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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
In the magical days when England was ruled by King Arthur, a young Knight was riding home when he saw a beautiful young maiden walking all alone in the woods and raped her.
This outrageous act created a great stir and King Arthur was petitioned for justice. The Knight was condemned to death according to the law and would have been beheaded if the queen had not mediated on his behalf. After many pleas for mercy King Arthur finally told the queen to decide the Knight’s fate. The queen then told the Knight to answer the question what women desire the most in order to save his life. She also gave him a time period of one year to find an answer and appear before her.
Seeing no other solution the Knight decided to go in search of the answer. He visited every house and every spot in the country but couldn’t find any two people who agreed on the subject. Some women loved riches and wealth while others loved fine clothes. There were yet others who claimed that they best loved flattery and attentiveness. There were still others who took great delight at being considered as dependable and discreet. In short everybody held a different opinion.
The one-year granted to the Knight eventually drew to an end but he had still not found an answer. He rode back home with a heavy heart. On his way he happened to catch a glimpse of twenty-four ladies dancing but they miraculously disappeared when he reached the spot. There was nobody in sight except for an extremely ugly old woman. She asked the Knight, what he was looking for, as she might be able to help him since old women know plenty of things. The Knight explained his predicament. The old woman said that if he would pledge to do the first thing that she required of him then she would give him the correct answer before the night. The Knight promised to grant her a wish and they rode for the Court.
The Knight proclaimed that he had found the answer and told the entire court that women most desire to have mastery over their husbands and their lovers. None of the women assembled in the court could contradict the Knight and the queen spared his life. Thereupon the old woman sprang up and told the queen that she had taught the answer to the Knight in exchange for a wish. She now demands, that the Knight marry her and fulfill her wish. The Knight pleads with her to ask for something else but the old hag refuses to reconsider. Ultimately the Knight realizes that he has to marry her.
The Knight married her secretly in the morning. When he went to bed with her he kept tossing and turning while she lay beside him. She reprimanded the Knight and asked him whether this behavior was customary among Knights who marry. The Knight couldn’t bear his misery any longer and replied that her hideousness, low birth and old age were the causes of his unease and distress. The old woman replied that she could rectify these things within three days provided he behaved courteously. She then proceeded to reprimand the Knight for his affectations. Gentility doesn’t come with noble birth but with good acts and a virtuous way of life. Only noble deeds determine gentility. As regards poverty, Christ himself willingly chose a life of poverty. She says that poverty is a hated boon and a great enhancer of wisdom. She then tells him that old age should always be respected. As regarding her loathsome appearance she tells the Knight that now he need not fear about being deceived. Old age and ugliness are in fact the best guards for protecting chastity. She then asks him whether he would prefer her ugly and faithful or beautiful and faithless.
The Knight thinks for a moment and sighs that she may make the choice in their best interests. Delighted that she has gained "maistre" or sovereignty over him, she asks the Knight to kiss her. To the Knight’s utter joy she becomes young and beautiful. They live in perfect joy and harmony and she remained faithful to him at all times.