18 October 2013
Chaucer‟s Challenge of Gender Roles
Chaucer through his artistic contribution of The Wife of Bath gives us a brilliant example
of a woman whom tradition, religion and society could not force into the mold of medieval
societal expectations. She was determined to be seen, to be heard and to live her life according to
her interpretation of the Bible. While many people try to analyze her behavior and choices
through a feministic point of view, the feminine movement as we know it was not present in the
13th century therefore she was a stand-alone character; one quintessential to exposing the bigotry
and sexism that was deemed an acceptable way of life for the majority of women in many
medieval societies. While class and vocation had much to do with what was expected for and
from a woman, for the most part subservience, piety and domesticity was the norm. Philip of
Novare urged that women not be taught to read and write, since this knowledge would expose
them to sin, especially illicit communications with lovers. He recommended instead that girls be
kept busy with weaving and spinning so that they would not be idle (Stoertz 28).
In creating the Wife of Bath, Chaucer drew upon a centuries-old tradition of misogynist
writing that was particularly nurtured by the medieval church. In their conviction that the
rational, intellectual, spiritual, and, therefore, higher side of human nature predominated in men,
whereas the irrational, material, earthly, and, therefore, lower side of human nature predominated
in women, St. Paul and the early Church fathers exalted celibacy and virginity above marriage,
although they were also obliged to concede the necessity and sanctimony of marriage (Greenblatt
282). The Wife most definitely did not accept this view of women; she wanted her views and
experiences to be heard, and she was going to tell anyone predisposed to listening…“she herself
is a creation of speech, and speech – its perpetual use and frequent abuse – is a very dominant
element in her life” (Storm 307).
The acquiescence of women can be found in multiple texts, quite plainly describing the
patriarchal society‟s views of women, their roles and the lack of importance of their feelings
and/or opinions. As in all the congregations of the saints, womenshould remain silent in the
churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they
want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is
disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (The Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians14:34-35).
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I
am. But if they cannot control themselves they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn
with passion (The Holy Bible 1 Corinthians 7 8:9). The Wife construed multiple texts and lessons
in the Bible to benefit herself; she did not take them as such black and white messages. She
married all the men she slept with, understood her passions and needs and effectively directed
them towards relationships that she deemed beneficial. Alison makes much of the fact that her
husbands were much older than she, and she refers pointedly to the resulting effects on the
marital relationship when she speaks of her husbands who can only with difficulty “the statue
holde” (198) and pay the marital debt (Storm 306).
Alyson justifies her marriages by using biblical examples of polygamy such as Solomon,
Abraham and Jacob. She completely accepts that she is not on a level of virginity or innocence as
many others “Yit lived they evere in parfit chastitee./I nil envye no virginitee:/ Lat hem be breed
of pured whete seed,/And lat us wives hote barly breed” (Chaucer 147-150) but asserts that she is
still living in accordance with God‟s law all her marriages were legitimate and binding as they
performed by men of God.
Societal status was very important in medieval times; if you were a higher class person
then you were smarter, attractive, had more freedoms and went places that peasants were not
allowed. By Alyson marrying these richer, older men she was ensuring her place inthe social
order; for many women marriage was the only option to better themselves and safeguarda life of
security and possibilities and this was all they were taught. Marriage plans influenced girls' early
education, place of residence, and treatment (Stoertz 22).Virginity and purity were of the utmost
importance. Women in particular had to be mindful of their reputations (Goldberg 20).
Although sheclearly used sex to manipulate the men in her life, and not many feminists
would see this as a progressive choice for women,nonetheless in her day and age there were
limited choices for power, progress and acceptance bymales. Her character, while flawed, exudes
strength, courage and a never give up attitude. She would not submit to her any of her husbands‟
whims or wants; she stood up for what she believed in no matter the cost, even her hearing “That
of the strook myn ere weex al deef./ Stibourne I was as is a leonesse,/And of my tonge a verray
jangleresse” (Chaucer 641-644).The power she is determined to wield in her life and
relationships regardless of what the Church determinedwas right for a woman is a bold,
liberating move on the behalf of all women. According to canon law promulgated by Pope
Alexander III (1159-1181), present consent, necessary for a binding marriage, was only possible
at age twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, the legal ages of puberty, which were derived from
Roman law (Stoertz 31). Though the canon-legal understanding of age of consent was related to
Classical traditions that girls achieved puberty from about twelve years (specifically, the law
allowed that a girl in her twelfth year could marry) and boys from fourteen, provision was made
that it' a child achieved puberty somewhat sooner, then the age of consent could be lowered
accordingly (Goldberg 20). Engaged or married at age twelve, younger? To have your life taken
away, your paths predetermined and chosen for you before you even had a chance to live
She was neither fully obedient nor submissive, she was observably hot-blooded and
enjoyed the challengespresented her most men. Her clothes were brightly colored, she was quite
talkative and opinionated.She had a cultivated taste and most definitely enjoyed the finer things
in life such as money, jewelry, clothing and property.These were no doubt instigators, and
insurance, for facilitating and enduring marriages and sexual relations with men who were so old
they had trouble performing.Alison of Bath, in all her complex mixture of charm and
repugnance, is without question a creature of this world, one easily seen as an inverted image
[…] of the medieval ideal of womanhood(Storm 318).
Jankin, her fifth husband, was a choice she seemed to have made more out of love than
practicality. She enjoyed his youth, his disposition and the challenges that he presented her. She
felt she could handle his sanctimonious attitude and although she took multiple beatings she
eventually was successful in proving her sovereignty over him. And if physical beatings were not
enough to control his wayward wife, he regularly quotes textual authorities as critical
commentary on her behavior (Arnell 938).Perhaps her approaches towards Jankin were not what
we would encourage in this century but her end goal was achieved nonetheless. As Robert Burlin
puts it, „In psychologicalterms, hers is a “battered” personality. Everything she does is an attempt
toassert her independent reality in a world where masculine dominance claimedauthority over
her mind, body, and spirit.‟ (Arnell 938).
The Wife‟s tale of the knight, his raping of the maiden, his quest per the Queen‟s rule and
the ultimate outcome is seemingly a direct reflection of what Alyson felt was missing in the lives
of woman. She strongly felt the need to be in charge of her life and while she may have resisted
tradition by her dress, the public acknowledgement about her gapped teeth, her healthy sexual
appetite and that she as wedded five times, she still sees herself as a good religious woman.
She did what it took to ensure that her word was law and that she would not be ordered
about by any man, for she feels above them. Her marriages occurred legally and were ordainedby
a priest, she is with each of them until their deaths and then mourns each, accordingly to societal
customs. While she may have chosen husbands that were elderly and ill of health, for the most
part, this only proved that to herself that she was powerful and beautiful.
The choice of Jankin however it seemingly makes all her hard workfor naught, for upon
legalizing this fifth marriage all herriches and property she inherited upon the deaths of the
former four husbands automatically goes to the fifth husband.The husband was automatically
assumed to be the answerable head of the household, in control of the holding and of the
moveable property (Hilton 139-140).
Alyson believed that her experience in life, and her knowledge Biblical text she was more
than experienced enough to speak out and share with others what she believed was the true place
in life for women. That in order for women to outclass men that they have to be one step ahead,
that they have to understand they hold the power and that power should be revealed regularly.
Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, is right ynough for me/To speke of wo
that is in mariage (Chaucer 1-3). She firmly objected to men having control over her very life,
and deemed women to be just as capable and intellectual, even if you had to be manipulative to
get what you wanted; she epitomizes the catch phrase „you catch more flies with honey that you
do you vinegar.Once Jankin eventually accepted his wife‟s sovereignty over his life, and in their
marriage, improved greatly until his untimely, and unmentioned, death that is.
Chaucer uses multiple aspects and levels of personality in The Wife‟s character to show
that women can be more than what they are viewed as. That we are strong, capable, intellectual
beings with thoughts, feelings and opinions on life, marriage, God and that these can be used
productively to contribute to society or they can negatively affect relationships and interactions
by allowing them to fester and not cultivate. His successful attempt to go where not many
author‟s had dared has proven to be a remarkable first step into understanding the importance of
gender roles and divisions.
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Katy Perry. “Roar.”Prism. Capital Records. 2013. CD or Youtube??