One of the foundational principles of the courtly tradition was a particular conception of women.
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According to this view, women, particularly high-born women, were considered extremely delicate and require a great deal of protection and solicitation. Women were expected to be quiet, demure, easily surprised by the grosser aspects of human existence and confined within the protective branch of the rest of the man’s property. He didn’t necessarily have to be home, but she was expected to remain within the bounding walls of the house and/or grounds, only leaving upon his permission and only in the company of his sanctioned representatives. They were not generally thought to have opinions of their own and they are expected to fill their days with either general household or otherwise meaningless, decorative activity. In his depiction of characters such as the Wife of Bath, however, Geoffrey Chaucer satirizes this conception of woman by presenting someone more down to earth and ‘real’.
The Wife of Bath immediately breaks the rules of true womanhood by being involved in commerce as a highly-skilled seamstress as she is described in the prologue to her story. This vocation allows her to be in charge of her income, something that a true woman of the chivalric code would never have a chance to pursue while still retaining the type of freedom of movement the wife enjoys. With this freedom of commerce, the wife is able to flaunt many other customs by pursuing her own desires and styles of living. She tells lewd tales, has been married at least five times and has countless other lovers besides who is only hinted at with the comment that these marriages were “not counting other company in youth” (Chaucer 17). She’s well-traveled, having seen such widespread places as Jerusalem, Rome, Boulogne, Santiago and Cologne. Despite her success, the wife’s physical appearance does not present the kind of beauty that would immediately provide her with the type of power enjoyed by a true woman under the knight’s code. To begin with, she is described as being “deaf in either ear” (Chaucer 2). She has a boldface that is fair, yet is also described as red, indicating too much time spent in the weather or perhaps in the beer barrel, further suggesting a lifestyle far different from that of a true woman of the code. While it’s true her attire is described as being every bit as good as that of noble ladies, it is also described so as to indicate an ostentatious, flamboyant personality that demands attention, again flaunting the concept of the genteel woman while highlighting the idea of a freedom and fluidity that enables her to be who she wants to be.
The tale told by the Wife of Bath is by no means the sort of speech or story a true woman should know, much less repeat. She speaks in a plain, straightforward way that includes actions not even recognized by the knight in his tale. Although her story begins with the adventures of a young knight, in true chivalric style, this knight acts most commonly in his first encounter with a woman. “In his path he saw a maiden walking / Before him, stark alone, right in his course. / This young knight took her maidenhead by force” (Chaucer 231). Not only is the concept of a ‘maidenhead’ not a part of the Knight’s usual language, the concept of a knight assaulting a woman, whom he’s sworn to protect, in this manner does not fit into the Knight’s view of the world. However, it does present the story from the more realistic terms that would be afforded by a woman, who would not be able to easily ignore such behavior regardless of the status of the woman in question. This crime is made even worse by the qualification that the knight in question was one of Arthur’s knights, the ideal of the chivalric tradition. Through the coarse language used within this story, Chaucer indicates the Wife of Bath has a greater freedom within her speech than that possessed by even the noble Knight, providing her with strength and freedom out of keeping with the concept of a true woman as held by the Knight and his brothers.
In addition to the differences in basic language used, the story told by the Wife of Bath is of a decidedly feminine perspective, bringing out the female character as a figure capable of possessing power and control. Uncharacteristically, it is the queen who spares the knight’s life following the rape and sends him on his quest. His punishment is to discover the one thing women most want and he must accomplish this task within the space of one year. He fails at this task until he finds an old woman sitting alone in a field.
She agrees to tell him the answer but he must agree to accept her proposal of marriage. Therefore, his success is entirely dependent upon the willingness of a woman to assist him in his quest. Throughout this narrative, it is the woman who has complete control over the man; the older she is, the more control she has. It is the woman who proposes marriage and the man who must comply, however unwillingly. Through this story, the Wife of Bath presents a case that highlights the needs of the woman over and above the actions of the men.
The eventual answer that emerges to the queen’s question in this story is that “Women desire to have the sovereignty / And sit in rule and government above” (Chaucer 235). This is again illustrated as the young knight demonstrates he has learned to allow women the power to choose for themselves.
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After the two are married, the hag tells the knight of the various attributes she brings to the marriage that he would not be able to expect from a young wife, such as the gentleness of deed, honesty in her poverty and age, which will keep him from being cuckolded.
Because of her experience and age, she is able to bring wisdom to the marriage that might not otherwise be present in a younger woman. In each of these statements, the Wife of Bath argues against every understanding the majority of society held as nearly universal truths as well as argues her own continuing wish to be desired as an older and experienced woman. Such blatant sexuality is also in direct opposition to the concept of the virginal, young, innocent and sweetly beautiful image of the properly and male-defined courtly woman. The story gains a happy ending when the young knight demonstrates that he has learned his lesson through his own experience. When the hag tells him to make a decision regarding her fate and he opts to let her make the choice, the knight who has finally learned the lesson all other knights have yet to learn is rewarded with the best of both worlds.
Through her story and her person, the Wife of Bath presents a very real and very down-to-earth woman of the middle ages who existed in spite of the insistence of the nobles that the ‘true woman’ was defined by quite different terms. Rather than allowing herself to be pigeon-holed by these definitions, the Wife of Bath is able to exercise a great deal of autonomy in her life, supporting herself, sleeping around with whom she might please, recognizing her sexuality and her independence of thought and embracing them as true elements of who she is, regardless of the attempts of men to place shackles on her talents, her mind and her spirit. Although she is not necessarily a particularly likable character, the Wife of Bath is a very real woman and refuses to be bounded by unreal definitions.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.