Wise Wyf’s Remedies of Love: Birth Control in the Wife of Bath

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Karen Harris


In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath character boasts of her expertise in the area of marriage. She speaks of the power struggles and bargaining inherent to married life. Yet she is strangely silent about one area of wifely authority – that of motherhood. Theories abound as to why the Wife of Bath is childless, if indeed she is, with scholars citing the impotency of her husbands or her own robust sexual appetite as the cause of her infertility, Still others interpret her childlessness as symbolic of her barren, materialistic life. I intend to argue that her lack of children is both a sign of and mode through which she has achieved what all women desire…sovereignty. Going one step further, however, I contend that the Wife of Bath’s childlessness is the result of a deliberate choice on the part of Alisoun, and I will offer textual and historical evidence to argue that the Chaucer, via the Wife of Bath, was an early proponent of contraceptives as a tool by which women could have mastery over their own bodies reproduction, and ultimately, their husbands.


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