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Women in the medieval times were cast into very distinct roles. There was a strict code of conduct that was followed. They were to be submissive to their husbands and follow their lead. A woman’s place was also in the home and the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. fell into their domain. Women who deviated from these cultural-set norms made for interesting characters. Chaucer’s use of women and their overstepping their boundaries and typical roles in society make them most memorable.
Most of the gender expectations stemmed from the Church and biblical history. There were many anti-feminist feelings due to Eve causing the fall of Man. Women were perceived to be responsible for most of the suffering to man, and were therefore inferior and to be dominated by their husbands and men in general. “The courtly lady of medieval poetry has much in common with the images of the Virgin” (Martin xiv). Chastity, purity, and holiness, were all associated with the expectations of women from role models such as the Virgin Mary type-cast women into a saintly role. Because women were thought to have caused so much suffering on behalf of mankind, they were to be controlled, held in check and not exhibit any outward signs of defiance or concern for themselves. Their purpose in life was to serve others at their own expense.
There were typical male traits, and these had a more positive connotation to them. In the following list of terms, the first are meant to be masculine and the second to be feminine; “limit and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong” (Cox 8). The more desired traits like the obvious light’ and good’, were saved for the traditional male. These ideas stem from the Aristotelian paradigm, and are consistent with gender roles in Chaucer’s world. The Wife of Bath was expected to have the feminine traits, but she would not accept that. Why should the positive traits be reserved only for men? Being born a woman should not automatically exempt a woman from being cast into a more positive position within society.
What makes Chaucer’s characters so unique and unforgettable is that he cast them outside of these roles. Bordering on the controversial but lightened by his use of humor, his characters come to life with unspoken feelings and ideas that speak out against the norms and traditions holding them down by society. The Wife of Bath is such a character; it is ironic that her title includes the word wife’ when the word has a loyal, submissive ring to it given the context in which she was developed. Upon reading “Canterbury Tales”, it becomes quite obvious that she defies the common notion of what a medieval wife should be. Instead, the Wife of Bath represents ideas that are far ahead of her time. It is not that women in her time did not feel or secretly agree with her non-traditional thoughts, but most did not speak about it. Chaucer brought to life the first medieval feminist.
Chaucer’s character asserts the idea that it is not just women, men also were created for reproducing the human race.
This is evident in the following passage:
Glose whoso wol, and saye bothe up an down
That they were maked for purgacioun
Of urine, and oure bothe thinges smale
Was eek to knowe a female from a male,
And for noon other cause-saye ye no?
Th’ experience woot it is nought so. 125-130.
It is also important to note that Chaucer also has his character go against the traditional Christian concept of the Church and assert that sex can also be for pleasure, not just for the sole purpose of procreation. The Wife of Bath presented the notion that the stereotypes that locked men and women into distinct roles deserved to be challenged. Why not re-marry until you’re happy? Who says a woman cannot be in control of her husband? She ultimately challenged beliefs that were blindly accepted around her, and did so without a second thought.
Chaucer also has his character argue over who has more authority within a male/female relationship.
“Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
By God, if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han written of men more wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse. (668-702)
The Wife is referring to one of Aesop’s fables about who was superior in the relationship. It was argued with a reference to a picture of man having authority over the lion, and then the lion responds with an obvious truth. Since man had painted the picture, of course it would be presented that way. If the lion had painted the picture, the circumstances would have been different. What the Wife of Bath is saying is that since men established the dynamics of the male/female relationship, women are unable to change the image. Had control been in the hands of women from the start, they would be in control of relationships.
In so much that the Wife of Bath fights back against the oppression against women, she in turn ends up treating her husbands in the same oppressive manner. It is interesting to note that in her rants against men being the controlling force in marriages, she herself was a bully to her husbands. This makes it difficult to interpret Chaucer’s intentions in creating a strong women character advocating for her due rights. By vocalizing her thoughts and what were most likely many women’s thoughts of his day, he gives an identity and power to those without a voice. However, it can be also be interpreted as a satire against those who believe in women’s rights. Her portrayal of having the upper hand in her relationship and consuming her husbands and marriages leaves the reader with an impression of her as being an out of control tyrant, much like the kind of men and husbands she is fighting against.
Chaucer handled speaking for women in a very distinct manner. Rather than speaking about her, he has the woman speak for herself. He does not attempt to have the Wife explain how she feels or justify herself. We might not be able to ascertain the purpose behind Chaucer creating such a character, but it does offer us a glimpse into Chaucer himself. As stated from the view of Patrick Jennings, a fellow student, “This character (The Wife of Bath) and her development lead me into the second facet of this post: Chaucer himself. His creation of the wife of Bath gives us a dual-image of Chaucer and his lively character. Every eccentric detail involved in the creation of this woman, mirrors the undeniable open-mindedness of Chaucer. There could be no wife without Chaucer. Her unconventional behavior was a direct result of his unique vision of the stereotypes and beliefs concerning women- and the way women felt about it- of that period.”
These changes in ideals of women have an effect on the surrounding men. The Wife of Bath demonstrates this point with the story of the rapist knight. His punishment for sinning against women is his submission to his older, ugly wife. Unbeknownst to him, the secret to his marital harmony and accord lies with the dominance in his wife. Once he leaves complete control in her hands and is obedient to his wife, all his wishes come true. When faced with the ultimate decision of whether or not he would prefer a hideous, old woman who is faithful as a wife or one who is beautiful, young and attractive to other men, he makes the choice that decides his fate. By relinquishing control and leaving the decision to his wife, his desires are fulfilled by the transformation of the wife he had as a punishment, into a reward of a young, beautiful wife. The punishment was certainly appropriate; as described by Mann, “he (the Knight) is subjected to a punishment that fits his crime even more closely; the forced marriage with the foul old hag is a fantasy realization of rape-in-reverse” (72). The motivation for the Wife of Bath to create this fictional knight is thought to be in retaliation to the institution of marriage; “her knight, compensates for the countless arguments in her (The Wife of Bath) “real” life with husbands who fail to listen- that is, fail to acknowledge her authority” (Hallissy 173).
The Wife of Bath is fortunate that she has the advantages of widowhood. Some of the benefits of being a widow included not having to answer to a husband and making independent decisions. That she was also literate and knowledgeable was in her favor. Included in this is the fact that she also has economic independence. As a widow and not dependent on anybody else for material wealth, or anything else for that matter, the Wife of Bath takes advantage of all of this to display her independence.
The fact that Chaucer created a Woman pilgrim traveling alone, without her husband, speaks in volumes in itself. Rather than a weak, dependent wife unable to be without her man, Chaucer invented a strong-willed, at times outright defiant woman who needs nobody but herself in all areas of her life. She does not need a man for her physical, mental, or emotional security. If anything, a man needs her. This is such a notable character because of the time period in that which she lived. The foresight and progressive ideas on Chaucer’s part, and his willingness to apply it to a character is proof that Chaucer was ahead of his time.
Another aspect that Chaucer contributed to developing the anti-traditional traits in his character was the speech itself. It went against the expectations of a female in medieval times. Her prologue was the longest out of all the others, and this occurs in a society that expects the women to be quiet and not monopolize any conversation. Not only did she dominate the speech with those around her, but she had no qualms about it, either. “The Wife uses speech as a medium not only of self-expression but of self-glorification: “I” is her favorite pronoun” (Hallissy 165). The content of her speech also defied any good sense of a woman in her day. She displayed greed, pride and no remorse for her sinful and lustful life. Her quest for power is also evident through the lack of interruption of her lengthy speech. It was evident when The Pardoner tried to gain control of the speech twice, and then the Wife of Bath was successful at blocking his attempts. She was so successful that no other interruptions were to follow. Hallissy remarks, “Her control of the speech situation as only one of two women in a group of men shows a remarkable degree of personal force” (165).
After careful consideration of the traits Chaucer assigned to his character, a possible statement has been made, intentional or not. The Wife of Bath forces us to look at individuals for what they are; individuals. Male or female, there are inherent strengths and weaknesses to both sexes. Gender is not to blame and should not be held responsible or accountable for people’s choices. Men cheat on their wives; women cheat on their husbands. Neither sex reserves the right to look down on the other, for those living in glass houses should not throw stones. In the Wife of Bath, we see an individual who is willing to express that idea. Her courage to defy the traditional concepts as set by her peers does not intimidate her, and she boldly stands up for what she believes in, popular or not. Another strong feminist aspect to her is that she feels no need to be justified or have approval for her decisions and lifestyle. Just because she is a woman does not limit her choices in her life, and neither her gender nor her decisions make her inferior.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”
The Norton Anthology English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Cox, Catherine S. Gender and Language in Chaucer. Florida: University Press of Florida, 1997.
Hallissy, Margaret. Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows: Chaucer’s Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Jennings, Patrick. Online Webct posting. 18 April 2004.
Mann, Jill. Feminizing Chaucer. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002.
Martin, Priscilla. Chaucer’s Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990.