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Chaucer, virtue, nobility, gentility


The loathly lady of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale delivers a lecture to her reluctant swain which is remarkably gracious and persuasive, although hardly unconventional. Her sentiments, which find a parallel in Dante's Convivio, may be summed up in a phrase: Virtue is the true nobility. True virtue, furthermore, is a legacy from Christ, not an inheritance passed on with titles and wealth. The chief difficulty facing a reader is to find a way of reconciling this view with the cynical, maverick personality established for Alice of Bath in her own prologue. We might suppose that Chaucer is here speaking to us over the head of his narrator, but the gentility of the sentiment is an achievement not merely beyond the Wife's reach, but totally at odds with the materialism she has been preaching. The justification she offers for marital infidelity is merely the most arrogant of a series of flagrant rejections of the received morality:

He is to greet a nygard that wolde werne

A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne;

He shal have never the lasse light, pardee.