is rewarded with a young, beautiful, faithful wife, the rape seemingly forgotten.
Her counterpart in Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales summarises her life in five short sentences in her author biography, defining herself not by her trade, nor her thoughts on scholarly and religious matters, but by her five husbands, their places of origin….and their alarmingly shared tendency to die fairly swiftly:
Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa: I was born in Nigeria, married at 12 and lived in Ghana until Kwesi died. Then I married a man from Sierra Leone who died on our wedding night. Then I married an English man who died. Then a Nigerian who died also. My fifth husband is toyboy, live and kicking.
The Wife of Bafa, married at the age of twelve, tells a folktale from Ghana, her first husband’s country:
This is their folktale
I tell in my own tongue:
‘What Do Women Most Desire?’
A big man soldier
resided in king’s household
But outside de compound
he saw a small girl, fourteen years of age
and took her by force!
He was disgraced and sentenced to death!
They must cut off his … head.
In Ghana, woman was goddess.
But the queen pitied his sorrow,
she would spare his life
if he could answer question
What thing is it that women most desire?
in a year and tomorrow.
Patience Agbabi, ‘What do Women Like Bes’?’, Telling Tales, ll. 76–91
Join us on Wednesday, the 21st of March, to discuss the works of these two brilliant poets.
Tickets are available here on Eventbrite.
(Image: The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, mssEL 26 C 9, Ellesmere Chaucer, fol. 72r)