Daniela Castro ENG241-4201 Professor Marohl 10 October 2018 Chaucer’s View on Feminism Geoffrey Chaucer was a known poet in the middle ages
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 and whether he supports it or has the typical misogynistic view during the middle ages. 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 by being a feminist and asserting her dominance in her marriages. Compared to the views on how gender was portrayed during the middle ages, Chaucer’s writings of the Wife of Bath can be viewed as supportive for the feminist movement. Another reason for his support is when viewing the way in which he describes the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” in comparison to the “Prioress’s Prologue and Tale” and her pride in social abilities, and the “Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale” and how he tricks others for the benefit of his wealth, Chaucer does not let the gender distract from how they are as people, which leads me to conclude that Chaucer views the Wife of Bath in a respectful manner.
During the middle ages gender played a major role on where one stood in society. According to S.H. Rigby “the construction of gender involves not just the creation of social difference but also the reaffirmation of a fundamental inequality between the sexes, as sexual differences come to be presented as a justification for sexual inequality” (“Misogynist versus Feminist Chaucer”). Basically, being a woman during the middle ages meant there were little to no rights presented to one in society because of the biological difference one had to a man. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer breaks that norm by introducing his readers to the character called the “Wife of Bath,” and the fact that she was created by Chaucer leads me to believe that he is anti-misogynistic and that he supports the ways in which the Wife of Bath is moving forward in society.
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. What sets the Wife of Bath aside from the others is her method of getting what she wants. The Wife of Bath started with nothing compared to others, as a woman she does not have many opportunities in life but was determined to find her strengths and use that to progress farther in society than most women could achieve. 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), 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 has 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). What also shows Chaucer’s respect towards the Wife is the mention of how she has traveled to Jerusalem, which was typically not traveled by women because of the difficulty. By mentioning this, it could be a representation of how strong and independent she is in Chaucer’s view, in that making her able to travel to a place in which is known by only being traveled by men makes her gain more equality than any other woman could achieve. There are some points in the description of the Wife’s physical appearance that Chaucer might be criticizing her perception on sex (i.e. having gap teeth means the person is sexually experienced), but overall, he does not give off any distaste in her determination to change the roles of a marriage. 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 the prologue and tale reflect Chaucer’s rejection of misogyny and his support and admiration towards the actions of the Wife of Bath because of his descriptions of her wealth, accomplishments, and determination to get where she is.
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 way of living a successful in contrast to the Wife of Bath’s way of living her successful life. 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 Eglantine, 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 (as they are both women), 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.
As I read “The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale” it came to my attention that he also did not care much about his involvement with the church and took advantage of his position. The Pardoner’s job is to forgive the sins of citizens in order for them to be able to go to heaven, but in his prologue, it is revealed that he tricks people into buying relics which he claims are holy but are actually fake and pockets the money. According to R.T. Lenaghan in “Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ as History and Literature,” the reason behind many churchmen going against their beliefs to gain money is because of “economic pressure” and their desire to rise the social ladder in society. The Pardoner’s selfishness to gain wealth and material things lead him to trick and not feel pity towards those with no money; he would rather take the last cent of a poor family than to have to donate his money. Chaucer believes in the church and even though he could disagree with it in some ways, he admires those who are humble and truly care about helping others and do not desire any sort of wealth or gain in what they do (i.e. the Parson). Although it can be argued that the Wife of Bath is also climbing the social ladder in an unmoral manner, what sets her apart is that she is not defying the church in any way. The Monk and the Friar are also shown to be selfish and only care about materialistic things, and what I believe makes Chaucer seem to believe in feminism is that he does not support these people even though they are men. Chaucer seems to have a stronger respect towards the Wife of Bath even though she is a woman, and that is because he looks at who is more truthful to what they believe.
All things considered with how Chaucer tells the stories of the Wife of Bath, the Prioress, and the Pardoner, I perceive that Chaucer does not take gender into consideration but rather pays attention to what is right. The fact that he even included a character like the Wife, just goes to show his acceptance towards that kind of behavior. In the ways he writes “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” in such a prideful matter reflects the respect towards her actions and her rebellion against the social norms of women. When comparing it to the others I can conclude that Chaucer admires the Wife for pursuing what she believes to be right and even though she is deceiving others, it is for the good of women in society.
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.
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.