A 14th Century Heroine: Alisoun of Bath

by cheri block

After spending three weeks with Alisoun of Bath (and indirectly with her marvelous creator, Geoffrey Chaucer) I have a new heroine: the Wife of Bath of The Canterbury Tales.

I love her.

I love Chaucer too, for having the balls to create such a woman who had such respect for the power and weakness of balls.

Alisoun is only in her forties but still sees herself as a highly desirable woman.

She’s “out there.”

Riding astride her horse (not side-saddle) on the way to Canterbury with the other pilgrims, she represents the common woman—a wife—per se, someone’s chattel, someone’s beast of burden, someone’s warm belle chose, a chance to couple when the feeling presents itself.

Somehow, one day, staring up at the ceiling in the middle of an act of passion, Alisoun decides that the pact between Adam and Eve is more than Original Sin. Rather, it is the Original Bargain, that unspoken agreement between a man and his woman.

If I give you what you want, you’ll give me what I want.

What do I want?

The checkbook, the retirement account, the Visa and MasterCard accounts. What we’ll have for dinner, who our friends will be, who your friends will be, what trips we’ll take and where our burial plots will be.

Alisoun endures sermons about Jesus and Abraham. She listens to the educated philosophize about Ptolemy; she reports on the  love and legacy of five husbands—three old and two young– all who want the same thing: a warm body to satisfy  them in the most rudimentary  and wonderful of acts.

Strange that on the way to Canterbury the agents of the church are so interested in Alisoun’s red stockings, her ruddy face, and her supple shoes. The Friar, the Summoner, and the sleazy flim-flam man of the Church—the Pardoner—all cozy up to the Wife of Bath telling her their Tales of Control.

She’s got it down, that girl/woman/old lady.

And to think Geoffrey, dear, you wrote this piece in 1380 C.E.

My goodness.

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
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24 Responses to A 14th Century Heroine: Alisoun of Bath

  1. kkuukka says:

    No comment – except to say that I really like your way of writing…


  2. RM’s taking a longer, harder look at that woman beside him!

  3. andreaskluth says:

    She seems to have got what she wanted AND to have made the men around her feel better about themselves at the same time.

    Today’s feminists should read Chaucer.

    • Cheri says:

      She was ahead of her time. Remember, she couldn’t read and learned all from sermons/hearsay. Then she reinterpreted it all!

      I don’t view her as a feminist. That’s for sure.

  4. Heather says:

    Forgive my vulgar comment, but the Wife’s behavior sounds more like that of a whore than a feminist. I’m more impressed with women who get what they want without entering into such an “agreement.” And, Andreas, is part of a woman’s job really to make men feel better about themselves?!

    • Cheri says:

      The sexual agreement has been in effect since Enkidu came out of the forest with Shamhat and since Eve left the Garden with Adam.


  5. andreaskluth says:

    No, it’s not part of a woman’s “job”.

    Nor is it the Wife of Bath’s “job” to be a feminist.

    Nor mine to make you feel good.

    Nor yours make anybody feel good.

    Think of making others feel good as a bizarre evolutionary quirk displayed by some specimens who often discover, much to their surprise, that the good feeling bounces back and spreads and makes life livable.

    Entirely optional, I might add. Making men feel like shit is well within your rights.

  6. Heather says:


    I did not intend my comment as a personal attack. I was responding to your point that “feminists should read Chaucer,” because the Wife got what she wanted while making men feel better about themselves.

    I see the idea of “making people feel good,” as a separate discussion. As to that, while I disagree with your notion of its origins, I agree that it is an essential part of a meaningful life, and I try to live my life accordingly.

    Above all, I was not trying to make you “feel like shit,” but I apparently did, and I’m sorry.

  7. andreaskluth says:

    You didn’t make me feel like shit. This is just the way I talk/write. (“simplify and exaggerate”: an old journalist rule).

  8. The interchange between Andreas and Heather is very telling and concerns the vexed question of misunderstanding on the internet.

    In the hands of the unwary, the disembodied word can so easily cause damage where none is intended and none need occur.

  9. andreaskluth says:

    Indeed, Richard. I used to think that a good enough writer can make himself understood, tone and all. But it doesn’t seem to work on the internet, at least not consistently. Perhaps the snippets are too small for a reader to “feel” into the tone of a writer…

  10. Heather says:

    I also agree with you Richard. I wonder if part of the problem is that we write from confidence but read and interpret from insecurity. I’m pretty sure that’s my problem, if no one else’s.

  11. Cheri says:

    Insecurity can be a quality of the gifted. No question.

    Pretty tough to communicate accurately in this dimension.

    We all do pretty well and shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, damnit.

  12. Man of Roma says:

    Geoffrey wrote this piece in 1380 C.E., but the female and male universes are still mysterious to each other.

    After one life spent admiring (and living) with women, there are yet things that I understand with intellect but cannot sense.

    When you say for example (related to the bargain):

    What do I want? The checkbook, the retirement account, the Visa and MasterCard accounts. What we’ll have for dinner, who our friends will be, who your friends will be, what trips we’ll take and where our burial plots will be.

    The girls at school always went with the guys with the bigger cars.

    That there are more female than male prostitutes is possibly a consequence of what I said (and of our male ‘mystery’ as well: we may often or sometimes need just ‘a warm body to get satisfied in the most rudimentary and wonderful of acts’.)

    As for woman, evolution, ok, a survival necessity, ok, the role of the woman who like an ant has to provide food (even her body is made for food, being a bit fatter, having breasts, seduce man with exquisite dishes – this is fading.)

    Yes, like the ant. “Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

    I can understand. Less sense

    And now I am feeling like a singing grasshopper


    • Cheri says:

      Well Mr. Grasshopper,

      You have aptly (and bravely I might add) described some of the differences between ants and grasshoppers.

      But after the kids are gone…well.

  13. Mr. Crotchety says:

    Did, Alisoun have it down? I imagine a women’s studies enthusiast would sort this out along the archetypes of maiden, mother or whore. Is this the version of Kipling’s “If,” for women?

    If I give you what you want, you’ll give me what I want.

    Tell me there’s more.

    A friend recently summarized a conversation with a divorce lawyer. It works like this; after a woman is ‘given’ children, the arrangement becomes no longer cyclical. She says, “you gave me what I want, now go f [] yourself (and don’t be unfaithful).” I’m just saying. Was Alisoun a wife /and/ a mother? Complete the sentence; a wife who is not a mother is…

  14. Cheri says:

    There is a great deal more. Eight hundred and sixty-eight lines more.

    The Wife of Bath is remarkable because of the time in which she lived.

    The Canterbury Tales is called an Estate Satire. Alisoun’s estate is the peasantry.

    She was married 5 times; no mention of kids at all. Does that make her a whore?

    Not sure what your last fill-in-the-blank might mean…

    I like her because she is many things: feisty, lusty, talkative, contradictory, annoying, aggressive, funny…and much more.

    She stands up to her husbands (and loses her hearing when her 5th younger husband beats her because she tears a page out of his book–on Wicked Wives).

    Gloria Steinen, Betty Frieden, Letty Cotton Pogrebin, Hillary Clinton—they wouldn’t like Alisoun of Bath at all.

    Sacrilegious, profane, philosophical, dominant—all describe this funny real 14th Century woman.

    Chaucer created a grand character.

    Far more interesting than most women characters created in British literature.

    Lady Macbeth?

  15. Man of Roma says:

    My comment was a bit out of tune. Hadn’t realised how interesting, worth interacting, was the exchange among Heather, Andreas and the rest.
    Just busy replying esoterica stuff on my blog.

    Chiedo scusa Sybil

  16. andreaskluth says:

    Sprezzatura. The Wife of Bath has sprezzatura. That’s why we love her.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you for distilling my feelings about the Wife of Bath down to one word, albeit in Italian.

      Bravo, mi amico Andreas.
      (If my Italian is screwed up, I have a built-in tutor from Rome who will comment_

  17. Man of Roma says:



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