Feminism in “The Wife of Bath” by Geoffrey Chaucer
“Canterbury Tales” were written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1392. The basis of the story is the pilgrimage of Thomas Becket to Canterbury. Throughout their travels, no the pilgrims tell stories about their lives or stories they have heard before. Notably, the author never completed his book as not all of the pilgrims that were introduced in the beginning told their stories. This paper will focus on analyzing how Chaucer uses pilgrimage to frame a variety of stories and how this literary device is employed throughout the book. In “Wife of Bath,” the author writes about an experience of an older woman who has been married five times.
The Wife both shows her affection for her husband and discusses how the social norms discriminate against women. This is shown through the Wife’s dissatisfaction with the way her five marriages are viewed in society and in the way she discusses how she was able to benefit from each of her marriages as this was the only way for a woman to succeed. The focus of this analysis is the “Wife’s Tale” and whether the Wife can be considered an early feminist with her views on marriage and relationships between men and women.
The pilgrimage as a journey is not only a detail of the part but also is used as a literary device that allows the author to put people with different backgrounds and life stories together and show the similarities and differences between them. The diversity of characters and their stories use the most significant feature of this book. Hence, the 29 pilgrims that are joined by Thomas allow the reader to understand the varieties of life that prevailed in the 14th century, such as different social statuses, political views, and other things (Chaucer 2). Moreover,
the stories are written in different literary genres; some are romantic, while others are religion-focused. Thus, Chaucer’s “Cantunberry Tales” allows the reader to comprehend the social issues and life views of the people from different social strata and with different backgrounds that prevailed during the Medieval times.
The social and political rights that women in the modern world have are a result of a long fight for equality, and “The Canterbury Tales” allow one to compare the roles of contemporary and medieval females. For example, the “Wife of Bach’s Prologue” represents the medieval understanding of love, romance, and marriage (Lipton, 1). The title of this story itself points to its contents and the main ideas that the author wants to express. Moreover, the storyteller is referred to as “the Wife,” which shows that during Medieval times, the social status of a woman was determined by her relationships, and being a wife provided one with a social role. This opposes the modern approach to marriage, where both partners are viewed equally, and a woman has the right to make her own choices.
This story begins with a religious ceremony followed by the Wife, who is the main character describing her three marriages. Notably, during medieval times marriage and women’s rights were viewed differently. Moreover, being married several times was not customary. Moreover, women who have married more than one time were not respected, although men were allowed to remarry if they wished to do this. The Wife from this story, however, supports the idea that it is not fair to treat the remarriage of men and women differently, which is evident in the following quote:
“Ye herde I nevere tellen in myn age Upon this nombre diffinicioun. Men may devyne and glosen, up and down, But wel I woot, expres, without lye, God bad us for to wexe and multiply; That gentil text kan I wel understonde. Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde Sholde lete fader and mooder, and take to me. But of no nombre mention made he, Of bigamy, or of octogamye; Why should men thane speke of it vileynye?” (Chaucer 10).
In this quote, the Wife reflects on the fact that each of the five men she has married during her life was permitted by God to ask for her hand. Religion played an essential role in marriage during the medieval time, and many of the customs or legal practices relied on religion and ceremonies, including marriage Hence, the Wife’s husbands were allowed by the church to marry her, despite their backgrounds and even though he has been married before, there were no objections to this right of a man. However, for a woman, wanting to get married again was against the religious tradition. In the passage above, the Wife expresses a modern approach to marriage, stating that men and women should have an equal right to choose how many times they want to get married. This quote supports the idea that Chaucer expressed many of the modern ideas on social relations in his book.
Still, the Wife from this story describes her five marriages and how she managed to manipulate the legal system to gain an advantage from each of her marriages (Lipton, 1). Despite this book being written during Medieval times, the Wife expresses ideas about love, marriage, and sex that are consistent with the modern views as opposed to the religious approach to marriage and celibacy. Lipton argues the majority of modern views on medieval marriage emphasize the patriarchy and the lack of women’s rights (1). However, the author opposes this by stating that medieval marriage was not heterogeneous, with some substantial differences depending on the country or religion under which the marriage was undertaken. Some key features of medieval marriage include an agreement between the two parties, which does not necessarily imply a mutual affection or love (Lipton, 1). This part of the “Canterbury Tales” examined in this paragraph is revolutionary considering the modern ideas of marriage and provides some of the more complex approaches to the social role of marriage and some revolutionary ideas about marriage.
Notably, the Wife in her story discusses the role of sex in a marriage in a way that is consistent with the medieval and clerical views. As opposed to this, an approach to sex and marriage voiced by modern feminists differs since feminists view sex as a way of female empowerment (Lipton, 2). Still, the Wife discusses sex as a sin consistent with their religious approaches to the matter (Chaucer 5). Lipton argues that different researchers have varied approaches when analyzing the Wife from this story has; some view her as a collective character representing the masculine and patriarchal views of the marriage while others view her as a feminist (2).
Themes in the “Wife of Bath”
The most significant element of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” and the prologue to this story is the combination of the medieval approach to marriage, which was rooted in celibacy and obedience to the husband with the modern feminists’ approach to women’s empowerment through marriage. In the next part of the “Wife’s Tale,” Chaucer writes about a knight whose task was to find an answer to the question of what women desire the most. Since the knight’s life depended on his ability to find this answer, he was dedicated to discovering the truth. Over time, he made a deal with an old woman, who would disclose the secret in return for the knight marrying her.
Feminism and Equality Ideas in “The Wife of Bath”
As one can conclude from the analysis in this paper, feminism is an important theme that Chaucer discloses in his book, which is not typical for medieval literature. For example, at the beginning of the story, the knight is punished by his king for trying to rape a woman. The punishment for this action is chosen by the King’s Wife, and she asks the night to find out what women most desire (Chaucer). This factor in itself shows the author’s interest in women’s rights as the story proceeds with the knight trying to understand the nature of women and their desires. Therefore, femininity and the role of women are the central themes in this story, showing Chaucer’s interest in feminism.
Over the course of his journey, the night asks many ladies about their desires, which reveals their strive for wealth, freedom, love, and power. Some of these things were accessible to females only through marriage because, in the 14th century, the role of a man in a household was much more significant. The attention and detail with which Chaucer describes the wishes of different female characters in this story show the author’s interest in femininity, which is not typical for a medieval writer.
At the end of this tale, it is revealed that women want to have power over their husbands. This is a simplistic view that modern feminists would oppose; however, considering the role of a wife during the 14th century, it appears that Chaucer points out the inability of a woman to achieve the things she wants without having power over a man. Hence, this story points out the unfair treatment of women. Moreover, the main character of this story, the Wife, challenges the authority of man. She achieves this by openly discussing her right to remarry if he chooses to do this.
Marriage and its importance for women and feminism is another theme disclosed by Chaucer. In the “Wife of Bath’s” tale, the main character is a woman who was married five times. Although marriage was an important element of social life, Lipton argues that it was viewed more sinful when compared to celibacy (3). This is because marriage was assosiated with the sexual activity of the partners, as opposed to celibacy. From a feministic viewpoint, which views sex as one of the ways in which women can express their desires and freedoms, the medieval praise of celibacy appears to be unacceptable. Lipton states that widows who chose to remarry, especially those who had already had children, were chastised by medieval sermons, who implied that they were motivated exclusively by sexual desire (3). This is another idea that Chaucer reflects on in this story by showing that his main character has chosen to remarry as this is a right that should be accessible to women and men alike.
The “Canterbury Tales” serve as an important example of understanding the middle line of people from different social strata and with different backgrounds. “The Wife of Bath” is one of the stories presented in “Canterbury Tales,” which focuses on the ideas of women’s role, marriage, and empowerment. At the same time, this story has many ideas that are opposed to the modern view of women and their roles, but these ideas are consistent with medieval views and social roles. For example, during medieval times, a woman’s social status was dependent on her marriage and her connection to a man.
Evidently, during modern times this is not true, and women can choose whether to marry or not in this decision to not affect their lives and careers and their equal partners in their marriages. The Wife, one of the two female characters in this story, expresses her concern with such a treatment of women when she discusses her husband’s right to marry her. However, some of the ideas of the Wife are not modern and align with the clerical view of the female’s role and patriarchy’s importance. Still, “The Wife of Bath” is a very progressive story for its period, and many ideas written by Chaucer in this story correspond to the feminist views on equality, rights, and empowerment of women.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. (1976). The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: from the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Lipton, Emma. “Love and Marriage in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, 2017, Web.