Near the turn of the fourteenth century the art of composing romantic poetry entertained the inhabitants of northwestern England. Many highly educated men participated in this art and form of entertainment. Most created tales, termed epics, were also very important to the history of the individual author’s nation or race. One of the three great epic poets of this period, Geoffrey Chaucer, fashioned a collection of tales that was both unique and everlasting. This collection of short stories, entitled the Canterbury Tales, was unlike any other epic poem of the time period.
Instead of following the traditional format for writing an epic poem, which included writing about several characters of high social standing, Chaucer gave his readers a taste of social variety by involving various characters from a spectrum of social classes. In the Canterbury Tales, this diverse group of characters was individually responsible for narrating two stories while on a pilgrimage that journeyed from Southwark to Canterbury, and two stories while on the return trip from Canterbury to Southwark.
Chaucer only finished twenty-two of these narratives before his death in 1400. Still, through the twenty-two stories he did write, he managed to capture the culture and mind set of England’s occupants during this transitional period between the medieval and Renaissance era. This marked change in times in which medieval man insisted upon being a member of the spiritual community and thought that the individual had no right to test the “truths” of time; conflicted with the Renaissance man who disputed the catholic norm and thought it right to form his own separate social groups.
Geoffrey Chaucer best illustrates this drastic change in times in one of his twenty-two stories included in the Canterbury Tales titled the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. In this excellent piece of literary work a woman, the Wife of Bath, tests the biblical and moral standards of the time. The Wife of Bath, in her prologue, explains her life and defends all of her previous actions of love and lust. In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the Wife of Bath explains to the rest of the pilgrims on the journey how she has previously been married five times. During this age, and even today, the idea of having multiple spouses is considered a sin and looked down upon by those in the Catholic church. To counter this belief, she argues many valid points that one can find it hard to disagree with her actions. For all three of her arguments she refers to biblical text. The first reference to the holy Bible she makes is of the many wives of Solomon. She explains that in the Bible, Solomon, while the king of Egypt, had close to seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (Chaucer 118, ln. 35-37). In her second allusion to the Bible she quotes St. Paul, “It is better to marry, than to burn (Chaucer 118, ln. 55-58).” Her final implication to the Bible highlights Lamech and Jacob, and how each holy man had two wives (Chaucer 118, ln. 60-64). All of the arguments, directly from the text of the Bible, present valid justification in her mind to why the Catholic church should condone more than one marriage.
In Chaucer’s time, women who participated in eternal virginity were often commended. This idea is recognized in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue as she continues to protest the principles of this age. The Wife of Bath does not use any references to the Bible when contradicting this idea. Instead she speaks from experience, which she prefers greatly over authority and scholarly material (Chaucer 117 ln. 1). She openly agrees that in the Bible it is suggested if an individual wants to live a perfect life, then he or she must travel the road of celibacy. On the contrary she admits that neither she nor many others are perfect in all ways (Chaucer 119 ln. 111-120). This is when she brings up her first logical thought: if all women participated in celibacy, who would be left to bear more children “virgins” and continue the race of mankind? Her second rational idea that no one should dispute is the purpose for possessing sexual organs. She argues that the sexual organs all humans exhibit were made for pleasure, as well as creating life (Chaucer 120 ln. 132-134). Both of these arguments that the wife of Bath proposes are logical in thought and, if carefully examined, very true.
After the wife of Bath finishes her prologue she proceeds to tell her tale. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale a knight returning to King Arthur’s Court saw a young damsel and raped her. The knight’s entire kingdom was disgusted by his action and demanded that justice be served upon the knight. As the knight was brought before King Arthur the queen begged to judge the knight’s actions. King Arthur grant’s the queen’s request. She then explain’s to the knight that his sentence would depend on how accurately he could answer the question: “What is the thing that woman most desire?” The knight was given one year to return a correct answer to the queen. After questioning all of the woman in the entire countryside he could not decided on one single correct answer, until he met an old lady with magical powers. She told the knight that women most desire sovereignty over their partners. The knight relayed this answer to the queen and was set free after none of the woman of King Arthur’s Court could disagree. The story ends with the knight marrying the old lady because he promised her anything for providing a correct answer for the queen (Chaucer 135-144). This idea, of woman attaining sovereignty over their spouses, that the wife of Bath portrays in her tale was unheard of during this age. Men often dominated their spouses during the medieval period. Women had very little, if any, rights in most social classes. Woman were obligated to do whatever their spouse requested, and were to do so without any argument. With this in mind, one should realize that the wife of Bath continues to vocalize ideas that go “against the grain” of her time period in her tale. The wife of Bath touches on this idea of sovereignty in her prologue, but does not emphasize the matter as she does in her tale. Because of the emphasis on sovereignty in her narrative, The Wife of Bath’s Tale should be considered a sophisticated petition for reform of traditional customs, rather than an entertaining ballad.
During this change from the medieval to Renaissance era most writing expressed the frail role that woman played in society. Unlike the common literature of his time, Chaucer does not attempt to attack or support the role of women during his age. Instead he simply asks the reader to observe the role that women play in medieval society, and possibly accept the woman’s point of view. Chaucer does not clearly identify if he sympathizes with the main character in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, but it is apparent that he does not agree with prevailing ideas about celibacy, marriage, and moral obligations of women during the middle ages. Instead of revealing his own thoughts, he leaves these moral debates in scale, allowing the reader to make their own individual judgements. It is in this way that Chaucer illustrates all of these controversial topics that allows him to be considered on of the greatest poets of all time.
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