The Canterbury Tales The Wife of Bath's Tale
The Wife of Bath returns to the Arthurian times of fairy queens and elves to tell her story. One day, one of King Arthur's knights found a maiden walking alone, and raped her. The crime of rape usually was awarded death; however, the queen begged to save the knight's life. She told the knight that she could save his life if he could answer the one question: What do women desire? "I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me / What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren. / Be war and keep thy nekke-boon from iren," Wife of Bath's Tale, l.48-50.
The queen gave the knight one year to find the answer to her question before he lost his life. The knight began his journey to discover what women desire, but could find no satisfactory answers or responses. He was told wealth, status, sexual performance, happiness, and other such answers, but never found one solitary answer. After the full year almost passed, he knew that he must accept his death and return to the Queen. Before he gave up, he met an old woman who agreed to tell him the answer if he would marry her. She said that women desire control and sovereignty over their husbands. The knight returned to the queen and gave that answer, which turned out to be the correct response. The knight, now forced and bound to marry the old lady, became miserable and wished for death instead, for he knew he must now marry her. The two begin to quarrel and put each other down, for he believed her not only to be ugly, but of low-birth, and she called him a snob and un-gentlemanlike. The old woman decided to give the knight a choice.
He can marry her, an ugly old woman who is kind and devoted, or have a young, beautiful maiden with independence. He chooses to free the old woman and proceeds to kiss her old body. When they kiss, the old woman transforms into a beautiful young lady. The two live happily ever after and they were devoted to one another. The Wife of Bath concludes her tale with a moral that allows Christ to grant all women submissive husbands who will always satisfy them sexually in bed.