10 October 2018
Chaucer’s View on Feminism
Geoffrey Chaucer was a known poet in the middle ages, and famous for The Canterbury Tales where he goes through various storytelling of different characters during a pilgrimage. There have been various discussions on how Chaucer views the human nature of each character and what his opinions are of various topics (adultery, indulgence, feminism, etc.), but what is mostly discussed are his views on feminism. The most well-known character of the tales is the Wife of Bath, who breaks the norms of what a woman is usually portrayed as in the middle ages. When viewing the way in which he describes the Wife of Bath in comparison to the Prioress, Monk or Friar, I conclude that Chaucer views the Wife of Bath in a respectful manner.
The Wife of Bath is one of the two female storytellers in The Canterbury Tales and is portrayed as an independent woman who knows how to get her way in a relationship. As explained by Stephen Greenblatt in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, the Wife has been married five times due to her belief that women should marry rich old men to gain the wealth once widowed; her current husband is young and handsome but only because she believes that she has gained enough wealth and power to control him (300). This was uncommon behavior for woman during the middle ages for “anti-feminism was undoubtedly one of the loudest voices amongst the competing opinions about women in the later middle ages…precisely because they were taken for granted rather than being explicitly expressed…” (Rigby, “Misogynist versus Feminist Chaucer”), which consequently made women have no say in their marriage. It was common for men to force women into marriage, typically when they are young to result in easier control over them, which is why the Wife has been sexually experienced since a young age and allowed her to learn how to use it to her advantage. Although it was often frowned upon to be involved with many men, especially in the church, it never fazed the Wife as told in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” lines 24-28 she believes that Christ never mentions a limit to marriage but rather just stay married and have children (Greenblatt 300). She takes pride in her practice as shown in lines 4-8 when she tells others of the many men she has married, and for this it makes it evident to me that Chaucer is applauding her for her accomplishments to break from the norms that devalued women during that time (Greenblatt 300). Rather than telling a tale which showed the unimportance of women during the middle ages, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” shows women speaking out on rape and having men pay for what he has done (Greenblatt 319-328). In my view this tale reflects Chaucer’s rejection of misogyny and his support towards the actions of the Wife of Bath.
When comparing the way Chaucer wrote the “Prioress’s Prologue and Tale” to “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” a difference can be seen on how Chaucer describes the Prioress. Through her tale and prologue, the Prioress (also known as the Nun) can be perceived to many scholars as a woman with too much emotion and that is too worldly (Eaton, “Sin and Sensibility”). Some examples of her displaying these actions include her being well mannered (to the point that it seems rehearsed), calling herself Madame Englatine, and sympathizing animals more than humans. Chaucer explains to the reader that her manners were learned and forced, which leads me to believe that he criticizes her because it means she takes pride in her social abilities rather than being engrossed in the holy life. A nun should be devoted to God and being helpful to other people, and the fact that the Prioress has taken in dogs as pets displays her disinterest in the holy life and rather please herself with the animals. Even though Chaucer looks upon the Prioress in a more distasteful manner than the Wife of Bath, it is not because she is a woman, but because she contradicts what her beliefs should be. What I conclude from this is Chaucer has more respect for the Wife of Bath because she stands her ground on what she believes in and does not show any contradiction or hypocrisy which is what I understand to be what Chaucer values in human nature.
Eaton, R.D. “Sin and Sensibility: The Conscience of Chaucer’s Prioress.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 104, no. 4, 2005, p. 495+. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy189.nclive.org/apps/doc/A409238808/LitRC?u=nclivewtcc&sid=LitRC&xid=351aafcf. Accessed 15 Aug. 2018.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by M. H. Abrams, W.W. Norton, 2018.
Huxley, Aldous. “Chaucer.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, edited by James E. Person, Jr., vol. 17, Gale, 1992. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy189.nclive.org/apps/doc/H1420012080/LitRC?u=nclivewtcc&sid=LitRC&xid=7b9469b9. Accessed 15 Aug. 2018. Originally published in The London Mercury, vol. 2, no. 8, June 1920, pp. 179-189.
Lenaghan, R. T. “Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ as History and Literature.” Poetry for Students, edited by Anne Marie Hacht, vol. 14, Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy189.nclive.org/apps/doc/H1420037490/LitRC?u=nclivewtcc&sid=LitRC&xid=2390a0ef. Accessed 15 Aug. 2018. Originally published in Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 1970, pp. 73-82.
Rigby, S. H. “Misogynist versus Feminist Chaucer.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 56, Gale, 2000. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy189.nclive.org/apps/doc/H1420032065/LitRC?u=nclivewtcc&sid=LitRC&xid=7478d068. Accessed 15 Aug. 2018. Originally published in Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender, Manchester University Press, 1996, pp. 116-163.