Ages) Essay, Research Paper
The Wyf of Bathe, one of the many characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, is a feminist of the fourteenth century. Chaucer, in the “General Prologue,” describes her as promiscuous. The Wyf confirms this claim in the prologue to her tale, the longest in the book. An analysis of the “General Prologue” and the “Wyf’s Prologue” reveals a direct relationship between the Wyf of Bathe and the characters in her tale, such as the knight, queen, and ugly woman.
There is a direct correlation between the physical characteristics of the Wyf of Bathe and the thematic structure of her tale. The way Chaucer describes her, gives the reader an “inside” view to the Wyf of Bathe. In the “General Prologue”, for example, Chaucer describes her as “a good Wyf”(447) and not by her real name, giving the impression that she is overly dependant on men. Chaucer mentions that the Wyf goes on many pilgrimages. She does not go for the religious experience, but to meet a new husband. She travels the earth, in search of another man to be dependant on. He writes, ”In al the parisshe wyf ne was ther noon/That to th’ offring before hir sholde goon”(451).
Chaucer also describes her as wearing fine clothing. “Hir coverchiefs ful fine were of ground”(455). She wears “shoos ul moist and newe”(459), and “hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed” (458) symbolizes her fiery temper and stubborn personality. Also, by the expensive clothing, it appears that, although not nobility, she tries to give off the impression of being noble. She is “gat-tothed,”(470) implying promiscuity, as well as with “hir hipes large,”(474) that keep her up on her “amblere”(471).
The Wyf of Bathe’s domination of men parallels the aspiration of the knight in her tale. As a punishment for rape, the queen sends the knight to find what every woman wants. If he returns after a year and a day without an answer, he loses his life. The Wyf is in a similar situation. Because she depends on men, living without one has the same effect on her, as losing her life. She goes on pilgrimages to meet men:
thryes hadde she been at Jerusalem;
She hadde passed many a strange streem;
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,
In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne(465)
She is constantly searching, even whilst she is married. The knight travels from house to house in search of the answer to the queen’s question. When he doesn’t find the answer on his own, he must get help from an ugly woman, in return for husband in marriage. She forces him to settle for a woman he thinks to be “loothly and so old also”(WT 244). It is only after they are married and he gives in to the ugly woman that she becomes beautiful and they live happily ever after. The Wyf marries men like the knight. She will “no lenger in the bed abyde,/ If that I felte his arm over my syde,/ Til he had maad his raunson unto me”(WP 410). He must give in to her, leaving her in complete control of the marriage, before she makes him happy.
Furthermore, the Wyf of Bathe’s aspirations parallel those of the queen in her tale. The queen is what the Wyf aspires to be. The queen is nobility, and the Wyf, although she can never be of noble blood, tries to make up for it with her appearance. She dresses up in new, fine clothing to appear rich, and noble.
Because she will never have the power of the queen, she must be dominant in all her relationships, and always be in control.
The Wyf also envies the queen’s marriage. Her husband, King Arthur, lets her make decisions. She appears to have a balanced marriage. The Wyf has not had a balanced, happy marriage. She will not allow her husband to have any control over her, and she feels the need to take his power away to keep it that way.
The Wyf and the queen are similar in the way they punish men. The queen sends the knight on an almost impossible task, which he must complete to keep his life and manhood. The Wyf enslaves her husbands, making them give in to her every word. During a male dominated time, she is stripping her husband of his manhood. She manipulates and blackmails them, by not having sex with them, or by making them think she is having an affair. Subsequently, they do what she wants.
It is this manipulation that relates the Wyf of Bathe to the ugly woman’s character. The ugly woman gives the knight the answer to his question, with the condition that he does the one thing she asks of him. He agrees, but regrets it later when she tells him he must marry her. Repulsed, he asks the queen for help, but she orders him to follow the ugly woman’s directions. They get married, to his dismay, and he goes home unhappily. After a while, the ugly woman gives him a choice. She can make herself beautiful, but more susceptible to an affair, or stay ugly and faithful. When he sighs and tells her that the decision is hers to make, she knows she has taken control over him. She awards him by becoming beautiful and faithful. This manipulation is like the Wyf of Bathe’s because she gives only after she gets what she wants. The Wyf is ugly to her husbands until they give in to her control, and then, and only then, does she become beautiful and try to make them happy.
The Canterbury Tales gives a historical view of the culture and people of the Middle Ages that historians miss. Although a fictional book, The Canterbury Tales provides insights into the lives and different professions of the people of that time. All the characters, but one, are corrupt or decayed spiritually and morally. The Wyf of Bathe, for example, is a feminist in the fourteenth century. She rebels against the expectations of females, by controlling and dominating males. She takes advantage of them and uses them for their money and standing in society. The Sumnour, a corrupt official of the court, accepts money in return for an excuse. The Miller, a thief, steals produce and sells it for more than it is worth. He, also, purposely puts his thumb on a scale when weighing food, to charge his customers more. The Frere marries off many of the young women at his own expense, probably because he impregnates them himself. Constantly in debt, the Marchant hides it well. Because of the fear of the church, accounts of corruption as specific as the ones in The Canterbury Tales, especially within the church, are not easily found. The Wyf’s reaction to the male dominated era that she lives in also gives insights into the way females deal with their lack of authority in their culture. By refusing to sleep with her husbands, and making them believe that she is having an affair, she is able to control them. Forced to give up their manhood to her, they obey her every word. When they don’t enslave themselves to her she manipulates them until they are finally forced to give in to her power. Her story proves the “battle between the sexes” to be an age-old war, in which women must use their cunning and wiles to advance their position in society. These examples help make The Canterbury Tales, not only a work of literature, but a historical view into the Middle Ages, its people and cultures.