Chaucer’s Wife, an Early Gaslighter


When I was teaching The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale last week, a student made a Trumpian reference that has me rethinking Chaucer’s work. When Shannon Russ observed that the Wife of Bath “gaslights” her first three husbands, I realized that many of her strategic tactics resemble Donald Trump’s “deliberate chaos.” Her use of chaos, however, is far more defensible.

“Gaslighting,” a reference to a 1944 Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer film, occurs when someone deliberately attempts to undermine someone else’s sanity. In the film, the husband attempts to rid himself of his sensitive wife by claiming that what she sees is not real. Critics of Donald Trump have accused him of gaslighting the American public with his steady stream of falsehoods, such as that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered as they watched 9-11, that millions of non-citizens voted for Hillary Clinton, and that his inauguration outdrew Barack Obama’s. The list, of course, goes on and on.

In the past, drawing on Orwell’s 1984, I’ve suggested that such falsehoods may be intended more to test loyalty than to deceive: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Or, “Who are you going to believe, your authoritarian president or the press?” Gaslighting calls upon people to surrender their judgment to another.

The Wife of Bath is married off as a 12-year-old child to an old husband, but somewhere along the line she finds a way to exert a fair amount of power. Among her tactics is accusing her husbands, after a night of drinking, of misogynist slurs. Her list, drawn from the rich strain of anti-woman literature that the monasteries were pumping out, includes everything from comparing women to spaniels to tree caterpillars to houses fires (one of the best ways for getting a man out of the house). There’s one problem, however: she’s making it all up. Her husbands never said any of these things:

You wise wives, that can understand.
Thus should you speak and accuse them wrongfully,
For half so boldly can there no man

Swear and lie, as a woman can.               
I do not say this concerning wives that are wise,
Unless it be when they are ill advised.               
A wise wife, if she knows what is good for her,
Shall deceive him by swearing the bird is crazy,
And prove it by taking witness of her own maid
Who is in league with her.

And later on:

Gentlemen, right thus, as you have heard,
I firmly swore to my old husbands
That thus they said in their drunkenness;
And all was false, but I took witness
On [apprentice] Janekin, and on my niece also.               
O Lord! The pain I did them and the woe,
Entirely guiltless (they were), by God’s sweet pain!               
For like a horse I could bite and whinny.               
I could complain, and yet was in the wrong…

Her reason for gaslighting, she then explains, is to cover up her own faults. The best defense is to go on the attack. Or as she puts it, “Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt”:

Or else many times had I been ruined.               
Whoever first comes to the mill, first grinds;
I complained first, so was our war ended.               
They were very glad to excuse themselves quickly
Of things of which they were never guilty in their lives.

Gaslighting for the Wife, in other words, is a tactic of distraction, which is what it is for Trump as well. One becomes so focused on his falsehoods that one ignores the rest.

The tactic is more defensible for an assertive woman in a patriarchal society than it is for a patriarch. The Wife doesn’t have much leverage. It is clear, from her defensiveness, that she feels keenly the attacks of misogynist monks. I have little doubt that many of the sermons in her local church are delivered with her in mind, which is why she is so conversant with how scholars have twisted the Bible to condemn her multiple marriages. I can also imagine a mocking reception from the 28 male pilgrims: some interrupt and insult her (the pardoner, the friar) and many of the others, I’m sure, are smirking or rolling their eyes.

Her defense is to throw everyone off continually, sometimes by gaslighting, sometimes by wild and incoherent arguments, sometimes by blatant contradictions. Eventually, every man who meets her gives gives up.

As I interpret her tale, what she most wants out of life is mutual respect between men and women. She’s never going to get respect in a patriarchal society that worships the quiet and submissive Virgin Mary, however. Therefore, in her tale she claims that women most desire sovereignty. Enforced respect is not as good as respect freely given, but you go for what you can get. One really can’t blame her.

Trump too thrives on misdirection and chaos. In addition to gaslighting, he too constantly attacks, he too contradicts himself regularly, he too is sometimes so incoherent that people stop holding him accountable. His flurry of badly executed executive orders are not unlike the Wife’s wild arguments against medieval scholastics.

What’s different is that Trump heads the most power country in the world. He’s not fighting guerrilla warfare to achieve what little power he can as an oppressed gender. He’s in charge of venerable institutions and holds the fate of millions in his hands.

In his case, gaslighting is criminally irresponsible.

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