The political climate of the Middle Ages was atrocious for women. Not only did society and the Holy Church of England view women as property for men, but the government did as well. There is a court case that tells about a man named Henry Cook whose wife turned away from him after he cheated on her. Cook took her to court, and the court ruled in Cook’s favor. The ruling is unfortunate, and the most appalling aspect of this court ruling is that his wife’s name is not even on record. There are blank spaces instead. This is why Chaucer gives his readers a sigh of relief; we remember that not everyone is against women.
At the time of Geoffrey Chaucer’s death in 1400, The Canterbury Tales remained incomplete, though Chaucer makes it clear in his “Retraction” that he was indeed finished. The work survived through various manuscripts and the various fragments have been arranged to reflect the correct order of character stories Chaucer meant to tell. Chaucer set these characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett. In the beginning of the journey, Harry Bailly, the local innkeeper and the host of the pilgrimage, decides to host a contest. He offers a free supper to the one who can tell the best story, which will be waiting at his inn when they return. This is the tentative “plot” of the Tales, though I call it tentative because the plot never concludes. This is the story on the literal level, though Chaucer, as the unreliable narrator, is more subversive throughout his work and has many ulterior motives and an underlying plot. Therefore, these stories must be read allegorically.
Chaucer bases his Tales on realism. He creates his characters based on his generalized perception of their real-life counterparts. For example, Chaucer was a court poet and based his own Knight on the high class knights such as John of Gaunt, whom he was a patron of. Chaucer was also an important staff member at the London port customs, which suggests he was familiar with those who would be embodied in his Merchant and Shipman characters. As a result, The Canterbury Tales can be interpreted as a realistic social, political, and economic commentary of 14th century London. However, there is one particular character who does not seem to be created the same way as the others. Instead, this character portrayed as an individual member of some sort of unspecified group, and is not a combination of people embodied in one character. This character’s name is Alyson and is given the title “Wife of Bath” and she is given a mind of her own.
As I have stated previously, most of Chaucer’s other characters exist as representatives of class. The presence of class structure plays an integral role in the beginning of the Tales. Harry Bailly gives the Knight the honor of telling the first story since he is of the highest class of the pilgrims. This first story is the longest of all the stories. After the behemoth of a tale is finally over, Bailly wants to give the Monk the next opportunity to tell a better story. However, it turns out that Robyn the Miller became so drunk listening to the Knight’s extensive (and rather boring) chivalric romance, and is very excited to share the story that has been swelling up inside him. Cutting in front of the Monk, the Miller belts, “By armes and by blood and bones, / I kan a noble tale for the nones / With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale!” It is important to notice Chaucer’s use of the word “quite” here, which may be interpreted as “pay back” or “contend with” and carries with it a very light-hearted connotation. The Reeve is angered by the Miller’s interjection because they belong to the same social class and the Miller is making the Reeve look bad. The Reeve intends to “quite” the Miller’s tale in turn, yet the term takes on a more sinister connotation here. These quips between characters continue to happen throughout The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s intent lies in the interaction between the characters and their representative social classes. This is interesting because the class that Alyson belongs to is somewhat different from that of the other pilgrims.
I argue that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, named Alyson, serves a different purpose than the other characters in The Canterbury Tales. While the other characters are given a place in the social ladder and interact with each other linearly, Chaucer created Alyson to serve as her own character within the story and to exist on a non-linear social plane. In fact, she seems to be representative of some sort of “secte” which is distinct from class and is a term up for interpretation. Additionally, I determine what Chaucer’s intentions are for including the Wife of Bath in the Tales. It seems as if he has an agenda that attacks not only English society but the Church of England as well. Furthermore, I mention how Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s “Tale” and “Prologue” is the embodiment of the feminist struggle, or at least the struggle Chaucer was aware of.
Throughout the Tales, Chaucer is constantly toying with the concept of authorial intent. Chaucer is subversive about his intent. Many scholars have interpreted Chaucer in different ways, which leads to different readings of what he originally intended. Mary Carruthers provides an interesting reading of Alyson’s character. She says, “There is no doubt in my mind that ‘the Wife of Bath’ is no feminist, whether pre-, proto-, retro-, or anti-.” Carruthers thinks that Chaucer’s authorial intent is use the voice of a woman to provoke the male reader. As time passes, the reader response changes. What she means is that Chaucer’s original audience from the Middle Ages are men who are reading this tale told by such a powerful woman’s voice “without any effort on Chaucer’s part to shut her up.”
By this point in the Tales, the reader is used to Chaucer’s characters interrupting each other. The only malicious interruption that the Wife experiences is from the Friar, but this is insignificant because he constantly does this to the others, particularly to the Summoner, and is universally hated by not only the other pilgrims but English society as well. That being said, Chaucer’s modern audience responds to Alyson in a positive light. For Carruthers, modern readers have the intention to interpret her as a bastion of feminist values. Carruthers claims, “The Wife’s Prologue and Tale are often described as “performance,” a word which properly defines the rhetorical nature of all her tale-telling. A rhetorical performance is above all a social occasion, a speaker and an audience meeting within a text, and the occasion is intended to generate the active participation and response, through ear and eye (inner ear and eye when we read silently), of the audience.” Us audience members, as modern readers, are going to interpret this performance differently than a 15th century audience would. For Carruthers, Chaucer was aware that this would happen. Because the feminist movement has become a contentious issue in the current political and social climate, modern readers are inclined to interpret Alyson as a feminist. This is not a problem for Carruthers, but her point is that this is not Chaucer’s intent. Instead, his intent is to provide Alyson a medium to tell her tale, and to provoke a response from the reader.
Carolyn Dinshaw, on the other hand, thinks that Chaucer’s intention with this character is to not only provide her with a provoking voice, but to give her a psychological form. Alyson does not simply speak what Chaucer writes, but also thinks about what she says. Chaucer goes so far in creating Alyson that she becomes autonomous of her author. Dinshaw says the following about Chaucer’s characters, “But I want to suggest that they have psychological dimensions as well: they have the capacity to make choices—I understand the Man of Law to have chosen not to talk about incest, for example—and they have a certain interiority—the Pardoner’s behavior, for another example, is motivated by his own sense of lack.” Chaucer created Alyson to stand as her own person who has experience, just as she says in the first lines of her prologue. Dinshaw also claims that “[t]he Wife of Bath’s Prologue thus renovates the patriarchal hermeneutic to accommodate the feminine, and her Tale continues to reveal and recover those things necessarily excluded by patriarchal discourse.” Chaucer intended for this to happen. One can imagine the havoc and uproar that the patriarchal Middle Ages produced in response to Alyson. For the first time, the concept of “reading like a man” was replaced with “writing like a woman.” This literary portrayal of a woman caused ripples in discourse, there is no doubt.
I will take Dinshaw’s argument one step further; I argue that the Wife of Bath’s interactions with the other characters set her apart from them, as well as the way that the others react to her. For example, while the other pilgrims are free to banter or argue with each other, they do not “quite” Alyson the same way. At the end of the later story “The Clerk’s Tale,” the Clerk dedicates his finale to Alyson, while using an interesting term. He says, “. . . for the Wyves love of Bathe, / Whos lyf and all hire secte God mayntene / In heigh maistrie….” What exactly is this “secte” that the Clerk is referring to? Larry Benson in The Riverside Chaucer glosses “secte” as “sex, or school, those of her persuasion” and notes that scholars disagree on the meaning of this word. The Oxford English Dictionary cites this passage and defines “secte” as “sex.” Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland also used the same term in Piers Plowman, yet the OED defines it there as “a kind of persons.” Despite these discrepancies, I claim that Chaucer was quite aware of the plight of women to achieve higher political and social status and was trying to bring awareness to Alyson’s “secte,” which I regard as a reference to the budding feminist movement that operated in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s Alyson is representative of this movement, especially in the style in which she attacks the Church. In order to understand this movement, we need first discuss the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.”
Right from the beginning of her prologue, Alyson mentions that she has the most experience on the subject of marriage, more experience than the written authorities of the Church. This is because she has had five husbands. This says a lot about her already, and she even says later on that she only married the first four because they had money. This is very interesting because she is the one doing the marrying, and not the other way around. She not only has authority over those men, but she has her own sovereignty as well. She even has a preference in the type of husband she wants. She says, “And yet in bacon hadde I nevere delight.” In the Middle Ages, “bacon” was the term for old, preserved meat. One could imagine the response that the reader from the 15th century would have after reading that. Contemporary readers cannot help but to fall in love with her humor.
She tells the other pilgrims that her fifth husband Jankyn is a clerical scholar whom she married out of love. However, she is tired of having to listen to him talk about the misogynistic writings he constantly studies. One of the works Alyson has to listen to is Jankyn’s compendium on “wikked wyves” which contained works from Saint Jerome and other figures. Chaucer uses this opportunity to directly attack Jerome, a revered pillar of the Church. Jerome was known for his work Against Jovinian, in which he twists the meanings of Biblical passages to fit his own anti-women agenda. He is an advocate of abstinence and virginity and claims that sex before marriage is the greatest sin, for women. There are multiple references she makes to the fallacies she sees in his work. In Against Jovinian, Jerome says:
“But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness. He would never have added let each man have his own wife, unless he had previously used the words but, because of fornications. Do away with fornication, and he will not say let each man have his own wife. Just as though one were to lay it down: It is good to feed on wheaten bread, and to eat the finest wheat flour, and yet to prevent a person pressed by hunger from devouring cow-dung, I may allow him to eat barley. Does it follow that the wheat will not have its peculiar purity, because such an one prefers barley to excrement?”
Alyson makes a direct reference to Jerome’s thoughts on “barley” in her prologue. She says, “And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed /And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan, / Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man.” Here, Alyson “quites” Jerome by admiring barley. She says that Christ was known to give out barley bread in charity. This is ironic because Jerome, a pillar of the Church, is supposed to honor Christ. Instead, he says that the very bread that Jesus distributed was worse that cow dung. Here, Alyson and Chaucer have subversively used Christ’s teachings against the Church itself.
In the climax of the Wife’s prologue, Alyson commits a very symbolic act. Alyson, tired of listening to Jenkyn’s recitations and studying of anti-feminist texts, reacts angrily toward him in a very symbolic way. She rips pages out of his book and punches him, knocking him back. Mistaking his wife for a thief, he punches her back and knocks her on the ground. He realizes the mistake he has made and walks over to check on her. Alyson is feigning her injury and punches Jenkyn yet again, making him promise to never read those texts to her again. Here, the exchange between the two of them is significant, but is not as important as what Alyson does to his book. By ripping up Jenkyn’s book, she attacks the very thing that legitimizes the disdain towards women, that being the canon. The one who reads these texts is easy to fight against, however the greater challenge is in fighting the canon. Alyson paves the path on which feminists will soon follow. After this long prologue, she then begins her tale.
Her tale is an Arthurian tale about a knight who commits rape and has to face the repercussions. He goes before Queen Guinevere and will only spare his life if he can come back to her and tell her what it is that all women truly want. He has a year and a day to do so. On his journey, he comes across an old woman who promises to help him in exchange for marriage. The old woman returns with him to Guinevere and says that all women want to be in charge of their lovers. The knight, reluctant of his decision to marry this woman, is tested by the woman. She gives him two choices. She can either be young and beautiful for all his spectators during the day and ugly for him at night, or ugly for his spectators during the day and beautiful for him at night. Frustrated, the knight says, “I put me in youre wise governance; / Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance / And moost honour to yow and me also.” This makes the woman happy and decides to be eternally young and beautiful. By giving this woman sovereignty not only over her lover, but herself as well, everyone receives a happy ending. This is Alyson’s argument. She ends with a sermon on true nobility, which is based on the deeds you do, not what class (or gender) you were born into.
Chaucer continues his feminist theme in a number of his other works outside of The Canterbury Tales. He bases one of his long poems on women who are admirable. He called this The Legend of Good Women. He also wrote The Book of the Duchess, an extended elegy to John of Gaunt’s beloved wife. In Troilus and Criseyde, Criseyede thanks God after she exclaims “I am myn owene womman.” Just like in The Canterbury Tales, these works are up for interpretation. Additionally, there are other members of the feminist “secte” that were contemporaries of Chaucer. One of which was Christine de Pizan.
Pizan was a French feminist writer who wrote The Book of the City of Ladies as well as other poetry. There is no direct proof of her correspondence with Chaucer, but her poem “The Epistle of Cupid” was translated into Middle English by Thomas Hoccleve in 1399. Because it was written as a courtly love poem, a genre that Chaucer was most familiar with, there is a possibility that he came across the work. Additionally, records suggest that Chaucer was educated in French. In The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan lashed out against the Church and their view of women. She points out the hypocrisy of the Church in the same manner that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath does. In one instance, the narrator “Christine” asks Lady Rectitude why the male Church leaders have been so quick to deem women as “fickle and inconstant, changeable and flighty, weak-hearted, compliant like children, and lacking all stamina.” Lady Rectitude replies, “Fair sweet friend, have you not heard the saying that the fool can clearly see the mote in his neighbor’s eye but pays no attention to the beam hanging out of his own eye?” Lady Rectitude’s response is a direct quotation from Matthew 7:5. Once again, the irony here is that Pizan is using Christ’s own words against the Church in the same style that Alyson rebukes Jerome’s claims.
There are many other women who paved the way for modern feminists. Women like Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, and later Elizabeth Woodville questioned the status quo and brought attention to the growing feminist movement. These women are the ones who would have made up this “secte” that Chaucer referred to. Margery Kempe made many pilgrimages, just as Alyson did, and tried to balance secular life with religious piety. Julian of Norwich was an anchoress who was revered by Kempe. Elizabeth Woodville became the queen consort of England when she married her second husband, King Edward IV. She mirrors Alyson in that she lacked the class nobility that a queen consort was expected to have, yet she married into royalty. Regardless of Chaucer’s intent behind referring to this “secte,” he referred to nonetheless, directing his male and female readers alike to examine it.
Likely on his deathbed, Chaucer explains his intentions he had for his works in his “Retraction.” Chaucer explicitly refers to Saint Augustine’s idea of ex opera operantis, ex opera operato. Here, this means literally “from the work of the worker, from the work having been worked.” Chaucer gives this to us in less confusing terms, saying, “For (Augustine’s) book seith, ‘Al that is written is written for oure doctrine,’ and that is myn entente.” He said that his intent is written in the pages of his book, we only have to look for it. His intention was to provoke us readers with subjects such as feminism, only to have us respond. Without The Canterbury Tales, and without Alyson, we may not have questioned these subjects so intensely, and neither would have Alyson’s “secte.”
Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the painting of lions.” In Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature, edited by Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson, 22-53. London: Routledge, 1994.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, 3-328. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. In The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, 471-486. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
“Medieval Sourcebook: Manorial Marriage and Sexual Offense Cases.” Internet History
Sourcebooks Project. Accessed May 08, 2019. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/manor-marr1.asp.
“On Marriage and Virginity, From Letter XXII to Eustochium and from the treatise Against
Jovinian.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed May 12, 2019. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/jerome-marriage.asp
Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. In The Essential Feminist Reader, edited by Estelle B. Freedman, 4-9. New York: Random House, 2007.
. “Medieval Sourcebook: Manorial Marriage and Sexual Offense Cases.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 67.
. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 78.
. Mary Carruthers. “The Wife of Bath and the painting of lions,” in Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature, ed. Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson, (London: Routledge, 1994), 43.
. Carruthers, “The Wife of Bath and the painting of lions,” 44.
. Ibid., 44.
. Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 27.
. Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, 126.
. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 152.
. Ibid., 110.
. “On Marriage and Virginity, From Letter XXII to Eustochium and from the treatise Against Jovinian.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 107.
. Ibid., 121.
. Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, 499.
. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies in The Essential Feminist Reader, ed. Estelle B. Freedman (New York, Random House, 2007), 8.
. Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 8.
. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 328.