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Pseudo-Feminism in The Canterbury Tales


by Lily Green

In the minds of some, there is nothing more dangerous than a woman who stands tall, speaks her mind, and possesses a firm notion of what she wants from herself, her peers, and the world. Such a woman has been portrayed in countless forms of media throughout the development of Western culture. As feminism slowly began to take root all over 1850s Europe, appealing to rich and poor alike, this type of woman shifted from being looked down upon and feared to being a beacon of inspiration. However, before this shift occurred, there was a pervasive, implicit societal code integrated into the very backbone Medieval Europe. Women were expected to fit themselves into one, ubiquitous mold: a small, unassuming, shadow of a figure who obeyed her husband’s every whim, whose loyalty to her family and her house, no matter how abhorrent, was only eclipsed by her idealization of God, who was expected to keep her mouth shut and her head down. She was only seen as a possession. This ideology was common among men of all classes during the Middle Ages, and thus, many of these tenets are addressed in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Likewise, is important to understand the circumstances under which The Canterbury Tales were written. This set of poems was penned in the midst of extreme social upheaval, as Europe was undergoing a change from the religious- based Medieval Ideology to the more secular Renaissance Humanism. Chaucer and his peers continually grappled which this mass change in belief systems, and new social trends undoubtedly led to him writing this anthology. He intended to preserve a snippet of time which would eventually be lost forever to new social mores. It is impossible to say exactly how Chaucer dealt with such changes, however, one can infer that he was less than thrilled with them. After all, his characters represent a sea of contradictions, contradictions that parallel the current societal fight. For example, one of the characters, The Monk, who constantly violates the unwritten social and theological code of what a man of God should be. Instead of being caring, stuck in purposefully planned poverty, and selfless, The Monk is greedy and lives a somewhat sumptuous: the antithesis of the ideal monk.

And now, with that in mind, consider this. The Canterbury Tales, which describes the pilgrimage of a motley group of people, is published in 1495. One of the characters breaks out of the constraints placed upon her and is the antithesis of every Medieval woman. She takes no issue with standing up to her husband and castigating him for his constant belittlement of her. She is incredibly promiscuous: she has had five husbands and is considering getting a sixth. When asked to justify this, she asserts that “the wyse king, dan Salomon;/I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon;/As, wolde god, it leveful were to me/To be refresshed half so ofte as he!” (Chaucer 35-38), immediately revealing not only a deep reverence of The Bible, but a sharp intellect, as she was able to interpret the story of King Solomon to fit her own personal life. Her entire personality, her entire life, goes against the most basic tenets of Middle English society. Should a character as this not be lauded? Should women strive to be like her in every way? Readers have continually answered yes, but in doing so, they undermine Chaucer’s original vision. The aforementioned character is The Wife of Bath, and she is often lauded by readers, academics, and activists for being the first truly feminist character in European literature. However, she is not meant to be a hero, an aspiration for women everywhere. On the contrary, Geoffrey Chaucer created The Wife of Bath in order to emphasize that women ought to play the parts that society instructed them to perform.

Chaucer’s text was never intended to be interpreted in a feminist manner. In fact, some scholars argue that Chaucer actually consulted “anti-feminist literature” prior to writing The Canterbury Tales (Huppé 378). He was not focused on writing a feminist discourse or furthering the social and intellectual progress of women. The Canterbury Tales was a social commentary on the overall grand, sweeping change taking place throughout Europe. While women may have enjoyed slight social progress, it is unlikely that Chaucer supported it or even cared. If he were a true supporter of the advancement of rudimentary feminism, the other prominent female character, The Prioress, would have been going against the status quo of what was acceptable for Medieval women. However, she is very much the epitome of what the ideal woman was said to be: she is “She was so charitable and so pitous/ She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous/ Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.” (Chaucer 144-146). As a meek, pious woman with a thirst for material goods, The Prioress would have been praised and perhaps even coveted, had she not been a nun. Though she is used to convey a social message, it is not about the development of women’s rights. Thus, if Chaucer’s true intention was for The Canterbury Tales to show pervasive support for women, The Prioress would have appeared to clash with the societal tenets dictating what women should be and act, just like The Wife of Bath.

Due to the fact that Chaucer’s work was intended to comment on the flawed social development and the destruction of his coveted ideals for European society, it is simply foolish to assume that The Wife of Bath is meant to be a feminist figure. In fact, the very structure of how her character is presented confirms this notion. The Wife of Bath is considered the comic relief of The Canterbury Tales, “a stock figure in a varied sort of pantomime”(Reid 74). This is a fairly accurate statement: besides her “feminism”, The Wife of Bath is also known for her sarcastic and witty humor. However, unlike the stock characters of old, she is multi-faceted. She is funny, yes, but also shrewd, cunning, and obstinate. This character trope, according to David S. Reid, is the “archewyf” (Reid 76). Such a woman often appears to possess some type of positive personality trait which is used to divert the reader from her true malicious nature hidden within. In the Wife’s case, her humor, her wit, and her intelligence is a ploy to hide her secret devious nature.

Indeed, it is not difficult to see that The Wife of Bath is far from virtuous. She not only pretends to be in love with her husbands, but she takes pleasure in doing so, and explains to her fellow pilgrims that “tikled it his herte, for that he/ Wende that I hadde of him so greet chiertee/ I swoor that al my walkinge out by nighte/ Was for tespye wenches that he dighte/Under that colour hadde I many a mirthe/For al swich wit is yeven us in our birthe/Deceite, weping, spinning god hath yive/ To wommen kindely, whyl they may live/ And thus of o thing I avaunte me/ Atte ende I hadde the bettre in ech degree” (Chaucer 395-405). By having The Wife of Bath be not only open about but proud of her constant deception of her earlier husbands and acknowledging that it was she who had the upper hand in her marriages, Chaucer is emphasizing her archewyf qualities. Chaucer makes no attempt to cover up her depraved nature or hide her inauspicious traits. Though it is perfectly normal for a woman living in a time period that was oppressive for all, especially a middle-class female, to want personal freedom, Chaucer undermines this by placing the focus on her negative qualities as opposed to her true motivations and feelings. Indeed, the deeper aspects of The Wife of Bath’s character are only barely touched upon in the yarn she spins about a knight in King Arthur’s court. Since the negative aspects of her personality are emphasized through the archewyf trope, and the social codes that drive her desire for freedom are forgotten, Chaucer exemplifies that women who try to stand out, to uproot the status quo, to be sovereign from their husbands are not ones to be respected or coveted, but are instead devious and malicious human beings. Thus, despite popular belief, Chaucer is actually demonizing The Wife of Bath and is not laying any sort of foundation for feminism to develop.

Likewise, The Wife of Bath stands out and is clearly used as a mechanism to degrade women in this classic work of medieval literature due to her blasphemous nature. Christianity was at its peak during the Middle Ages. This was a time of indulgences, of great sociopolitical power unequivocally placed in the hands of the Church, of Europeans dedicating their lives to becoming the perfectly pious and God-fearing individual. Thus, a character such as The Wife of Bath would have immediately stood out to the kind of people that the theocentric population of Medieval Europe cultivated. After all, she violates every aspect of medieval society. People in the Middle Ages were taught to act based on what would be beneficial for the greatest amount of people. Personal pleasure and self-satisfaction were looked down upon, and hobbies were unheard of: if people had spare time, it was dedicated to the church or working at home. However, The Wife of Bath rejects this notion. She is a frequent adventurer, and has traveled “…thries…at Jerusalem/She hadde passed many a straunge strem/At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne/In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne” (Chaucer 465-467). Likewise, medieval ideology dictated that predestination was God’s supreme law: it was decided far in advance whether or not an individual would ascend to heaven or be damned to hell. And yet, The Wife of Bath is not one to wait for fate to take its course. When she was stuck in an abusive relationship, she consistently fought back physically and mentally against her husband, and describes “whan I saugh he wolde never fyne/To reden on this cursed book al night/Al sodeynly three leves have I plight/Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke/I with my fist so took him on the cheke/That in our fyr he fil bakward adoun/And he up-stirte as dooth a wood leoun/And with his fist he smoot me on the heed/That in the floor I lay as I were deed/And when he saugh how stille that I lay/He was agast, and wolde han fled his way…Foryeve it me, and that I thee biseke/And yet eft- sones I hitte him on the cheke” (Chaucer 788-800). The Wife does not sit and allow a loveless marriage to consume her, as God would have wished. Instead, she does all she can to free herself from the clutches of this loveless marriage. However, though The Wife justifies her marriages and promiscuity by citing The Bible, Chaucer implies that her action of having “wedded fyve/Welcome the sixte, whan that ever he shal/For sothe, I wol nat kepe me chast in al” is actually sinful, as The Wife was marrying for money as opposed to love (Chaucer 44-46). This instance is clearly intended to juxtapose the wife by contrasting her apparent piousness to her clear promiscuity, which was considered a damnable offense in the Middle Ages (especially as instigated by a woman). Thus, by portraying The Wife of Bath as someone who blatantly undermines the social structure established by the Church, he degrades women by implicitly insisting that a one who goes does not fit the ideal Medieval woman and sacrifices Medieval Ideology in exchange for a more modern code of belief is not to be respected, which emphasizes the true nature of The Wife of Bath: she exists not as a feminist, but as an example, an example of what not to do and how not to be in a changing society.

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath has perplexed students and scholars alike, because they have no idea how to perceive her. People always have a tendency to interpret characters (especially one as beloved as The Wife of Bath) in a way that suits. However, it is simply foolish to assume that she is a feminist, or meant to represent feminism, because Chaucer intended her to serve as an example of what women should not do or be, in both a social and religious context. She is not a proper, submissive wife, indeed, she “boasts, for instance, of her traditionally feminine powers to lie and deceive and manipulate men” (Hansen 32). The Wife of Bath is out of place and out of time in both the fading Medieval Era and the incoming Renaissance Era. Until the advent of true feminism, it is unlikely that she would have ever been loved and revered to the degree she is today.

WORKS CITED:

A) Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Nevill Coghill. The Canterbury Tales. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
B) Reid, David S.. “Crocodilian Humor: A Discussion of Chaucer's Wife of Bath”. The Chaucer Review 4.2 (1969): 73–89. Web
C) Huppé, Bernard F.. “Rape and Woman's Sovereignty in the Wife of Bath's Tale”. Modern Language Notes 63.6 (1948): 378–381. Web
D) Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. "The Wife of Bath and the Mark of Adam." Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: U of California, 1992. Print.

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