The role of women in the 14th century was quite different then they are today. In Chaucer’s Canterbury tales he has made several scenarios in his stories on how women were viewed at that time period. In his stories it is clear that he was determined to show that women were not weak. But that women are strong willed and that they don’t let male dominance get in the way of getting what they want. In medieval times women had very clear-cut roles. They were considered submissive to their husbands and to any other male. A women’s place was in her home doing house hold chores such as cleaning, cooking and sewing. When in Chaucer’s stories these women over stepped these boundaries making the Tale’s themselves more interesting because it wasn’t typical for women at that time to be having sex before marriage. In this essay my point will be to discuss Chaucer’s attitude towards women and how consistent he is on proving on how strong and independent women can be. To prove my argument, I will be using the following characters in the tale the Wife of Bath, Narrator to the Wife of Bath’s Tale and Griselda from the Clerks’s Tale. With these I will be able to prove that the women in Chaucer’s Tales are not ordinary women but are sovereign and self-reliant in the way that typical male dominance does not affect them.
The Wife of Bath, which is the main character in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a very controlling and ungovernable woman. Unlike other women back in that time period she believes that for a man to be her husband he must be able to obey her and know that she is the head of the household. The Wife claims that she has had five husbands in her life time. With this she has asserted sovereignty over all of them even though some were harder to gain dominance over than others. She gained control by using techniques that she knew would be effective to a man. These techniques consisted of withholding pleasure so the man would be under her complete control. The Wife’s idealized vision of marriage in her tale shows that the hag has complete control over the knight she has and forces him to marry her. Even though she gave him the power to choose her loyalty, he couldn’t choose, and he gave up. Leaving her in control once again and they lived happily ever after. Continuing with how the Wife shows her power over men, in her prologue she says that three of her husbands were good because they were rich and old. She then explains how she controlled each one. The last two were not as easy as the last ones but eventually she was able to gain authority over them. With all of these facts that the Wife puts out there, it is certain that she acts like a feminist, in which she defends the rights of women over any man. Quoted from the article “Women and Geoffrey Chaucer” Murtaugh explains that in the Wife of Bath the battle of the sexes in this story is very significant, “The first mainly concerned with praising a woman and the second with damning a man in their conjugal roles” (479). Chaucer deliberately portrays the Wife of Bath as a woman who puts aside regular tradition so he could show a side of a women’s position. By doing this he was able to give women a voice, and to give them authority that they wouldn’t usually have. Chaucer gave her all the qualities that women in the medieval times should not have. But he also made her be able to justify and defend herself accordingly so that the reader wouldn’t see her as evil. This shows that Chaucer saw this character as potential to show a women’s opinion on how unfair they are treated. This shows especially in the Wife of Bath’s tale where the knight is sentenced to go find what women desire most. With this he finds a woman who agrees to tell him but only if he agrees to marry her. Even though she is ugly he agrees because he is desperate. She then tells him what women desire most is the power to control their husbands. With that he can make a choice she can become beautiful if she is the one in control and he can become submissive, or she can stay ugly and he can stay in control. Like stated before she gives him the choice in which he cannot choose so she becomes beautiful and she gives him back the control over her. This shows that he may have gotten back the control that he wanted but he still somehow still remained under control of the Wife because she still made the decision to do what she wanted. It just happened to benefit them both in the end. In the article “Chaucer’s Anti Misogynist Wife of Bath” Oberembt mentions “her argument for wifely sovereignty is evidence indeed to her perverted character” (287). In this Tale Chaucer proves himself to be favorable of the Wife because he wanted to show a women’s side of a story and create it into a tale to show that women are smart and capable and know what they are doing just as much as men do.
In “The Clerk’s Tale” from Canterbury tales Chaucer brings up a wife named Griselda who is submissive to her husband. She doesn’t seem to have any remorse or regrets for anything that he makes her do. Griselda’s husband Walter makes her go through many tests to see how truly dedicated she is to him. Walter threatens to take away the children from her to have them killed and tells her that he is going to divorce her and re marry. Even though he continuously had treated her badly. Her love for him was strong and she did what ever he asked. Even though all of this mistreatment was Walter’s way of trying to see if Griselda was loyal and dedicated to him. This was Chaucer’s way of showing how obedient Griselda was. She never once made a fuss or a complaint about anything that Walter asked her. She had all the morals that a good wife would have. In the medieval times this is what the ideal women would be, obeying all orders that her husband wants her to do, even if it may seem unreasonable. Submissiveness, loyalty and patience is what would make a perfect wife. Griselda herself was a peasant who married a noble making her the less unfortunate one in the story and the one who needs “saving”. Chaucer made Griselda one of the strongest characters in the tale because she didn’t do anything. She only did what she was told. Her submissiveness made her even stronger seeing sometimes holding back takes more strength than actually acting out what’s on the mind. Griselda maybe was panicking on the inside, but she wasn’t acting out her feelings because she knew that being loyal was the best option. Griselda may have been humble to her husband, but she is far from being weak. In fact, this proves how much of a strong woman she really is. The self-control that she had going through all of this is something that not many people possess never mind a woman that is having everything taken away from her. She remained a completely virtuous women the whole entire time, completely erasing herself and becoming a servant to her husband. The tale seems to imply because she grew up poor, she knows nothing about happiness or any sort of desires. Her life has been filled with hard work and whatever she is asked to do she will obey it and do it happily. The story mentions details that she sleeps on a hard bed and lives on water and herbs. This character was also known for caring for her father with diligence and obedience. Seeing that she has been put through all of this work she had grown to have great humility. She isn’t the type to put her opinion out there, but she also isn’t afraid to do what she needs to do and get her hands dirty. It was Griselda’s strength is what Walter wanted rather than her submissive nature. It may have seemed that Walter just wanted a woman to do what ever he asked at his call, but it seems that he wasn’t only just testing her for her love, but he was also admiring her for her strength. Walter could have had all the women that he wished for seeing that he is a Nobel man. There would be no issue for him to get a woman or women to do similar action to please him. Chaucer has made her situation so severe so that the reader could see really what was expected of women. Griselda could have seemed helpless but when putting all of her actions together, its clear that she was using her virtue as a weapon towards Walter. Griselda could have known that if she did what he asked there was nothing he could do to her. It would make him love her even more. Her strength and resilience would be impossible to ignore or hate. His love would grow fonder at the fact that she would do anything for him without a blink. But this will remain unknown because no one knows the inner working mind of Griselda and how she truly felt. Griselda has proven to be a symbol of feminine protest and feminine submission. It just depends on how one views it. She is submissive in the way that she obeys orders without any issue. But she protests by not being a typical wife, she fights the ordinary wife view by being strong and reliant to all the bad things that are happening around her. Chaucer’s main point of this tale was to show what woman have to deal with and even though they have to deal with the constant battle of patriarchy, they are capable of being strong hard workers. This tale is just another piece of proof that Chaucer believed women were more than just house wives that did nothing and that were weak.
In the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale both of these tales are the most similar. Both of these can relate to each other when it comes to the treatment of women. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” has a woman who has complete control over her husbands and goes around the idea that women are more controlling and powerful when they are in a relationship. She intimidates and manipulates her husbands into doing things for her such as to buy her material things and treat her in certain ways. In the article “Chaucer’s Wife Of Bath’s “Foot-Mantel And her Hips Large” Beidler agrees by saying “She is an imposing woman with the size and commanding presence”. What he means by this is that she is a woman who is not afraid to say what she wants and to get what she pleases. She is a woman who commands respect and wants to be in control. She does not allow men to step all over her and use her to their advantages such as other women of that era would do. This is what makes the Wife of Bath so special, its because of her resilience to let men rule her is what makes this an unforgettable character. In the Clerk’s Tale there are similarities with both Walter and the Wife of Bath because they both demand happiness and satisfaction by getting obedience. With the fact that they demand love they also demand favors. For example, Walter gives Griselda jewels and rings and in return he wants her obedience. The Wife of Bath as well demands favors from men. She demands material things and sexual desires from her husbands. Another similarity is the Wife of Bath and Griselda themselves and how they have a parallel of strength that are similar to each other. They were both women that have seen and been through experiences that made them to be who they were in the tale. Even though one was seen as considerably older, Griselda was also experienced in life that may have been different from the other but molded her to think obeying and working is the way to go. When the Wife of Bath believes that she is ultimately the one who deserves respect and not vice versa like it usually would in marriage. Both of these character’s break out of the normal zone when it comes to stories written in the 14th century. Chaucer had a theme of letting women have their own identity, rather than having their own identity defined by the typical male stereotypes. The writer of the article “The Logic of the Clerk’s Tale” Morgan quoted “The failure of Griselda to rebel does not imply passivity but strength”. “Griselda is motivated by her promise to Walter” (5). Generally, in Chaucer’s day and age women had very little influence of their own future. A women’s identity was determined by her husband and father. Therefore, the opportunities that they had were very limited seeing everything depended on where they were from, their rank, age and stage of life. This is why for most taking care of the family was the centre of life for most women because they didn’t have much freedom. Daughters were under control by their fathers and wives were under control of their husbands. They had very little legal independence when it came to living life.
Going back to try and prove the point that the women in Chaucer’s stories are strong, independent women, a reader can see that these tales are early stages of feminism showing how woman are capable of gaining power within a patriarchal society. Even though the Wife of Bath is considered an ugly woman with gap teeth and a bit deaf, she is pictured to be a beautiful tasteful well-dressed woman because that’s how she wants herself to be. This is part of many of her strengths, she is not weak and shy but bold and believes in herself. She has confidence that many women don’t have which is why she manages to get what she wants. She appears beautiful because that’s what she believes. When Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale may not be open enough to be confident out in the open, she is confident is a quieter manner where she keeps to herself. She is confident in a way that she knows that her husband needs her, and it is her duty to be loyal to him. It was the promise she made to him when they decided to get married. Chaucer’s Canterbury tales deals with a lot of women that are treated like objects daily. But he changes them deliberately to show a change of story and lifestyle so the reader can have something to think about. Chaucer wants people to think differently about how women are treated. According to how he writes his stories he doesn’t think of them as useless human beings that aren’t capable of anything. He puts them in there to show how capable they are of being of use to society. Like mention earlier many women weren’t thought of very smart and helpful people. They were considered females that were made to serve men and bear children. It doesn’t sound like Chaucer agreed that was the case. He made these tales with these women to showcase that they should be just as equal to men. He made them have main roles that put them in front of the line and made them hero instead of the other way around. He shows that male dominance does not affect these women because they are stronger than most men. The roles they play show the importance of having an open mind towards women and demonstrating that qualities that they were given. Both of these tales are evidence that Chaucer was a feminist in his writing because of his fondness of writing about secure, powerful women that are not afraid to be different. The differences in his characters show his endearment towards women who step out of the normal circle and it shows clearly in his writing.
- Murtaugh, Daniel M. “Women and Geoffrey Chaucer.” ELH, vol. 38, no. 4, 1971, pp. 473–492. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2872261.
- Beidler, Peter G. “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Foot-Mantel’ and Her ‘Hipes Large.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 34, no. 4, 2000, pp. 388–397. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25096106.
- Morgan, Gerald. “The Logic of the Clerk’s Tale.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 104, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20468120.
- Oberembt, Kenneth J. “Chaucer’s Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 10, no. 4, 1976, pp. 287–302. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093359.