The Wife of Bath is, without a doubt, one of the most carefully studied characters in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and certainly one of the most seemingly contradictory. She has been described as both proto-feminist and a stereotype of Medieval misogynist ideas. This controversy has perhaps arisen due to a confusion over the definition of Medieval female stereotypes, namely how women are perceived to act, and how those stereotypes differ from Medieval ideals about how women should act in order to be deemed moral by society. Indeed, some commentators have seemed to see no distinction between the two, and therefore claim that the Wife of Bath, as a character, serves as a negation of St. Jerome and Theophrastus' antifeminist
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One might think that in retaining control like this the Wife of Bath is going against Medieval female stereotypes. However, by not conforming to society's idea of the subservient wife, it is the ideal she is going against, not the stereotype. One of the most predominant stereotypical images in Medieval society, initially put forward by the Philosopher, Jerome, was the metaphor linking a wife to a pinching shoe. The notion was that, from an outsider's point of view, a man's wife may appear beautiful and virtuous, much like a shoe may appear to fit from an outsider's perspective, but only the husband himself can really be aware of how infuriating and aggravating she really is, like the wearer of the shoe is the only person who can know how badly it pinches. Rather than challenging this stereotype therefore, the Wife of Bath proudly lives up to it by using exactly the same imagery to describe herself:
For God it woot, he sat ful often and soong
Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wroong.
Ther was no wight, save God and he, that wiste
In many wise how soore I hym twiste.
(Pearsall 1999, 126, 491)
The way in which the Wife admits to this, as well as openly confessing to lying and deceiving her husbands, which throws the validity of her entire prologue into doubt, points to the notion that