Contradictory Responses to the Wife of Bath as evidenced by Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Variants
The Canterbury Tales Project: Occasional Papers Vol.2, edited by Norman Blake and Peter Robinson, Office for Humanities Communication, Oxford (1997)
Manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales which show clear signs of scribal interference have long been dismissed by editors as ‘bad texts.’ Now, however, these same manuscripts are being revalued by reception historians for the evidence they provide regarding the earliest reception of Chaucer’s work1 To be sure, most extant manuscripts of the Tales offer some sort of evidence regarding its fifteenth-century reception, in the form of illustrations, rubrics, marginal notes or doodles; however, it may be argued that striking scribal alterations of the text itself offer the best evidence of how Chaucer’s near contemporaries responded to his work.
Those interested in the reception of the Wife of Bath are particularly fortunate in that her Prologue is by far the most altered piece in the Tales. I think the primary reason for this is that her Prologue is both contentious and ambiguous: contentious in its discussion of marriage and ambiguous in its representation of the Wife’s sexual morality. As a result, scribal interference with this text is not only frequent and striking, but often contradictory, leading me to hypothesize two different scribal receptions of the Wife’s Prologue: one informed by clerical asceticism, misogyny and misogamy and the other by a more popular and positive attitude towards sex, women and the institution of marriage.