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Questions: Chaucer and Medieval time
Read both the General Prologue, Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale, conduct some research and
prepare notes guided by the following questions.
â?¢ What was the nature of institution of marriage during the medieval times?
â?¢ What was the place of women in medieval society?
â?¢ What were the attitudes towards women and marriage during Chaucer’s time?
â?¢ What was the role of Church in shaping the institution of marriage?
â?¢ Why do you think Chaucer chose a female narrator/character to tell this tale?
â?¢ What does this tale reveal of Wife of Bathâ??s character?
â?¢ What is the moral of this story? What is the argument? Is s/he successful in advancing
this argument? Explain your answer with examples.
â?¢ To what extend do you think this story reveals the moral order of medieval life?
Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale:
What is Wife of Bathâ??s real name?
At what age was the wife of bath first married?
How many husbands did the wife of Bath have?
How many of husbands were good?
How many were bad?
What field/institution does the wife of Bath claim expertise?
What three authorities does Wife of Bath mention in her Prologue?
Why did people criticize her for marrying many husbands?
How does wife of Bath defend her choices/decision?
Why were the first three husbands â??goodâ?? How does the wife of Bath describe them?
What does the wife of Bath use to control her husbands?
How did the wife of Bath manipulate her husbands?
Why did wife of Bath not like her fourth husband?
What did the wife constantly do to her fourth husband?
What was the name of wife of bath fifth husband?
Where did wife of Bath meet her fifth husband?
What was the age difference between the Wife and Jankyn?
Describe one characteristic of the fifth husband?
What was the title of the book that Jenkinâ??s read about â??wicked wives”?
What did the book of wicked wives contain?
A Level
English literature H071 H471
Introduction and guided reading
The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
Geoffrey Chaucer
HELPING YOU Bring English to life
HELPING YOU Bring English to life
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
From September 2012, OCR will be introducing new set texts for unit F663. To support you and your learners
through this change, OCR has commissioned senior members of the examining team to write an introduction
and guided reading list for each text in Section B. You can choose to use these materials with your learners as
you see fit.
Geoffrey Chaucer
The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
â??A good Wif was ther of biside Batheâ??
Debates about whether characters are types or
individuals can become fairly circular. No doubt
the Wife can be both, or can be one or the other at
different points or for different readers. But even
whether we choose to call her â??Alysounâ?? or â??the
Wife of Bathâ?? or â??the Wifeâ?? can be an index of how
individual or otherwise different readers read her â??
and she has certainly been â??readâ?? in many ways.
The Wife of Bath, as soon as she is introduced with
her big hat, fine scarlet stockings and five husbands,
seems to most readers even more emphatically
â??presentâ?? than the other Canterbury pilgrims. Often
described as â??larger than lifeâ??, she has burst the
bounds of Chaucerâ??s text to enter the culture as a
by-word for the irrepressible serially married woman
– a figure who lives outside fiction like Falstaff the
fat rogue, or Oliver Twist asking for more. In the
1998 television updating she is played by â??national
treasureâ?? Julie Walters.
Is she so popular because she seems to be a
real, idiosyncratic individual, or because she is
a recognisable (and timeless) type? The same
question has, less insistently, been asked about
many of the pilgrims. The knight, merchant, miller,
prioress and others who gather at the Tabard Inn in
Southwark in the General Prologue certainly have
their personal traits. The Host is recognisable as
Harry Bailly, the real landlord of the Tabard at the
time, and the figure critics call â??Chaucer the pilgrimâ??
must at least partly overlap with Chaucer the poet
(though he gives the very least entertaining tales to
his in-poem self: a pastiche Romance that canâ??t get
started and a long moral treatise). At the same time
the travellers conform to the tradition of â??Estates
satireâ??, where social types are presented with their
characteristic traits and flaws. A knight is expected
to be a chivalrous, a miller to give his customers
short measure, a summoner implacable, a pardoner
mendacious. Medieval literature more widely is full
of types, and for some people the Wifeâ??s assertive
manner typecasts her from the beginning as just
a high-profile version of the dangerous, talkative
husband-eater of medieval anti-feminist literature.
AO4 Biographical Context:
Chaucerâ??s Originals
Chaucerâ??s Literary Contexts
Geoffrey Chaucerâ??s great skill with human types
(and individuals) stems from the range of social
backgrounds with which he was familiar. He was
born around 1343, the son of a prosperous winemerchant. He became a diplomat and administrator
– one of his most important and demanding jobs
in the 1370s-80s was as a senior customs official,
with responsibility for the trade in wool, hides and
skins at the Port of London. Though he was not of
noble status, he was closely associated with the
court. He was personally known to, and rewarded
by, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV. In 1389-91
he was in charge of the upkeep of royal residences.
But he spent time lower down the social scale
too: with merchants, shipmen, clerks, knights,
carpenters, masons. He must have known many
a â??noble ecclesiasteâ??, and several of his associates
were Lollards – followers of John Wyclif seeking
radical reform of the Church. Possibly their views
contributed to the frequent anticlericalism of The
Canterbury Tales, including the Wifeâ??s Friar-bashing,
and her strictures on a celibate clergy (the Lollards
were in favour of married priests).
Links between England and the Continent were
strong at this time. The Norman Conquest brought
with it interest in territory in Northern France and an
historic English claim to the throne of France itself
was soon, under Henry V, to be revived. Until very
late in the reign of Edward III the language of the
Court and its public decrees had been French. It is
no surprise that Chaucerâ??s literary outlook was also
internationalist. Throughout his career his writings
depended on his detailed knowledge of Latin,
Italian and French literature. For example, Troilus
and Criseyde and The Knightâ??s Tale (among his most
ambitious works) draw on and adapt Giovanni
Boccaccioâ??s Italian verse romance Il Filostrato and
his epic poem Teseida respectively. He may also
have read Boccaccioâ??s now best known work, The
Decameron (c.1348-51), where ten narrators, who
have withdrawn to the country to escape the plague
in Florence, each tell ten tales. He certainly knew
well French poetry of Courtly Love, such as the
Romaunt of the Rose, which has colonized both the
Wife of Bathâ??s imagination and her Tale, and many
of the fabliaux and folk-stories which fuel the other
Canterbury Tales were widespread on the Continent
of Europe.
It is possible that something of Chaucerâ??s
professional versatility suggests the new social
mobility (and job opportunities) which followed the
ravages of the Black Death, when about a third of the
population of England died. The upwardly mobile
outlook of a woman like Alysoun might also reflect
these changes.
For further details of Chaucerâ??s social position see
Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: a Critical
Biography (1992) and the first five chapters of Derek
Brewer, A New Introduction to Chaucer (1998).
AO4 Biographical context
AO4 Literary contexts
HELPING YOU Bring English to life
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
Editions and Further Reading
Probably the most useful secondary reading
is the relevant sections of Helen Cooperâ??s The
Canterbury Tales (2nd edition, Oxford 1996) and Jill
Mannâ??s Feminizing Chaucer (Cambridge, 2002; first
published as Geoffrey Chaucer). Both are incisively
written, authoritative critical and contextual studies.
Other insightful studies are Derek Pearsall, The
Canterbury Tales (1985) and Derek Brewer, A New
Introduction to Chaucer (1998).
The Cambridge edition by James Winny (revised
by Sean Kane and Beverly Winny, 1994) provides
serviceable notes. The introduction stresses the
Wifeâ??s control of irony, sometimes at her own
expense. Other useful editions are those by David
Kirkham and Valerie Allen (Cambridge School
Chaucer, 1998) and Steven Croft (Oxford Student
Texts, 2007). The standard edition of The Canterbury
Tales as a whole is in Larry D. Bensonâ??s The Riverside
Chaucer (1987 and later editions).
The Longman Critical Reader on Chaucer: the
Canterbury Tales (ed. Steve Ellis, 1998) includes
an essay by Arthur Lindley which opens with the
salutary reminder that there is no â??Single Keyâ?? to
unlocking a Canterbury Tale, and that no single
critical approach is likely to be sufficient. Readings
which present a feminist or anti-feminist Alysoun
or Chaucer, or any other single diagnosis, â??share a
tendency to reduce one of the most ambiguous,
â??dialogicâ? texts in our literature to a â??monologicâ? right
The Norton edition of a selection of Prologues and
Tales including the Wifeâ??s (edited by V.A. Kolve and
Glendinning Olson, 1989), has full appendices for
the source material. A good selection of this is also
available on the Chaucer pages of
Peter G. Beidlerâ??s volume for the Case Studies
in Contemporary Criticism series (1996) has
the text, a critical history, and essays from
different perspectives including feminist and
Nevill Coghillâ??s modern version of the Tales remains
popular. A good parallel text – Middle and Modern
English – is given on http://www.librarius.com
AO3 Other readings and
approaches to text (AO2)
and contexts (AO4)
HELPING YOU Bring English to life
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
HELPING YOU Bring English to life
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
â??For myn entente nys but for to pleyeâ??
She pelts the authorities and her listeners with words
much as young medieval Venetians pelted people
with eggs at carnival. For her, the Carnival (which
properly ends with Shrove Tuesday) continues on
into Lent. When others were tightening their belts,
she took a shine to Jankyn: Lent took her husband
off on a journey, and gave her â??the bettre leyser for to
Alysoun can be seen as a carnivalesque figure. Helen
Cooper calls her, with an emphasis on her â??bodily
factâ??, â??Carnival to Jeromeâ??s Lentâ??; Carnival celebrates
life while Lent (which follows, and therefore belongs
more to decorous age than hot youth) encourages
reflection, repentance, austerity. The Wife of Bath
is a connoisseur of the choice morsels of her own
youth, celebrating her own youthful â??rageryeâ?? or
wantonness during her (apparently still unfinished)
days of dancing, singing and imbibing (455-9). She
dismisses age and self-pity, and remains â?? despite
the odd qualm or tear â?? â??right myrieâ?? (479), joyously
flaunting her â??gaye scarlet gytesâ?? on festive occasions
including pilgrimages (555f ). When she admires
Jankynâ??s legs as he follows her fourth husbandâ??s bier
it is almost a Dance of Death in reverse. She follows
her â??appetitâ??, not her â??discreciounâ??, in loving men of all
shapes and classes (622-6), and rejoices in the quality
and quantity of the sexual demands she makes,
though like many sensualists, she draws personal
boundaries: she dismisses Phasiphaâ??s interests in
bestiality as â??horrible lustâ?? (736).
One advantage of an approach that concentrates on
the Wifeâ??s abundant joix-de-vivre is that the reader
can postpone, possibly transcend, some of the moral
dilemmas that she raises. Carnival does not endorse
or condemn sensuality and disorder so much as
recognise them, allow their release: it is Lentâ??s â??otherâ??,
providing solace after the wilderness of temptation.
In this context the pilgrimâ??s enjoyment of their
leisurely literary ramble as a social event, an openair forum for bawdy tales and secular romances, is
not necessarily alien to the ultimate spiritual goal
of pilgrimage. Vice come out to play in sunlight
kisses hands with virtue in fancy dress: Chaucerâ??s
Canterbury pilgrims include both the drunken Miller
and the devout Parson. Masks are also traditionally
part of carnival, so possibly the hagâ??s transformation
in the Tale can be seen as shedding a kind of
magically transforming Carnival disguise.
In Mikhail Bakhtinâ??s twentieth century formulation of
the carnivalesque, the world is turned upside down
as in a carnival or a medieval Feast of Fools. Social
hierarchy is temporarily overthrown, often amid
riotous laughter, revelry, and indulgence in food,
drink and sex. The carnivalesque response to sober
moralism is not pointed argument but outrageous
vitality. Thus the Wife less often argues with the
solemn, misogynistic authorities – St Jerome and his
colleagues – than out-talks them. Her husbands are
similarly dealt with by bolts of well-directed energy.
If an argument terminally offends her, she tears out
the guilty page.
AO2, AO4
Literary function of â??carnivalesqueâ??
â??Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an hauntâ??
A Tart With A Heart (â??s Root)
Another approach to Alysoun of Bath sees her
not as a proto-Dickensian â??characterâ?? or a semiprofessional Lady of Misrule but as a figure from a
precise historical and social context. Wearing a big
hat, or quality kerchiefs which â??I dorste swere . . .
weyeden ten pound,â?? shows that you are a person
of some status: on the whole, the more cloth the
richer or more important you are in late medieval
society, with its dress codes governed by elaborate
â??sumptuary lawsâ??. Mary Carruthers, in an article
published in 1979, looks at Alysoun as a wealthy
clothier (more skilled than â??hem of Ypres and of
Gauntâ??, says the General Prologue.). She is â??a capitalist
entrepreneurâ?? in a trade where many fourteenth
century women flourished, many of them widows,
and especially in the west of England. Her preeminence â??In al the paryssheâ??, bright clothes, and
desire for â??lond and â?¦ tresoorâ?? (204) and husbands
may suggest not one â??Wifâ?? but the composite
representative of a permanently recognisable social
group: the rag-trade manageress on holiday – lippy,
materialist, throwing caution to the wind.
The most important literary source for the Wife of
Bathâ??s Prologue (not that much of one is needed)
is Le Roman de la Rose, begun by Guillaume de
Lorris in the 1230s and greatly expanded by Jean de
Meun in the 1270s. This is an immense allegorical
poem about love. Most medieval writers read it – 200
manuscripts survive – and Chaucer translated part
of it. Jeanâ??s continuation includes some misogynistic
material, bolstered by references to St Jerome,
which is a source of many of the remarks in Alysounâ??s
Prologue. Chaucer did not translate this material, but
clearly knew it well.
In it La Vieille, an old woman sometimes called in
English â??the Duennaâ?? or less politely â??the bawdâ?? (this
makes clear she is a retired prostitute), gives advice
on how a woman should deal with men, drawing
on her own full experience. â??For half so boldely can
ther no man / Swere and lyen as a womman canâ??
(Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue 227-8) is one of many direct
translations from the Roman. Both women lament
the effect of the ageing process; both console
themselves with memories of their â??yowthe, and .
. . joliteeâ?? (470), but Alysoun recovers more quickly
from her melancholy moment and seems much less
less cynical, less damaged (in spite of her boxed
ear, which is after all a kind of love-bite) than La
Vieille. The most beautiful bittersweet lines in the
poem â?? some of the most evocative in all Chaucer
– are almost a direct lift from Jean de Meun. Like
Shakespeare, Chaucer knew when not to amend, or
augment, his material:
But, lord crist! whan that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
AO2 Literary source
HELPING YOU Bring English to
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale
The Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale as part
of The Canterbury Tales
Medieval marriage: lying down before the
The idea of an inner sequence of â??Marriage Talesâ??
within Chaucerâ??s great narrative sequence was
first popularized by G.L. Kittredge in 1912. The
Wife of Bathâ??s Prologue and Tale is the first of the
thematic grouping he identified. She starts the
debate on â??sovereyneteeâ?? in marriage with a sermon,
and continues it with her Tale of the morally
reconditioned knight. Then the Clerk, piqued by her
claim that it is impossible for a clerk to speak well of
any woman except in saintâ??s lives (688-91), follows on
with the tale of Grisylde, supreme Medieval example
of the long-suffering good woman. The Merchant
continues, speaking of his own woes in marriage
and telling a tale about female deceptiveness and
cunning. The Franklinâ??s story, which winds up the
so-called â??Marriage Groupâ??, and apparently ends the
debate with a kind of synthesis, stresses mutuality
in relationships in the â??free spiritâ?? of chivalrous love:
â??Love wol nat ben constreyned by maistrye.â?? During
the course of the Tale the Franklin takes up and
sophisticates a number of concepts familiar to the
Wife: â??maistryeâ??, â??sovereyneteeâ??, â??troutheâ??, â??gentillesseâ??.
More recent critics tend to be cautious about
accepting this grouping as Kittredge defined it, both
because the Tales in question have many concerns
besides marriage, and because a number of other
Tales ostensibly outside Kittredgeâ??s group also
contribute to the theme. The â??Marriage Talesâ?? model
does, however, help to emphasise again that debate,
not didactic presentation or even wise synthesis,
is central to The Canterbury Tales. The different
perspectives of people of different class, gender,
profession and disposition contribute to this debate,
as do the different contexts of romance, fabliau and
other genres. The Wifeâ??s voice, though emphatic,
remains just one among many.
Whether one accepts the â??Marriage Groupâ?? as a
strict or loose arrangement within the Canterbury
Tales, issues of restraint and control, dominance
and submission, regularly recur. Who should take
charge in marriage, man or woman? Absolutely, or
in accord with a sliding scale? Should, moreover,
either human partner ever claim to rule within what
is after all a divine institution?
As the General Prologue shows, writing
recommending the subordination of women in
marriage was widely available in the middle ages.
Some of it makes the Wifeâ??s draconian St Jerome
sound almost moderate: in marriage women would
do well to study the example of dogs, an elderly
husband instructs his young wife in a French volume
written in the early 1390s and translated by Eileen
Power as The Goodman of Paris. The greyhound or
mastiff â??ever keepeth him close to the person from
whom he taketh his food and leaveth all the others
and is distant and shy with them; . . . even if his
master whip him and throw stones at him, the dog
followeth, wagging his tail and lying down before his
master to appease him.â??
Some people did see marriage in more equal terms.
Love in The Testament of Love (c.1385), by Chaucerâ??s
contempo …
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