In creating his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer introduced several characters that represented the extremes of the society in which he lived. Rather than being true representations of the times, these characters approach the realm of caricature in their personality makeup and behaviors. In several cases, he opted to throw two characters together who couldn’t be more different, such as the Wife of Bath and the Prioress, as a means of making a statement regarding the beliefs of his society. These two women between them represent the two extremes of female roles in Chaucer’s world. While the Wife of Bath is worldly in the true sense of the word whichever way it is interpreted, the Prioress is the medieval feminine ideal, soft-hearted almost to a fault and academically well-educated. These differences can be easily determined as early as the general prologue as each character is described. The Prioress is shown to be the ideal by the positive statements made of her and her pleasing physical appearance while the Wife of Bath is described with a much less pleasing appearance and behaviors that match. While some may consider this presentation to be an indication that Chaucer was attempting to uphold the misogynist ideals of his time, a careful analysis of this comparison reveals that Chaucer was instead attempting to contradict them in favor of a more realistic understanding.
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During Chaucer’s age, and throughout much of history, misogyny has been a relatively widely accepted way of viewing women. Misogyny is a word that refers to a “hatred of women” (“Misogyny”, 2009). When speaking on a social level, the word is used to indicate a general distrust and disparagement of women and their abilities. “Women are described as ‘the devil’s gateway’ (Tertullian). They are ‘big children their whole life long’ (Schopenhauer). According to Aristotle and Aquinas, a woman is a ‘misbegotten male’” (Clack, 1999: 1). Women who ‘behaved’ and adapted themselves to fit perfectly within a specific social ideal were ‘good girls’ and therefore tolerated while women who moved out of this definition even a little bit were demonized. Chaucer did not buy into this concept as evidenced by the way in which he wrote his stories, which all contain an element of the sympathetic as he told stories with a decided female perspective. It is clear that Chaucer was attempting to encourage other ways of thinking about women through his portrayal of the Wife of Bath as he first compares her against the somewhat deviant Prioress and then provides her with a story the illustrates the answer to what women really want.
The Prioress is described as possessing all of the attributes a man was supposed to look for in a woman in Chaucer’s time. She was “smiling, modest was and coy” (General Prologue, The Prioress, 2). She could sing well in the proper way, speak French fluently, had excellent manners so that “never from her lips let morsels fall, / Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce” (General Prologue, The Prioress, 11-12), was pleasant to be around in any company and was charitable almost to a fault. “The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them, she was promised happiness and power” (Welter, 1966, p. 152). Physically, she is given attractive attributes such as a fine nose, bright blue eyes, a small red mouth and a fair forehead. Chaucer tells his reader, “truth to tell, she was not undergrown” (General Prologue, The Prioress, 39), indicating a pleasant figure that men are not supposed to notice in that way when looking at a nun. Her clothing is neat and is well-maintained as would be expected of a lady high born. Although she has all the requisite values of an ideal woman, the Prioress is deviant in that she prefers to remain unmarried and has opted to dedicate herself to the church as a means of retaining her independence while still remaining within socially acceptable standards.
The Wife of Bath, on the other hand, 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 are only hinted at with the comment that these marriages were “not counting other company in youth” (Chaucer, 2003: 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 Emily. To begin with, she is described as being “deaf in either ear” (Chaucer, 2003: 2). She has a bold face that is fair, yet is also described as red, indicating a once beautiful woman who has spent too much time in the weather or perhaps in the beer barrel. 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. While this blatant and unattractive description of the woman is often taken as an indication that Chaucer was supporting his community’s opinion, when combined with her tale it is seen as a means of appreciating her individuality, her energy and her boldness.
The tale told by the Wife of Bath is almost an exact opposite of that told by the Knight. She speaks in a plain, straightforward way. Although her story begins with the adventures of a young knight, in true chivalric style, this knight acts like a commoner 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, 2003: 231). She presents her 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 that is in keeping with the concept of a feminine romance (Bakhtin, 1981) as she is able to talk with a feminine perspective.
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 an unarguable feminine romance that highlights the needs of the woman over and above the actions of the men. In depicting the story the way he does, Chaucer brings attention to the very real elements of the woman’s life and the way in which they are often forced to accept atrocious behavior yet continue to act in gracious and forgiving ways.
The eventual answer that emerges to the queen’s question in this story is that “Women desire to have the sovereignity / And sit in rule and government above” (Chaucer, 2003: 235). This is again illustrated as the young knight demonstrates he has learned to allow women the power to choose for themselves. “After the marriage, the ‘Curtain Harangue’ or curtain-lecture involves the hag speaking of gentilesse (of deed, not blood), poverty (equals honesty), and age (the knight will not find himself cuckolded). One would not expect all this from a young wife, but with experience comes wisdom” (Delahoyde, 2004). 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. “The hag gives the knight a difficult decision to make, and when he leaves the decision to her, he is rewarded with the best of both worlds. As charming as the story’s ending may be, the Wife nevertheless ends with a curse on those men who will not be ruled by their wives” (Delahoyde, 2004). In telling this story, Chaucer illustrates that women are not asking for much, just a little bit of autonomy in their own lives. Given the chance to make up her own mind of what she’d like to be, the old hag gives the knight everything he could have wanted, a young and beautiful woman as wife whom he is able to trust completely in her fidelity and economy.
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From these simple descriptions, told in only a handful of lines, a very different picture emerges of woman, quickly bringing to mind the lewd, bawdy woman of the streets who found her way into money as is indicated in the Wife of Bath. Although he doesn’t sugar-coat her somewhat brash appearance and demeanor, Chaucer treats the Wife with a sympathetic perspective, understanding her deviance to be a resistance against the constraints her society has attempted to place on her and understanding the chafing this must have caused. Having found her freedom, the Wife is reluctant to relinquish it for the unrewarding acceptance of a society that would never fully accept her anyway.
Bakhtin, Mikhair. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981 (1973).
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Clack, Beverley. Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Delahoyde, Michael. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Washington State University. (2004).
“Misogyny.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2009). Merriam-Webster Online.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly. Vol. 18, N. 2, P. 1. 1966, pp. 151-74.