The Wife of Bath: Female Empowerment In Medieval Europe women traditionally occupied specific gender roles. Some of these roles that women were expected to carry out included wife, peasant, artisan and nun. Women during this period were constantly told by society and the church that because of their gender they were meant to be weak and submissive to men. Geoffery Chaucer a poet in the late medieval period sought to challenge these constraints placed on women during this period, through the Wife of Bath, a pilgrim in his work The Canterbury Tales.
The Wife of Bath is a comprehensive collection of qualities, particularly those qualities which we derive from the tale and the introductory prologue, that challenge the convention’s of Chaucer’s period. Through the Wife of Bath’s exaggerated and liberated character, Chaucer resists the religious and social confinement of women that characterized the period he lived in. In the Wife of Bath’s prologue, Chaucer develops a figure that is distinctly contrary to Christian ideals and his period’s construct of what is appropriate female behavior.
The prologue is Chaucer’s own critique of the restrictions of religion and society on women. The Wife of Bath constantly makes references to biblical verses that contradict the conventions of the period. Chaucer, through scripture, is systematically justifying the behavior of the Wife of Bath. “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye: That gentil text can I wel understonde” (line 28-29). In these lines the Wife of Bath is revealing that female sexuality and the perpetual use of sex organs are commandments from God.
Inherently, the Wife of Bath is saying that abstaining from sexual behavior is a slight against God and his wishes. In his essay “Chaucer’s Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath”, Kenneth J. Oberembt says, “The Wife’s will to dominate husbands and her wish that all wives be as she is are no less, these critics assure us, than a subversion of the principle of patriarchal order sanctioned by Scripture and Christian tradition” Through her use of scripture the wife is merely defending her five marriages, within each of which she was sexually active.
This type of thinking is starkly different then what was customary of English people in the period. The Wife of Bath does not rely solely on scripture to justify her actions, she also references to a multitude of classics to aid in her argument. “Thise same words writeth Ptolomee: Rede in his Almageste and take it there” (line 188). The Wife continues to challenge ideas limiting the freedom of women with references like these. Chaucer, through the Wife of Bath, uses fully developed arguments based on history and religion to substantiate his outcry against the constraints placed on women in his time.
Chaucer appears to be working from a feminist perspective as he attempts to debunk all preconceived notions that woman must be submissive to men. The Wife of Bath is given all of the power in her marriages, which is a complete contradiction to the customs of the period. “I governed hem so wel after my lawe That eech of hem ful blissful was and fawe To bringe me gaye thinges fro the faire” (line 225). The Wife of Bath completely dispels all assumptions of a submissive and nurturing female with the despotic power with which she controls her marriages.
The Wife of Bath’s character is successful in becoming the sovereign member of a coupling in several marriages. The Wife of Bath successfully supports her argument regarding the roles of women in the period through the introductory prologue. In the Wife of Bath’s tale we find the same questioning of authority and eventual shifting of that same authority to that of the female. The tale begins with a reference of the destructive nature of Christianity. “But now can no man see none elves mo, For now the grete charitee and prayers of limitours” (line 870).
The Wife of Bath is sarcastically referencing to the “charitee” of the “limitours” who are missionaries of the church. In particular, the Wife of Bath is insulting another of Chaucer’s pilgrims, the Friar. Because of the church and their limiting and previous religious thought, “man see none elves mo”. This is obviously a critique of the church and its actions, perhaps in relation to the destruction of elements of pagan theology and customs. This may also be related to the construction of a new role for women in the period.
Christianity’s view on the roles of women during the period were misogynistic, through these few lines the Wife of Bath may be attempting to discredit the church and Christianity’s views on women’s place in society. The empowerment of women felt throughout the Wife of Bath’s prologue is clearly highlighted in the fate of the knight. The knight, a representation of male dominance, asserts his superiority over a young maiden by raping her. The knight views this woman as nothing more than an object subject to his whims.
As the woman was of an equal noble ranking as the knight, the knight was arrested and his fate was handed over to the queen by the king. In an ironic twist the fate of the rapist misogynist knight is left in the hands of a woman. The queen challenges the knight to find out what it is women want most in the world. If he fails to do so in one year’s time the knight will be put to death. After frantically searching for the answer that could save his life, the knight comes across an ugly old woman who claims to know the answer he so desperately seeks.
The woman agrees to help him under one condition; the knight must pledge himself to her. The desperate knight agrees, and the old woman and the knight return back to court. In front of the queen the knight gives his answer supplied to him by the old woman. “Wommen desire to have sovereinetee As wel over hir housbonde as hir love, And for to been in maistrye him above” (line 1044-1046). This answer not only serves as justification for the Wife of Bath’s actions heard in the prologue, but also it highlights the major theme of female empowerment and sovereignty present throughout the Wife’s tale.
Later in the tale, the knight says, when given the ultimatum of his wife being old and honorable or beautiful and horrible, “My lady and my love, and wif so dere, I putte me in youre wise governaunce” (line 1236). This can be interpreted as a drastic change in the knight’s understanding about the role of women in marriage. Rather than dismissing the woman, the knight speaks to her in a respectful tone and places himself under her care. Perhaps this is the type of change that Chaucer wished to see in the treatment of women. Chaucer lived during a period in which women were constantly marginalized.
In an attempt to counter this mode of thought, Chaucer created the Wife of Bath, a character whose actions and behaviors completely contradicted the customs of the period. The Wife of Bath’s tale and prologue are an early attempt to fully empower women. The female is being politically charged here by Chaucer through the Wife of Bath, who is successfully read as a character who is an epitome of anti-patriarchal resistance. Works Cited Chaucer’s Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath Kenneth J. Oberembt The Chaucer Review , Vol. 10, No. 4 (Spring, 1976), pp. 287-302