“It is a known fact everywhere:
A man can paint, sculpt pictures, too.
These things a lion cannot do […]
If lions could make statues, you would see plenty of men under the paws of lions.”
– Marie de France, Aesop’s Fables: The Lion and The Peasant
Marie de France’s words served as an inspiration to Geoffrey Chaucer in his construction of one of the most prominent heroines in literature – The Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales (1475). In Marie’s fable, a man and a lion, discussing the relative worth of each, find themselves in front of a painting of a man conquering a lion. The lion dryly says that if lions were the artists, there would be a role reversal in the scene. Echoing this comment on male supremacy and domination, the Wife of Bath claims:
“Who peyntede the leoun, tel me, who?
By God, if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikkednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.” [692-96]
She says this in response to Jankin’s (her fifth husband) attempts to subdue her using misogynistic material from his “Book of Wicked Wives” which is similar to the didactic teachings of St. Jerome’s Bible. The Wife points out that it is ancient clerics who wrote negative views of women. Had women been writing, according to the Wife, they would have written negative things about men. Also possibly, had women been writing about themselves, they would have been more accurate in their self-depictions than were the clerics.
Chaucer, living in the fourteenth-century, would have had no vocabulary to either comprehend or translate the term ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’ as well as its various meanings. However, in spite of this gap between medieval and modern, it is possible to assert that he would have been conscious of the profound disparity between men and women. He therefore constructs a character who has been regarded by critics as an early, robust, proto-feminist personality. She confronts serious social issues that at this time period exemplify the extreme oppression that women faced, namely the negativity associated with women and sex, the structure of marriage’s hierarchal system that places women at the bottom as submissive salves and men at the top as dominant masters, and the physical and sexual violence done by men to women. These are weighty subjects and ones that were certainly not discussed publicly by men and definitely not by women. For the Wife of Bath to present such issues and advocate for ideas benefiting women in these circumstances was revolutionary. She is a flamboyant woman whose motive throughout the Prologue and Tale seems to be an assertion of women’s rights to individualism, equality and self-indulgence.
In the beginning itself, she announces to the other Pilgrims that she is an authority on marriage because of her experience, having had five husbands. She is experienced in the ways of the world and knows how to use her body for both sexual pleasure as well as gaining control over men. Although marrying five times was a preposterous, almost heinous social sin during the Middle Ages, she was brave and clever enough to manipulate men and use them as a means to an end. She amassed a great amount of wealth, land and property from her first three marriages, and used her fourth and fifth husbands for sexual gratification. The Wife of Bath has the courage to refute the Church’s teachings altogether. According to the priests, only one marriage was legitimate since Jesus only attended one wedding (at Cana) throughout the scriptures. All other marriages after the first were nothing but acts of adultery. Neither does the Wife of Bath comply with the Church’s example of only marrying once, nor does she heed Jesus’s reproach to the Samaritan woman at the well with five husbands. Instead, the she interprets Scripture in her own way, wanting the Bible to be treated as a subjective text with multiple conclusions. She prefers to go forth and enjoy sexual communion, defending her position by pointing to King Solomon, who had many wives, among other Biblical figures who married often.
St. Jerome, in his version of the Bible posits that virginity is the only right state of being. According to him, what the Apostle St. Paul said was this – “This is my wish, this is what I desire, that you should be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. He is a virgin born of a virgin, uncorrupted, born of an uncorrupted [mother].” The Wife of Bath challenges anyone to prove that God commanded virginity by asking why God made sexual organs. She claims they were made for both function and for pleasure, and she does not envy any maiden for her virginity. She uses a technique of selectively quoting from the Bible to support her own claims (for instance, Genesis 1.28: “and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth…”). Literary critic Claire Newman says of the Wife’s strategy, “This was a technique commonly used by the clergy in preaching sermons and was therefore a familiar device for her audience”. Another critic, Shelaguh Wilkinson, saw her proper and sometimes misuse “of sacred texts as suggesting a lack of respect for religious and patriarchal authority”. These interpretations both see the Wife of Bath as strongly feminist – a woman who is against the social and moral hierarchy and lets people know this in the best way possible to express ideas in order to be heard.
The Wife of Bath’s character is also brought out through her bold dressing style. In The General Prologue, Chaucer’s narrator describes her as:
Hir coverchiefs ful fine were of ground;
I dorste swere they weyden ten pound
That on a Sunday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streit y-teyd, and shoos ful moiste and newe. [9-14]
These details add to the sense that Chaucer has constructed a figure who attracts and demands attention. She is far from being the conventional submissive widowed woman and asserts her individualism by making a statement. Even on a pilgrimage, she is dressed in finery – displaying her wealth and sense of importance in the amount of fabric that she wears. Equipped with a large head-dress, she is set on making a big impression. The narrator associates the colour red with the Wife of Bath, which further emphasises her boldness, energy and vigour. In addition to being an extravagant and ostentatious color, red also symbolizes passion and power. Her clothing matches her red hued face, making it obvious she is almost oozing sexuality and exuberance.
The Wife of Bath’s most potent assertion of her rights comes up towards the end of the prologue. She recounts how Jankin, taking refuge in old authorities to proscribe the behaviour of his wife, would read to her nightly from a compendium of antifeminist texts –“The Book of Wicked Wives”. Jankin laughs while reading his collection:
“He hadde a book that gladly, nyght and day,
For his desport he wolde rede alway;
He cleped it Valerie and Theofraste,
At which book he lough alwey ful faste.” [669-72]
Jankin reads the book not only to tame his unruly wife, but also for his own desport. Cleary, antifeminist texts appear as a kind of joke passed on from man to man. The joke is also on women since the book is written in Latin and women don’t have the “comprehending ears” that would allow them to understand antifeminist discourse. The Wife of Bath, disgusted with the readings, rips apart the pages of the book and burns up the remnants in a fit of rage as a clear rejection of her husband’s dominance and patriarchy in general. In doing so, she tries to preach that domestic mastery, no matter what the authorities say, is best left in the hands of wives. Her cause is the sovereignty of women throughout the social sphere.
The recounting of the book-burning incident by The Wife of Bath also serves as a prelude to the Tale of the knight who rapes a young woman that she narrates after her Prologue. Justice is of course expected by the people against the knight and the queen is granted the opportunity to decide the fate of the rapist knight. She sentences him to either find that which women most desire or to be sent to the gallows. So the knight ventures off on his quest to find an answer to the queen’s question. After talking to many different women to no avail he comes across a haggard, old, deformed woman who says to him that she will tell him what women desire most in exchange for her wish to be fulfilled. The knight agrees, having no way out. When the knight goes to the queen he tells her:
“My liege lady, generally
Wommen desire to have sovereintee
As wel over hir housbonde as hir love,
And for to been in maiystrye him above.
This is youre moste desir though ye me kille.
Dooth as you list: I am here at youre wille” [1043-48]
The old hag then demands wish fulfilment in asking the knight to be her husband. The knight is distraught since the hag is ugly and hideous and says, “Tak al my good, and lat my body go.” He falls into the same predicament as the woman he raped and his body is reduced to a commodity. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is populated by women characters and serves as a text on matriarchy where the male gender is repressed. There is a complete reversal of social roles as the knight is controlled by his female superiors. The Wife of Bath hence combines all of the important topics she brings up in the Prologue and crafts them into a moral in a story.
Coming back to the Wife of Bath’s words about the painting of the lion, it is possible to affirm that she is not only talking about the woes of marriage, but also implying that there is a great inaccuracy in men’s words about women and in male images of women.
In conclusion, the Wife of Bath fits the description of a rebel, trying to alter the ideas of society and declaring that what women want is more power and sovereignty. She speaks and presents truths of social dysfunction and oppression that were rarely addressed. The immense desire for the power of women to be in ascendancy is evident. Despite the many obstacles that lie in her path, she attempts to spread a message for a woman’s right for autonomy, sexuality and safety. When seen from the context of the time period she was living in, the lack of skills, education, and opportunities in general available to women, it is hard to interpret the Wife of Bath as anything other than a great feminist character in Medieval literature.