Challenging the Anti-Feminists
The Wife of Bath’s story is hugely entertaining, but how successful is it as a defence of women?
It’s not often that a prologue overshadows the work which it introduces, but that is certainly what happens with the Wife’s Prologue. Over two thirds of the lines of the combined Prologue and Tale form the Prologue (856 out of 1264 lines). It is also a personal, lively, controversial and colourful personal narrative, whereas the Tale is, dare we say it, somewhat conventional by comparison.
Chaucer’s General Prologue to the tales has prepared us for this. We already know from the frequent references to striking clothing which is ‘scarlet reed’, ‘ful fine’ and ‘brood’, as well as her appearance, with ‘hir hipes large’ and being ‘Gat-tothed’, that the Wife makes a striking physical impression. We are also told of her forthright character and that ‘Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde five’. So it is of little surprise when she launches confidently into her introduction and over the length of her prologue she gives a full and thorough account of her life, well beyond the necessity for introducing a tale. We gain the impression of a fascinating character, deeply ambiguous, who might be judged courageous or repellent at different stages of her narrative.
She starts by nailing her colours clearly, valuing ‘Experience’, the very first word, above ‘auctoritee’. She will use the empirical evidence of her personal life rather than consider the views of supposed experts in order to expound ‘the wo that is in mariage’. And who can blame her? As we know and as she reminds us, she has had five marriages. This immediately raises the question, though, of why she has spent her life bouncing from marriage to marriage if married life is so full of woe? There is a clue in a further piece of biographical information – she was first married at ‘twelve yeer… of age’. In Medieval times, it was not unusual for girls to marry at such an age – note that Shakespeare’s Juliet is of a similar age when her family plans to marry her to Paris before Romeo intervenes. Young girls were married off to form associations between powerful families, or for less powerful and affluent families, to avoid the cost of raising a girl who would not grow up to work and bring in an income; another option was to send them to a convent. But whatever the reason, we can be sure that the girl’s full voluntary consent to marriage had little role in such family arrangements. We learn later that her first husbands were ‘riche, and olde’. It becomes clear that a twelve year old girl has found herself in an arranged marriage with an old man, who has essentially bought himself a nice young wife. While customary in the Middle Ages, such an idea now attracts revulsion and the context gives us more comprehension of the Wife’s situation. An old husband implies an early death; the Wife would still be young and without protection, and so the marriages line up.
While that consideration of social history might lead to a view of the Wife as a victim, her own account also presents a rather different perspective. True to the forthright nature suggested by her appearance, she leaves her fellow pilgrims in no doubt about her unabashed enjoyment of her sexuality. Her defence of her sequence of husbands elides into a defence of sexual activity. She dismisses the Church’s teachings on the value of chastity and argues that it was never commanded by Christ. Indeed, she asks, if God is so keen on virginity, why ‘Were membres maad of generacion’? It is a fair point, but not an entirely academic one for the Wife, who assures her company that she herself will always put her own ‘membre’ to good use:
In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument
As frely as my Makere hath it sent.
If I be daungerous, God yeve me sorwe!
Myn housbonde shal it have bothe eve and morwe…
Her attitude is apparent not just from what she says, but from the flippant tone and language. And while she says that her ‘housbonde shal it have’ throughout the day, it becomes clear who she sees as the holder of sexual power in the relationship: her husband shall be ‘both m detour and my thral’. This idea of sexual slavery is repeated later, when she uses the language of subjugation and labour to describe her physical relationships with her husbands: she say that ‘they were bounden unto me’ and she is still amused to think ‘How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!’ The reference to laughing and the exclamation mark make clear the irony of the adverb ‘pitously’. Note, though, that this behaviour is with her first three husbands, when she had the advantage in terms of age and interestingly those she describes as ‘goode men’ as well as rich and old. It is these ‘goode men’ that she has ‘hooly in myn hond’ and manages for her own ‘profit and myn ese’. These marriages are not presented as relationships of mutual affection and they certainly challenge traditional ideas of the compliant medieval woman.
Insults and Deceit
Instead, the Wife seems to characterise herself as a shrew – a misogynistic term equating a bad-tempered woman with a small rodent – think of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Reminiscent of Katherine in that play, she claims that far from being demure, a woman can ‘Swere and lyen’ as well as any man. It is the job, she says, of a ‘wys wyf’ to be in league with her maid in order to deceive her husband. In a long section, from ll.235-378, she gives example after example of her insults (‘olde kaynard’, ‘olde lecchour’, ‘lorel’, ‘olde dotard’, ‘sire olde fool’) and what she claims are the false accusations of her husbands. This 143 line section is punctuated with ‘Thou seyst’ and ‘Thus seistow’, variants of these phrases occurring 16 times. In this way, Chaucer creates a voice of forceful vigour, the voice of a woman who refuses to be under anybody’s thumb, and her energy is admirable. However, Chaucer’s irony is also prevalent. This consistent carping aggression might seem to confirm the very characterisation of which she is accused and she spends 143 lines denying. For example, she tells us her husband would spy on her, fearing deceit, but still celebrates that ‘Yet koude I make his berd’ – ie. outwit him. Freedom, possessions and clothing are the grounds of argument, echoing the way in which men have policed women for generations and in some cultures continue to do so. Indeed, when she suggests the husband might seek support from St Paul’s teachings, she dismissed them as not worth ‘a gnat’, reminding us of her dismissal of ‘auctoritee’ at the Prologue’s opening. She concludes this section with
Thou liknest eek wommenes love to helle,
To bareyne lond, ther water may nat dwelle.
It is a grim view of marital relationships, but these accounts seem to confirm it. The question is, of course, whether the Wife is the victim of these ironies or if Chaucer presents her as both aware of and exploiting them. She is quite open that the husbands were ‘giltelees’ while she was ‘in the gilt’. She makes abundantly clear her lack of care for the conventionalities of marriage with the tale of her fourth husband, a ‘revelour’ who ‘hadde a paramour’. She seems unconcerned as
… I was yong and full of ragerye,
Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pye.
But here too the relationship degenerates into ‘greet despit’ and the Wife entertains her follow pilgrims with further admissions of her troublesome behaviour; she revels in ‘how soore I hym twiste’ and is even niggardly with his funeral:
It nys but wast to burye hym preciously.
By her brazen honesty, Chaucer suggests that there is deliberate provocation in the Wife’s approach.
It is with the fifth husband, Jankyn, significantly the first to be named, that there is a significant shift, but another battle between ‘experience’ and ‘auctoritee’. Significantly, Jankyn has been ‘a clerk of Oxenford’; he is a man of learning. Chaucer told us in The General Prologue that the wife is familiar with the ‘olde daunce’ of love and in this part of her autobiography she is frank about what a ‘daunce’ she choreographed around Jankyn, flirting with him during her fourth marriage by telling his she has had a complex dream where he had ‘enchanted’ her, but then admitting with relish to her audience that
… al was false; I dremed of it right naught.
Her description of the fourth husband’s funeral is full of shocking comic juxtaposition: while he is ‘on beere’, she
… weep agate, and made sory cheere,
As wyves mooten, for it is usage.
Social convention dictates that she must act the part of the mourning wife, while she actually has her roving eyes on one of the coffin-bearers, Jankyn:
… me thought he hadde a paire
Of legges and of feet so clene and faire
That al myn herte I yaf unto his hoold.
And so, Reader, she marries him. There is a clear difference between this and her previous marriages; she was ‘yong’, but while Jankyn is only ‘twenty winter oold’, which by a rough calculation would make him perhaps about half the Wife’s age. Whereas in her other relationships she had here eye on her own ‘profit’ and ‘ese’, now ‘to him yaf I al the lond and fee’. For all the comedy in her narration of her flirtatious courtship of Jankyn, it is hard not to feel sympathy and perceive a mature woman surrendering her independence and rendering herself vulnerable in her need for companionship.
And so it proves. She admits that ‘afterward repented me ful soore’ and the marriage is one of discord, including physical abuse. The General Prologue notes that she is ‘somdel deef’ and now we learn this is the result of Jankyn, who ‘smoot me ones on the lyst’.
The Anti-Feminist Tradition
The Wife has already dismissed the views of St Paul and Christian teaching; it is in this section of her prologue that the war she wages against ‘auctoritee’ is truly joined. As we might expect from a former scholar at Oxford, Jankyn has a book which he reads ‘gladly, nyght and day’ and it becomes apparent that this is a compendium of anti-feminist scholarship, a medieval misogynist’s handbook. It contains excepts from a range of texts, all contributing to a view that women pose a moral danger to men because they themselves are naturally morally frail. This is a perspective on women drawn from Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden in the Biblical Book of Genesis – the serpent targeted Eve as the more susceptible of the human pair, and she in turn led Adam into sin by encouraging him to eat the sacred apple. Jankyn’s book does not refer to this directly, but there is a Biblical reference to the Book of Solomon as well as the early Biblical scholar St Jerome. Other writers of the tradition who feature include Walter Map, the Greek Theophrastus, the early Roman Christian Tertullian and the Roman poet Ovid. Historical figures who hold dissenting views, like Jovinian, Chrysippus and Heloise are contained in the book to have their views attacked. Jankyn’s volume also contains cautionary tale after cautionary tale about faithless or dangerous women, from Delilah’s betrayal of Samson to Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. The book sums up the dichotomous view of women, as either sexual beings who are licentious and the source of man’s temptation to sin, or to be revered as examples of holy chastity, like the Virgin Mary herself. The Medieval word view was governed by a male God and human being had their particular social status and role within the hierarchy, from the monarch down to the serf. At all levels, though, men were placed above women, whose primary roles were as wives and mothers. Education for women was rare and usually only available to those who entered convents as nuns.
It is easy to see, therefore, why the Wife resents Jankyn’s enjoyment of this book of ‘wikked wyves’. As she says, ‘if women hadde written stories’ they would have been very different, but of course scholarship and authorship was not readily available to women – they could not be the narrators of their own stories. That is what makes this Prologue so fascinating; the Wife certainly is the narrator of her own story. That story is vibrant and entertaining; it also in many instances seems to confirm a number of aspects of the anti-feminist tradition which it rejects. The Wife has been deceitful, she has manipulated and exploited her husbands, she is sexually voracious. It is clear what a Medieval audience would think, but a 21st century reader might celebrate her constant quest for personal and sexual independence.
From that point, her Prologue has an unexpectedly happy ending, emerging from a flashpoint of violence. Under this extreme provocation, she rips pages from Jankyn’s book – she challenges the ‘auctoritee’ in a direct physical way, but is rewarded by the superior strength of the man:
And up he stirte as dooth a wood leoun,
And with his fest he smoot me on the heed
That in the floor I lay as I were deed.
The dreadful effects of this violence is a resolution and of course the only resolution possible for the Wife is not equality, but supremacy:
He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
To han the governance of hous and lond,
And of his tonge, and of his hond also;
And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.
Perhaps this strains credibility, but it is also a key point which is picked up in her tale and has direct connections too with that told by the Franklin. Is equality in marriage possible? Is female supremacy superior to male supremacy?
Read a sample essay on the Wife’s relationship with her first three husbands, focusing on two key passages.