Gower’s Tale of Florent as a feminist tale.
The centre of John Gower’s Tale of Florent is a question: What women desire. What women desire, as we later come to know, is sovereignty; sovereignty in love.
Written in the tradition of medieval poetry, the Tale of Florent follows the then popular ‘Loathsome Lady’ motif. The loathsome lady or old hag motif, also employed by Gower’s The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, was one in which a knight, having been cursed, is made to go on a quest to find an answer to ‘What women desire’, if he wants his life saved. Unsuccessful everywhere, the knight finally encounters an old hag in a forest who promises to reveal to him the answer to the question, but only if he will marry her. Sovereignty, the answer she provides him with, does save his life therefore marry her, he must.
On the wedding night, repulsed by her ugliness, the knight turns away from her only to find in her place a young beautiful maid. There’s one hitch however: she asks him that he must choose between having her fair by day and foul by night, or vice versa. The knight gives her the choice to decide, and the curse is broken. It turns out that the young woman had been cursed and only by winning the “love and loyalty” of a knight “unparalled for his good name” could she be set free. In giving her the right to decide the knight gives her sovereignty, the one thing that a woman desires, thus bringing about a logical conclusion to the moral of the tale.
For a tale written in the misogynistic medieval times, this clearly was a path-breaking effort. At the centre of the story, is the desire of women and what women desire, contrary to the then popular belief, was no ornaments or clothes or any material objects. It was about her desire for sovereignty or supremacy in a man-woman relationship. Something, that was clearly absent in the times. The knight is thus rewarded with a beautiful princess since he not only did he know what women wanted, but he also acted on this knowledge by giving her the right to choose. The tale does end happily ever after, as the two did “much enjoyment take and did laugh and whoopee make..” Clergy too recorded this tale to show how “faithfulness” will cause a man to have good luck in love.
However, there are intricacies within the plot that need to be examined. For one, the women seem to conform to the traditions. It is the wife who asks the husband to decide, and it is he who vests with her the right. It is not hers from the beginning. Also, the “love” and loyalty” that he is said to have given her, are also suspect. The knight is “distraught” at the thought of having such an ugly wife, yet his “wedding vows impart/ A duty he cannot deny.” His sense of duty forces him to consummate marriage, so when did he love her?
Secondly, it is the notion of beauty. While the text purports to be progressive, in laying emphasis on loftier ideals like sovereignty, the notion of beauty is very much treading the beaten track. The hag is ugly and ugliness, like beauty conforms to certain notions. She is “gaunt and old”, has sagging flesh. “Her nose hung low, her brows arched high/She had beady eyes set deep/Cheeks wet, for ever she did weep/ And shriveled, as her baggy skin/ Hung all the way to her chin; With aged shrunken lips her face/ Had not a single saving grace.” She’s also big built, not petite and appeared like a “Moslem.” It is ironic that for a tale that sets ideals as above material things, the ultimate prize is when this ugly “grotesque” old hag, turns into a young and beautiful “fair” maiden. This is the point where the reader knows the tale has end happily ever after, because the knight was noble and moral in his actions. Predictably, had the tale ended on a note of the knight having to consummate his marriage with the repulsive old hag, as opposed to fair maiden, that would have been seen as a punishment, and not reward. Beauty – the conventional notion of female beauty is the reward, while its opposite is a punishment. A fate the knight almost thought he had to end up with (and was embarrassed by when he bundled up his loathsome lady for fear that someone might see her) and was saved from.
Also, the riddle or mysterious quest the knight is sent on: it is clearly with the intention of having him killed since the common belief is that he will not be able to find an answer to the question. Once he sets off, he finds it exceedingly difficult since: no common ground could they all find/For it is in the nature of/ A woman’s frame of mind in love/ That what one pleasant will perceive/Will cause another to grieve. The notion of women as being unpredictable and unstable, as something that cannot be gauged by the popular (read: male) imagination. In a tale that centers on women, this stereotypical notion sticks out like a sore thumb.
The Tale of Florent could be compared with yet another Loathsome Lady tale – Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is pretty much on the similar lines except that it is problematized by the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. In her prologue, the Wife makes a stinging commentary of the misogynistic traditions of medieval England and questions religious texts and authorities of the age, which wrote about the wickedness of women. Who painted the lion, she asks, referring to a Biblical painting and using it to draw parallels between male-authored religious texts that spoke about the “wickedness” of women. She also glorifies the practice of an older woman marrying a young man, something that finds echo in the tale with the old hag marrying the young knight. This of course, is overturned and the old hag ceases to exist, having transformed into a young maid at the end of her tale. The ending of this tale also puts a dampener on the feminist diatribe of the Wife.
The heart of the tale may be about finding what women desire, but the hero in both cases, is male. It is the knight’s nobility and his sense of honour that are glorified. Throughout, all references to women and beauty are from a male perspective. The Wife, in Chaucer’s text, seems to have internalized the very same antifeminist traditions that she is critiquing. In a way, she seeks to fit herself into the wicked shrew mould especially since she is not able to sustain her spirit in the tale.
Both the tales however break ground with their efforts. In a society where women were completely oppressed by religious and societal constraints, where dogmatic stereotypes about women dominated popular imagination, it was texts like these that sought to change things by beginning to ask different questions. Notions of beauty and other stereotypes associated with women were probably something the poet could not altogether get away with, since they were very much entrenched in these times and were writing for a particular audience. Therefore, when contextualized, we find that the Tale of Florent as well as the Wife of Bath’s Tale, are trying to do something different.