Reflection On Wife Of Bath: Book Review

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The exquisitely decorated Ellesmere Chaucer is considered to be one of the most significant and high quality manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Owned by the Huntington Library in California, the Tales recounts the adventures of of twenty-two fictional pilgrims who tell stories in order to enliven the journey from London to Canterbury, accompanied by miniature paintings of each character. Chaucer wrote the Tales during the fourteenth century, a time when the social structure was rapidly evolving. He chose to address the change of events that he noticed through ‘The Prologue of the Wife of Bath’s Tale’ to illustrate the imbalance of power within the male dominated society. Women were not identified by their social status or occupations, but solely by their relations with men; a woman was either a maiden, spouse, or widow, who was only capable of bearing children, cooking and other ‘women’s work.’ The Wife of Bath’s Tale confronts the double standard and the Medieval social belief that women are inherently inferior, and attempts to establish a defence of secular women’s sovereignty that opposes the conventions available to her.

Chaucer’s choice to focus on the proletariat in the stories of The Canterbury Tales validate that he is purposefully writing about women to challenge the way things were done in Medieval society. Written in Middle English, the story follows a group of pilgrims who are travelling the long journey from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Setting off from a London inn, the innkeeper suggests that during the journey each pilgrim should tell two tales to help pass the time. The best storyteller, he says, will be rewarded with a free supper on his return. Chaucer introduces us to a dynamic cast of characters, including a carpenter, a cook, a knight, a monk, a prioress, a haberdasher, a dyer, a clerk, a merchant and a very bawdy miller. These characters come from all corners of 14th century society, and give Chaucer the chance to speak in many different voices. Some of the characters’ tales are humorous, rude and naughty, while others are moral and reflective. Chaucer also made the decision to write in English and not French, something rarely done, as French was the language spoken by those in power in the centuries following the Norman invasion. His history of writing about the working class, making social commentary, and writing in the language of the masses prove his tendency to challenge the status quo.

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An illuminated Medieval manuscript in its simplest sense, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue showcases text supplemented with such decoration as initials, borders, and a miniature illustration. The bold use of varying colors provided multiple layers of dimension to the illumination. In quintessential Medieval manuscript style, the parchment showcases stylized curvilinear lines, consisting of abstract and natural ornamentation—such as the intertwining gems, vegetal floral patterns, and shell formations. While being decorative, the manuscript is not overly floral or soft. It’s simplicity is not reminiscent of femininity, but rather masculinity. This is further demonstrated in the illustration on the right of the text: the Wife of Bath’s astride her horse, wearing regalia, brandishing a whip, and wearing spurs. CS!

This particular folio from the Ellesmere Chaucer contains the text of the Wife of Bath’s prologue and the beginning of her tale (need better TS!). In her prologue, the Wife entertains her fellow pilgrims with anecdotes of her five marriages and her “maistrye” over her husbands. The Wife boastfully recounts how she acquired money, property, and marital power from her husbands through the calculated use of her wit and sexual charm. Chaucer introduces the Wife of Bath as an attractive, well-traveled woman in the cloth business who displays her affluence and trade in the clothes she wears. The Wife has gapped teeth, good hips, and wears fine kerchiefs beneath a very wide hat. The Wife’s fur-trimmed red tunic recalls her sensuous red stockings, and a golden belt that cinches her waist draws attention to both her wealth and her wide hips. A thick netted wimple—a cloth headdress covering the head, neck, and the sides of the face, formerly worn by women and still worn by some nuns—beneath a broad black hat reminds the viewer of her material success and the travels she undertakes as a result of her uncommon independence. Her riding position and her whip reinforce the Wife’s dominance over her husbands and role-reversal in her marriages. Illustrations of the Prioress and the Second Nun in the same manuscript show the women riding side-saddle, while in contrast the Wife of Bath rides astride her horse (Fig. 2-3). This choice of posture not only distinguishes the secular Wife from her monastic counterparts but also demonstrates her control in marriage and life in general. Her whip further reinforces the notion of the Wife of Bath rejecting the Medieval way of life and bears strong resemblance to images of Phyllis dominating Aristotle, a popular Medieval tale (Fig. 4). The illustration of the Wife of Bath in the Ellesmere Chaucer declares her power and upper hand within marriage, that the Wife describes having achieved in her own life and champions in her subsequent tale.

In the prologue to “The Wife of Bath,” the wife expresses her views in which she believes the morals of women is not merely that they all solely desire sovereignty, but that each individual woman should have the opportunity to make the decision. This story, supported by its illuminating art, contradicts many of the typical customs of the time and provides an overbearing assessment in which the roles of women in society are bound to accept it quietly. The Wife of Bath knows the stories of many holy men who have had multiple wives and says, “Well I know Abraham was a holy man, and Jacob as well, as far as I know, and each of them had more than two wives. And many other holy men did as well. When have you seen that in any time great God forbade marriage explicitly? Tell me, I Pray you”(Chaucer). This quote addresses why society should not look down on her or any other woman who has wed to multiple men throughout their life. Both the story and art provide insight into the role of women in the Late Middle Ages, simultaneously enumerating and critiquing the long tradition of misogyny in Ancient and Medieval literature. The Wife of Bath’s Tale argues that women are morally identical to men who have also had more than one spouse, addressing the double standards for men and women that were common and deeply rooted in their culture.

Works Cited

  1. “The Huntington.” The Huntington, 7 Jan. 1970, www.huntington.org/.
  2. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” Poetry in Translation, www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/CanterburyTalesVI.php.

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