The Wife of Bath had been talking to the Monk in an undertone. Seeing her opportunity in the pause following the Host’s and Pardoner’s quarrel, she addressed the company at large.
“Even if there was no authority to back me, my own experience, I can tell you, would give me the right to speak of the trials of marriage. Why, since I was twelve I have had five wedded husbands, and now I am a widow again I am quite ready to welcome the sixth. God meant me to marry and I shall do my duty; but I shall always rule my husband.”
Here the Pardoner broke in. “I was thinking of taking a wife myself,” he said, “but if the wife is to be master I must think more of the matter.” “Oh! there is worse to come,” she returned. “There is a bitterer draught ere you get to the bottom of this cup.” “Well, tell us your story all the same,” he answered, “and spare no man!” “Why, so I will,” she said, “but let no man be offended. I speak in jest, you know, though the jest may be rather sharp. Well, as I was saying, five husbands have I had, and three were good and two bad. By good, I mean that they were old and rich, and gave themselves up to me body and soul, for they loved me well, and had given me all their property.
“Now for the two of them that were bad. The first bad one was my fourth husband. He was gay; but I tell you I could be gayer, and between us things came to a pretty pass. However, in the end I went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and when I came back it pleased God that he should die, and I buried him as he deserved, and God rest his soul. My fifth was a scholar. He had studied at one time at Oxford and then came to live with a neighbour of mine. I had met him before, but I first really loved him at the funeral. I was weeping, or doing my best to pretend to, and had my handkerchief over my face, but looking out under it I noticed his legs and feet as he was walking along in the procession, and prettier legs, I swear, I never saw. ’Tis true he was only twenty and I forty, but I was buxom enough and had money and looks. At the end of the month we were married. O dear me, what a life I led with him! It was I who was infatuated this time, alas! I made over to him all my property, and much I repented that. Not one thing would he do that I wished, and worse, he once boxed my ears so hard that I became quite deaf. At the same time I would not give in to him, and though he threatened to leave me and quoted the authority of the ancient Romans for doing so, I stuck to my own way of life.
“And now I’ll tell you why I tore the pages out of his book. He had a book he was always reading and laughing at. A great many authors’ works were bound up in it—Valerius and Theophrastus and a cardinal of Rome named St. Jerome, and other bishops, and Tertullian, also the parables of Solomon and Ovid’s ‘Art of Love.’ They were all tales of wicked wives, and he knew them better than all the stories of virtuous women in the Bible. And of course this is how it would be! All these tales are written by men and scholars. Now if women wrote them, very different they would be.