Teaching Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath: A Fluid Text for Undergraduates

In my general literature surveys, I try to introduce students to textual variations. Today’s plan for my British Literature survey is to investigate two related questions. 1) From whence does the wife derive authority, from what she has been taught or what she has has thought. 2) Does the authority that she derives from her sexual experience allow her to achieve pleasure or profit?

I can’t put this in the larger context of Chaucer scholarship (I’m not a scholar of the middle ages), but I think that these concerns are embedded at the poem at the level of the textual variants. And I believe they can be made accessible to undergraduates. The 8th Edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature prints a modernized and annotated transcription of the the Hngwyrt MS. The Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer: A Facsimile and Transcription of the Hengwrt Manuscript, with Variants from the Ellesmere Manuscript, ed. Paul C. Ruggiers, (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1979) offers a facsimile and transcription of Hngwyrt with marginal annotation of variants from Ellesmere. So after I introduce the issue of MS authority (Hengwyrt as probably earlier, Ellesmere as more polished) I’m going to have students review their texts on the following Discussion Questions.

  • Does the Wife of Bath base the authority of Scriptural doctrine on what she has been taught based on the text? Or what she has thought based on her own Judgment?
  • In particular, as for what the Wife euphemistically calls the “membres [y]maad of generaccion” (ll. 76), and we can call euphemistically the male and female sexual organs, is the wife’s experience that these parts were they made perfect [by the Creator] for certain uses, including to derive pleasure? Or were they made for the individual to profit by?

And then I’m going to have them annotate their anthology texts with variants. The Hengwyrt and Ellesmere MS vary interestingly on the source of the Wife’s learning on a concern with a state of perfection or of profit.

  • On l. 12 of your anthology, underline the words “taughte he me,” please write, in the margin, “thoughte me.” In the margin, write letters EMS, ll. 12.
  • Beginning with ll. 45 of your anthology, which begins “Of which…” strike through (gently) that line, the next line, 46, and continue crossing out to line 49. In the margin, put the letters EMS ll. 44-45.
  • On ll. 98 of your anthology, which begins “Moore parfit,” underline the word “parfit.” Please write, in the margin, “profiteth“. And again, put letters EMS 92.
  • On ll. 117 of your anthology, word “parfitly,” scratch through, with a dark line, the letters “ar.” In the margin, write HMS. Insert a closing square bracket. Write the following letters: “p~~fitly.” Again, write EMS 111. The tildes signal an expansion of an abbreviation. That is, MS has abbreviated letters.
  • On ll. 123 in anthology, underline word “parfit” and write in margin “profit” followed by EMS 117.

As they do this, I’ll pass around the facsimile, so they can review for themselves.

With what time remains in short class, I want to discuss the moral given by the Knight in Wife’s tale and the moral drawn by the Wife at the tale’s conclusion. In the blogs that my students write, they’ve given me a entry point for these topics. They cited the two morals. And another student cited the Wife’s effort to show that the Bible text has been misinterpreted by the Church.

If they want to follow up (I’m also having them do an Oxford English Dictionary exercise), then I’m going to suggest the following prompts.
Was “perfect” in the legal sense (alternate spellings include parfait, perfite, perfect) current in Chaucer’s day?
Is “profitly” meaning profitable in the adverbial form (alternate spellings include profeytly) current in Chaucer’s day?

With hope and a bit of trepidation–this is the first time that I’ve introduced these students to the nitty gritty of textual scholarship–I’ll see how it goes. By the way, medievalists with their cross-bow or long-bow drawn in anger at the shoddiness of this scholarship–with seven articles that I should have read before embarking on this topic–are welcome to aim and fire. I’d appreciate it if they would. I’ll gather up the bolts and shafts and rebuild the fortress before revisiting this topic next semester.

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