A Real Woman in the 14th Century
In the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “The Canterbury Tales” which included a progressive view of women’s concerns in “The Wife of Bath. ” During a time when women were still considered chattel existing almost exclusively to produce, Chaucer brings out issues affecting women that were not commonly even given consideration. Writing in the first person, Chaucer is able to describe life from the viewpoint of a real woman. Through this specific style, Chaucer addresses some subject matter that would have been too candid for a female writer during his time period.
By writing “The Wife of Bath” in a satirical way, Chaucer points out issues facing women regarding double standards, the validity of female desire, and the economic necessity of women to marry well while keeping the text funny with some common female stereotypes regarding deception that have persisted into present day culture. The character of the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” is a strong woman who knows what she wants from life. She is ahead of her time, seeing that women who portrayed themselves the way she does were not necessarily looked positively upon.
In this sense, I believe that the Wife of Bath is a feminist. When I use the word feminist I do not mean bra burning, men hating feminist types. I mean a woman who is in touch with herself. She is her own genre when it comes to feminism. She is comfortable with her sexuality and what she wants from life. Through Chaucer, she is viewed as a promiscuous however, she is actually in control of her sexual adventures. One of the first issues the speaker, Alison, addresses is the idea of double standards. As she begins the prologue she lays the groundwork for her story by defending ones right to marry as often as they are able.
While people often believe that it is immoral for a woman to marry more than once, Alison discusses the idea that she should be free to marry as many times as she wishes and that others should hold their judgment. She claims that she has never heard the specific number of marriages allowed by the bible defined. She sites Solomon as a biblical standard saying that he had many wives and no doubt received pleasure from all of them (260). Within this example Alison claims that it is acceptable not only for her to marry as often as she wishes, but also to receive physical satisfaction from her husband.
By comparing her marital history with that of Solomon and other men, she is fighting the double standard that it is acceptable for men to not only marry often but also to have multiple wives. This is a specific double standard because people tend to raise their eyebrows at a woman who does not choose to stay a widow indefinitely. This idea is relevant to the present day reader because it is a hypocrisy that still exists. When a husband loses a wife and is quick to remarry, it is often understood that men move on faster than women after losing a spouse.
When a woman loses a spouse there is unstated societal “norm” that prevents a woman from dating too soon, let alone to think about marriage. Although Alison makes it known that she has married for economic privilege, she also acknowledges that her sexual desire is relevant to marriage. She makes an argument that there is no commandment regarding virginity and that everyone knows “counseling is not commandment” (261). While it “pleases some to be pure, body and soul” Alison doesn’t have this issue.
Because it is not a commandment to remain a virgin and she doesn’t have the issue of guilt regarding sex, she feels that it is her right to enjoy it. Using humor, Chaucer has Alison point out that genitals were not made merely for “purgation of urine” either and that she will make use of the abilities that God gave her for satisfaction. She believes that it is her right to have physical pleasure, asserting, “In marriage I’ll use my equipment as freely as my maker sent it” (262). Alison was ahead of her time when she discusses her sexual needs and declares that she would not allow her husband to have satisfaction until he had appeased her.
While women in the 20th century went through an entire sexual revolution to get to the point where they could also demand sexual satisfaction and discuss their physical needs, Alison gets right to the point in describing her system of sexual quid pro quo. She realizes that acknowledgement of her desire not only brings her satisfaction but also gives her a certain power over her husband. Alison knew that a woman’s sexuality could be viewed as a commodity if one realizes the power and advantages that kind of sexual freedom can produce.
Another theme in “The Wife of Bath” is the idea that marriage was a necessity for women both as a livelihood and as a way to provide the opportunity for upward mobility unattainable by other means. In today’s society, if a woman wants to get out of her social situation she can go to law school or medical school and change her socio-economic situation. However, she can also do what women in Alison’s time did which would be to marry up. Alison affirms in the beginning of her prologue that she intends to “bestow the flower of [her] whole life in the acts and fruits of marriage” lines 112-113).
She is cognizant of the fact that marriage is her path to success by inheriting both land and money from her husband when he dies. Perhaps because of this realization, her first three husbands were . “.. good, and rich, and old… ” (line 197). Alison would have been respected by people during her time if only for her ability to acquire wealth. She was an example of marital success and was able to enjoy the benefits of affluent unions. Madonna sang a popular song that hypothetically could have received partial inspiration from Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath” called ‘Material Girl’.
The lyrics that pertain to Chaucer’s creation go something like this “Experience has made me rich and now they’re after me. ” Even if the song has no root inspiration from Chaucer, it is an example of the situation of women gaining wealth through men and then being coveted for that monetary advantage. The song serves a purpose as well to prove that Alison’s experiences are also thriving in the 21st century. For a woman of her time, Alison would have been in the ideal situation and she may even have been in a positive situation for women of this time period.
One of the main stereotypes that Chaucer exposes in “The Wife of Bath” is that of women being inherently deceitful. The first example of this is when Alison is boasting about her ability to deceive her husband. She claims that, “For no man can perjure himself and lie half so boldly as a woman can” (lines 227-228). While this idea supports Alison’s tale, it also shows what the common ideas of women and honesty were during the 14th century. Alison goes on to describe what one of her husbands believes about women when she says, “You say we wives will hid our vices until we are safely married, and then we will show them” (lines 282-283).
This alludes to men believing that women would do anything, including misrepresentation, to get into an advantageous marriage. She also backs up this claim by saying that God gave women the ability to tell untruths, declaring, “God has given women by nature deceit, weeping, and spinning, as long as they live. And thus I can boast of one thing: in the end I got the better of them in every case, by trick, or force, or by some kind of method” ( lines 401-405). Alison affirms that this is the way that she acts by her assertions but also by telling how she won over her 5th usband. She got him to love her by telling him that she had a dream about him that was commonly believed to be a sign that money and wealth would be in their future together. She further perpetuates this argument as she says, “I made him believe he had enchanted me; my mother taught me that trick… I was just following my mother’s lore, as I always did, in that as well as in other matters” ( lines 575-576, 584-585). This is a key point because it shows that maternal influence over daughters helped to instill a habit of dishonesty.
Growing up and now being a woman myself, my very own mother has always said to my sisters and I, “You must use what you have to get what you want! ” Chaucer illustrates through Alison’s examples that not only did men believe that women were deceitful, but also that women knowingly used it to their advantage. The idea that women are inherently deceitful remains a stereotype in the 21st century as well. Perhaps it has something to do with the representation of women in the bible in a Christian influenced society, but it may also be that the stereotypes of men and women passed down these commonly held beliefs from one generation to the next.
Much of Chaucer’s portrayal of “The Wife of Bath” allows the present day reader to gain insight into commonly held beliefs regarding women during the 14th century. By allowing Alison to have a sense of humor and joke about aspects of her marriage, Chaucer was able to make numerous points regarding women that would not have been acknowledged had a female author created them. By making Alison a laughable character, Chaucer was able to make points about women such as the unfairness of double standards, the acknowledgement of female desire, and the reality of women marrying well to improve their economic situations.
Chaucer also provides us with detailed examples of commonly held stereotypes regarding women that are still relevant approximately seven centuries later. The Wife of Bath is a woman before her time in the sense that she is confident in her ability to ask for and to get exactly what she wants from life. Many people would look down on her then, and even today, as being a loose, promiscuous woman. However, I see her as an honest woman in control of her own destiny.