Essay, Research Paper
One of the most paradoxical periods in Western history was the Middle Ages. The people, despite being trodden by the hooves of famine, pestilence, and war, nonetheless managed to produce marvels of Western culture that we still look upon with astonishment today. When the Black Death was at its pinnacle and the Great Schism
weakened the Catholic Church?s once absolute power, Geoffrey Chaucer composed one of the first works in vernacular English that is not only interesting to read, but informative about the plight of humanity during the Late Middle Ages. Chaucer?s Canterbury Tales is a paradox in itself because although the main characters are religious pilgrims, the stories each share often incorporate secular themes. Although Canterbury Tales is an unfinished work, in what he completed Chaucer not only introduces the reader
to myriad complex characters, but flaunts his talent of negative capability, despite allowing his own biases to seep into their fables at times. One of the most prominent characters Chaucer created, the boisterous Wife of Bath, is a rich tapestry of a lady who is simultaneously a distinct individual and an archetype of middle-aged women.
Through Chaucer?s characterization of the Wife of Bath, the reader can clearly
garner some of the various conflicting attitudes toward women prevalent during the Middle Ages.
Contrary to what was normally written about women in medieval times– when they were even mentioned at all–Chaucer?s Wife of Bath is portrayed as a radically resolute woman who is often refigured in modern interpretations as a ?feminist icon? (Sussman). She is wise not through scholastics, but from her many experiences:
Experience, though no authority
Were in this world, were good enough for me.
She is also very crafty and resourceful, and considers these traits integral to the
manipulation of men:
Deceit, weeping, and spinning, does God give
To women, naturally, the while they live.
And thus of one thing I speak boastfully,
I got the best of each one, finally,
By trick, or force, or by some kind of thing.
Constantly struggling against the medieval concept of female sexuality, particularly that of the submissive virgin who finds no pleasure in bodily concerns, the Wife of Bath challenges those who reprimand her by asserting, ?God bade us to increase
and multiply.? In rebuttal to the strict religious commands of monogamy and chastity, she cites the actions of Solomon:
Lo, there?s the wise old king Dan Solomon
I understand he had more wives than one
And now would God it were permitted me
To be refreshed one half as oft as he!
She has human needs and desires, given to her by God, and she feels no need to be ashamed of them:
Tell me also, to what purpose or end
The genitals were made, that I defend,
And for what benefit was man first wrought?
Trust you right well, they were not made for naught.
She also readily refutes the teachings of the Bible, claiming that those who write the texts and scorn women are those who have not had contact with them. These very teachings are what incited her to tear a page out of her fifth husband?s book, and by doing so
subjected herself to a beating so severe she became deaf in one ear. As manipulative as she is, however, she uses this to her advantage to lade her offending husband with guilt
and assert her control over him.
The Wife of Bath also believes in woman?s potential to be powerful. She
believes, in fact, that the woman should have absolute authority not only over herself, but over her household and her husband as well. This can be concluded from the answer in
the Wife of Bath’s tale to the Queen?s question: What is it that a woman most desires?
According to the Wife, it is sovereignty over her husband. It is quite evident from her tale that she is speaking for herself, for her tale is a ?model illustration of her theories?
(Moore). It is only natural for a person to tell a story that is an allegory revealing his own beliefs; it is in this way Chaucer effectively and consistently characterizes the Wife of Bath, thereby making her one of the most fully developed characters out of her fellow pilgrims.
Despite the many strong positive characteristics of the Wife of Bath, she still has some very noticeable flaws, through which Chaucer voices some of his negative opinions of women. Adorned in ostentatious clothing of ?fyn scarlet reed?, she gives the
impression of being ostentatious and ready to flaunt her gains from her deceased husbands (Moore). She uses marriage as a way accumulate worldly wealth:
But since I had them wholly in my hand,
And since to me they?d given all their land,
Why should I take heed, then, that I should please,
Save it were for my profit or my ease?
This perpetuates the stereotype that women are avaricious and willing to sacrifice their integrity to marry for the attainment of riches. Furthermore, the quote, ?Deceit, weeping,
and spinning, does God give/ To women, naturally, the while they live?, implies that all women are naturally dishonest, and had this quote emanated from a man, one can be sure the Wife of Bath would have objected! In addition, although Chaucer makes her
liberated sexually, the Wife of Bath appears to be a nymphomaniac who equates lust with love and bears the deformity of her overtly amorous lifestyle–her being gap-toothed. Sex, as unfortunately perceived by the Wife, is both a weapon and a means to fulfill a fleeting worldly desire, rather than a greater bond of love and spirituality between two people. Such a view of sex indicates the situation in which the Wife of Bath most likely entered marriage: a young girl, betrothed to a man so far removed from her by age and
experience that they never reach an enlightening understanding of each other, defines the acts of ?love? physically rather than emotionally and spiritually.
Prior to when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, the idea of a woman being strong, astute, and quite able to hold her own against any man was probably revolutionary to a select few, but to the general public, preposterous. By fabricating such a character, however, Chaucer set forth into a new territory where women could be compared as
people with men, dealing their strengths and weaknesses onto the table impenitently. Even though the Wife of Bath?s strings are being manipulated by a man, she is still an undoubtedly believable character, full of as many flaws and contradictions as real people
are even today.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Selected Canterbury Tales. Trans. J. U. Nicholson. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
Moore, Andrew. Study Guide to the Wife of Bath. August 28, 2000.
Sussman, Paul. Chaucer Revisited. October 25, 2000.