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The Wife of Bath in Historical Context

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Olivia Gard

on 10 December 2014

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Transcript of The Wife of Bath in Historical Context

The Wife of Bath: An early feminist, or a parody of negative stereotypes of women?
Canterbury Tales in Context:
Power in Society
The Wife of Bath: Empowered or Oppressed?
A revolutionary feminist for her time?
A confirmation of negative stereotypes? (Or both?)
Stereotypes of Women in Context
The stereotype confirmed? Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Elaine Traharne.
Essays and Studies. (Annual 2002) p93.
From Literature Resource Center.

Medieval authorship and authority in The Canterbury Tales: Rachel Thanassoulis discusses 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue' in the light of medieval ideas of authority. Rachel Thanassoulis.
The English Review. 17.4 (Apr. 2007) p34.
From Literature Resource Center.

During Chaucer's lifetime (approx. 1342-1400):

The Church: Chief center of authority and institutional power.
- Held exceptional political power, and monitored the work of artists, authors, and playwrights. To be critical of the Church was extremely risky!
- Functioned in a strict hierarchical structure (Think: The Pope, the priesthood...)
- Was controlled and led by men.

The written word: A tool for supporting the Church, sometimes helped maintain the status quo and oppression, and educated people of high social class.
- Only people from elite social classes were literate, and works were typically written in Latin or French, languages the educated masses were privy to learn.
- Literature was often used in order to support Christian religious teachings.

Men were warned to be dominant figures over their wives in their marriage, in order to retain control over wives.

Common characteristics attributed to women in this time period (stereotypes):

- Deceitful and manipulative to their husbands
- "Nagging", talk too much/uncontrollably
- Women would gossip, and could not keep secrets
- Shallow and focused on money

Negative Stereotype? (cont)

The husbands seem to have control of her sexually:
"My husband can well have it, night and day... A husband I will have - I won't stop yet - Who shall be both my debtor and my slave" (1875).

The Wife made several mistakes in her references to the Bible; because the Wife is illiterate, she did not read these passages herself but must have had them translated to her (by a man).
(See p. 1875 Mark vs. John)

The Canterbury Tales and the Wife is actually created and written by a man.
Does this take away credibility from the Wife as a powerful woman character in her own right?

The written word had also served to perpetuate ideas of the accepted gender roles of the time.

Ex. The importance of chivalric behavior from men, especially from respected knights (Ex. "Lanval," "Laustic")
(Ex. Everyman; The Divine Comedy.)
The Wife of Bath: Her own brand of power?
Through her Prologue and Tale, the Wife of Bath directly opposes certain ideas these institutions of power perpetuate, reforming them to her own prerogative.

1. The Wife recites Biblical evidence to argue her reasons for recreational sex and multiple marriages:

- "And when my husband from this world has passed, / Another Christian man will wed me fast; / Then the apostle says that I am free / To wed, by God, where it most pleases me" (1873).

- "I pray, tell me, / Or where did [God] command virginity?" (1873).

2. The Wife re-forms the traditional tale of chivalric knighthood into something much different:

- The Wife creates the tale herself, assuming the role of storyteller (a rare role for a woman to take at the time).

- The knight in the story is a lustful rapist: "So it happened that this good King Arthur / Once had a lusty knight, a bachelor... By force, he took her maidenhead" (1891).

The Wife: Her own brand of power? (cont)
The Wife: A Confirmation of Negative Stereotypes?

- The Wife's Prologue is very long, and listeners make fun of her for it:
"The Friar laughed, / when he had heard all this, / 'Madame,' said he... 'This is a long preamble to a tale!'"

- The Wife focuses on money and wealth in her men, and treats them with dishonesty:
"For half so boldly knows no living man / How to swear and lie just as a woman can" (1877).

- The wife enthusiastically gossips about personal details, sexual stories, from her marriages with men
- The woman in the story is an ugly "hag," which is quite different from the other descriptions of beautiful women in chivalric tales.
Her own brand of power (cont.)
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