"The Wife of Bath" and Augustinian Interpretation

Notes taken from:

D. W. Robertson. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1962.

St. Paul:

In St. Paul's view the ability to see the spirit beneath the surface of the Old Testament was made possible only by the teachings of Christ (2 Cor. 3. 12-16).

St. Augustine:

Augustine concludes that "whatever appears in the divine Word that does not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or the truth of faith you must take to be figurative." Those passages which promote charity or condemn cupidity are to be left with their literal significance; but all figurative interpretations must promote the love of God and of one's neighbor. If they do not, the interpreter is either deceived or deceiving, and his interpretations are false.

The Wife of Bath rejects authority in favor of experience:

The authority she attacks first is St. Jerome
1) that since Christ went to only one wedding, at Canna, no one should marry more than once.
2) that when Christ said to the Samaritan, that same man that you have now is not your husband, he implies that where there are more marriages than one, a true husband does not exist.

Alison mentions the fact that she has had five husbands, calls attention to the marriage at Canna, and then speaks of the Samaritan, who also had five husbands.

 

The Wife of Bath ignores the sacramental aspect of marriage:

The sacrament of marriage (Jesus establishes at the wedding of Canna) is a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church which forms a model for the relationship between husband and wife in Christian marriage. The Wife avoids mentioning the sacramental character of marriage because this is the basis of the argument that men and women should marry only once. The spirit of the institution escapes her completely.
But the marriage at Canna has still further implications, since it was the scene of Christ's first miracle. The water in six jars was transformed into wine. The Glossa tells us in this connection that when Christ is hidden beneath the veil of the Scriptures, they are insipid water; but when the veil is removed, they are inebriating wine. The six jars are sometimes said to represent the six ages of the world, the sixth being the age in which Christ comes.

When the wife denies the argument that Christ's attendance at one wedding is an indication that a person should marry only once, she not only implies that she disregards the sacrament or spirit of marriage, but also indicates a preference on her own part for the laws of the first five ages, for the "oldness of the letter," for the insipid water of pleasure rather than the wine of spiritual inebriation, and for an undevout condition characteristic of those who are not "married," as all Christians should be, to Christ.