Neither lust, nor greed, nor vanity, is necessary to account for betrayal: it is the simple and inevitable reflex of the changeability that is the very life of human beings."(Mann, 19)
Thus, the discourse of the Wife of Bath should be seen rather in this light, than as an antifeminist one. In fact, her prologue is to be read rather like a purposeful unmasking of the many antifeminist stereotypes circulated in that epoch. As Jill Mann has noted, the fact that the Wife of Bath recounts all the things that her husbands have told her, the specific nagging that takes place between men and women:
That is, she [the Wife of Bath] does not live in the insulated laboratory world of literature, where she is no more than a literary object, unconscious of the interpretations foisted upon her; she is conceived as a woman who lives in the real world, in full awareness of the antifeminist literature that purports to describe and criticize her behavior, and she has an attitude to it just as it has an attitude to her." (Mann, 64)
The Wife of Bath argues, as the Old Woman of the Romance, in favor for the same naturalness, that every woman should follow. She intentionally uses many Biblical texts, which she interprets in such a manner as to effectively support her own argument. In this way she attacks the basic source of moral- the clergy, and proposes that the Bible does not say anything against more lawful marriages or in favor of virginity:
Where can you see in any manner age
That high God defended marr age
By express word? I pray you telleth me.
Or where commanded he virginity?
A wot as well as you (it is no dread)
The apostle, when he speaks of maidenhead,
He said that precept thereof had he none." (Chaucer, 121)
As Mann observed what the Wife of Bath does, according to her own statement is to "assert her 'experience' against written 'auctoritee'"(Mann, 59), thus reinterpreting many of the well-known stereotypes about women in her age. She goes against Jerome's metaphors for virginity and sinfulness: wheat-bread, barley bread and dung:
n'ill envy no virginity.
I'll persevere; I am not prec ous.
In wifehood will I use mine instrument
As freely as my Maker has it sent." (Chaucer, 122)
The Wife of Bath seems to have followed the Old Woman's advice very well, as she proves in her account of how she profited from all her husbands:
But by my fay, I told of it no store:
They had me given their land and their treasure,
Me needed not do longer diligence
To win their love, or do them reverence.
They lov'd me so well, by God above,
That I ne told no dainty of their love." (Chaucer, 124)
As it is seen in both texts, the art of love presupposes much more pretending than any true loving. Both the Wife and Bath and the Old Woman argue in favor of the lack of actual feeling:
Upon my soul, if I had been wise, I could have been a very rich woman, for great men courted me when I was pretty and charming, and I had some of them firmly in my toils. But by the faith I owe God and Saint Thibaut, when I had taken from them, I gave away everything to a scoundrel who put me to great shame but whom I loved the best."
As Mann proposes, Chaucer's text goes beyond the antifeminist tradition mainly because of the structure that the Wife of Bath uses in her prologue: on the one hand she speaks her own liberal views on love and marriage, which are in perfect accordance with those in the Romance of the Rose, and on the other hand she also reveals the permanent nagging that she had suffered from her husbands. In this way she proves to be aware of the antifeminist literature...
This is emphasized by the obsessive repetition in varied forms of the phrase 'thou seyst' ('seistow', 'thou seydest'); it recurs twentyfive times in all in nearly a hundred and fifty lines. Almost all the Wife's tirade against her husbands, apart from the first twelve lines, is reported speech nothing other than what they are supposed to have said to her. Male attacks on women become the very substance of a female attack on men. The Wife uses antifeminist satire as a blunt instrument with which to beat her husbands into submission." (Mann, 63)
Indeed, the last part of her prologue is replete with instanc
And if that she be rich, of high parage,
Then sayst thou that it is a tormentry
To suffer her pride and her melancholy.
And if that she be fair (Thou very knave!)
Thou sayst that every holor will her have;
rring to the well-known fable which relates how a lion and a man argued over which of them was superior to the other. When the man attempted to prove his case by pointing to a picture of a man overcoming a lion, the lion asked who painted the picture, and on receiving the obvious reply - 'A man' - commented that if lions could paint, then the picture would be very different. Women, for the Wife of Bath, are in the same position as the lion: they are powerless to correct the distorted image of themselves produced by clerical misogynists and given all the weight of bookish authority. The Wife's concern is to strip off the impersonal disguise of 'auctoritee' and to reveal the biassed individual behind the mask. "(Mann, 70)
The woman was represented with the aid of many stereotypes, and moreover, the woman had no saying in this representation.
Thus, both the Romance of the Rose and the Canterbury Tales, are inscribed within the Medieval tradition of the art of love. The text of Chaucer however brings some important amends to the traditional view. Other Medieval text, like the correspondence between Heloise and Abelard, treated of the same theme in the same manner, like Heloise's famous attempt at convincing Abelard that he should not marry her, because he/she would become the reason for his fall as a scholar and a respected man.
In the Middle Ages love and especially woman's influence over man was typically seen in this manner, as a sure way to perdition. The women are fallen through their very nature, as the Jealous husband advocates in the Romance of the Rose, making a very powerful misogynistic statement:
The Husband traps women in all the traditional misogynistic paradoxes. Poor women are costly to keep, but rich ones are proud and haughty; beautiful women are pursued by all, while ugly ones want to make everyone happy. The only good women the Jealous Husband can name are those who are even readier to condemn themselves than he is: Heloise, who proved by her learning and experience that men should not marry, and Lucrece, who, even though pardoned by others for having been raped, could not forgive herself, and so committed suicide. Completely convinced that beauty and chastity cannot occupy the same place at the same time, the Jealous Husband compares women to dunghills that, even when covered with silk cloths or colorful flowers, continue to stink as they did before. Women's sexual immorality is constant throughout time, he proclaims. "Toutes estes, serez et fustes, / de fet ou de volente, pustes" (9125-26) (You women are, will be, or were, in fact or in intention, whores). "(Allen, 87)
The very radical and misogynist view on women is rather exemplified by Chaucer than sustained, and this is obvious also in the portrait he makes of Cressida, which with many other authors is the symbol of woman fickleness. The most important conclusion to be drawn from the text is thus, the way in which love was constructed in the Middle Ages and the representation of the woman.. Love was seen as a game and a competition between men and women, in which they measured their skills and powers. In this games, for the majority of the authors, the woman was the one guilty of either tempting men or deceiving them. Even when she did not do this on purpose she was still the one to blame for immorality because of her charms.
Chaucer modifies this interpretation slightly, by attributing the same tendencies to men as well and by proposing that fickleness is a human natural inclination for looking for the new.
Allen, Peter L. The Art of Love: Amatory Fiction from Ovid to the Romance of the Rose. Philadelphia:
The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992
Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Classics, 1947
Mann, Jill. Feminizing Chaucer. Rochester D.S. Brewer,…
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