“Who peyntede the leoun, tel me, who?”
(Alisoun, The Wife of Bath: Prologue, line 692.
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer).
The line quoted above has been taken from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, a work begun in the 1380s and first published in 1475. This quote represents in entirety the spirit that the Wife of Bath (Alisoun) attempts to convey through her prologue and tale. Alisoun references an Aesop’s fable (Fable 187, Aesopica) through this line, in which a man tells a lion of man’s superiority and strength, as depicted in a painting (originally a sculpture) to which the lion responds, saying that had a lion painted the image, one would instead see a lion strangling a man. This uncovers the protofeminist theme in the text as Alisoun compares this to the popular portrayal of women by men, which she cites for the reason for women’s (and wives’s) infamy and bad reputation in society. She claims that had women been writing stories, men would be the ones seen in a critical light. She thus deals, in the text, with the subject of authority — where it lies and how it is exercised — in married life.
In this section of her prologue, the Wife of Bath posits an argument to explain why clerks treat wives badly. Blaming the religious establishment, she claims church writings, since written by men, breed hostility toward wives. She goes on to say,
“By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikkednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.”
(Prologue, lines 693-696)
She then gives an astrological explanation, asserting that children of Mercury (scholars) and Venus (lovers) contradict one another. Thirdly, she suggests, when clerks grow old, their decreased virility makes them slanderous and hostile towards women. She explores this sexist attitude, especially that of religious authority, through the symbol of the lion’s painting, that shows how,
“the ‘truth’ […] has more to do with the prejudices of the painter [and thus men and Church that ‘paint’ wives as deceitful and wicked] than with the ‘reality’ of the subject.”
(Carruthers, M. The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions, 1979.)
She attempts to confront through the prologue to her tale and, in particular, this line, the medieval antifeminist tradition boxing women into offensive stereotypes.
This tradition had grown to give rise to several stories, legends, and proverbs about the dangers and annoyances of women, in particular in their role as wives. The Wife of Bath refers to many such texts in her Prologue, as a response to her fifth husband (Jankin) who would read frequently from an entire collection of such texts, his “Book of Wikked Wyves.” These negative sentiments about wives come largely from St. Paul’s counsel against marriage in the New Testament, where he preaches against it for anyone that can be celibate. In order to inculcate this idea, he suggested that wives would demand money to fund an extravagant lifestyle, were incapable of keeping secrets, and were gold-diggers only looking to marry for money (particularly widows). The Wife of Bath, however, refuted this, claiming that St. Paul advised but did not command chastity. Recognising the attempts to portray women negatively, she decided to choose her own interpretation, taking what she wished from teachings such as these, much as the Church would do with religion and portrayal of women at the time, quoting the sections of sermons that suited her interest, leaving out what did not. Critic Claire Newman comments on this selective representation saying, “This was a technique commonly used by the clergy in preaching sermons and was therefore a familiar device for her audience.”
Alisoun references St. Paul’s metaphor of golden and wooden vessels (both are serviceable) and challenges the patriarchal desire to keep women silent in an attempt to keep them from indulging in (presumedly) idle chatter. She provides contrary arguments to the assertions against wives by referencing the large number of wives Solomon had, wittily using religion, their most powerful weapon, against those trying to portray a negative image of women. Apart from biblical authority, she believed, her experience qualified her to speak of the “wo that is in mariage.” It is, however, interesting that she has this information at all since, while there was an unofficial English translation of the Bible (Wycliffe, et al. 1380-1397), it was against the law to read it. This is significant since only can the Wife present her perspective once she has access to biblical preachings. F.N. Robinson, in the Oxford University Press edition of The Canterbury Tales, notes that Chaucer “can hardly have failed to know Wycliffe.” Despite this, some critics feel there is no reason to think Alisoun knew it, and she may have heard sermons in Church, as Jerome’s Vulgate in Latin was the only approved version of the Bible.
Arguing that genitals are not merely meant to distinguish the sexes and for “purgacion of urine,” she claims they can provide pleasure and procreation. She claims they were made for both function and for pleasure, and she does not envy any maiden for her virginity. She compares the chaste to bread of “pured” flour while the married are like “barly-breed,” with which Jesus fed a crowd in John’s gospel (misattributed to Mark). She insists on her right to use her “instrument” freely, and approves of St. Paul’s command to husbands to love their wives. The Pardoner interrupts to thank her for warning him off marriage, but she is quick to silence him. This represents the contrasting opinion that some readers held of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, believing the Wife to be “a mean-spirited satire on Chaucer’s part, meant to represent the fickleness of women.” (McBride, 2002.) This is supported by the critics by pointing out that she mostly objects to her husband complaining about things. However, the unreasonableness of his reproaches justify this and reveal her frustration to the reader and one can see that she is attempting to redress the imbalance.
Alisoun does this by portraying men (or husbands) negatively as they have done to wives for years. She offers advice to other “wise wives” (though nuns are the only women present) on managing a husband, illustrating it with verbal assault, accusing the husband of meanness over his wife’s clothing allowance, of lechery with the neighbour’s wife and maid, of being suspicious and making drunken accusations, of complaining about various attributes of his wife, of jealously spying, and so on. One can sense a deep anxiety here, possibly stemming from a male fear of control so strong in her then-husband Jankin that he constantly strove to install ideas of wives as wicked in her, as did the writers whose works are included in the text. She digresses at this point to praise Ptolemy’s liberal teaching, which she believes allows promiscuity. She here can be seen to use an authority to support her claims other than her own ‘experiential’ one, as she does through the text, even though she claimed her experience provided enough authority for her to speak on the matter.
Some of the sources she draws from are quoted incorrectly, however, such as this reference to Ptolemy’s Amalgest, as she recites a line not present in the book, but this is excusable since the clergy does the same. The Wife is simply using the same techniques as the religious authority, to preach as she likes and get away with it without question. She attacks arguments from the Bible and the Fathers that show marriage to be inferior to chastity, with credible sources or otherwise. The power of the ecclesiastical authority was, however, far-reaching and women, expected to be submissive and obedient, were ‘corrected’ by force if they were not so, since canon law allowed wife-beating. Here, the lion and the women are in a similar position, with women being treated as animals. Jill Mann addresses this in her essay ‘Feminizing Chaucer,’ saying, “They are powerless to correct the distorted images of themselves produced by the clerical misogynists and given all the weight of bookish authority.” Alisoun attempts to redress this problem in her prologue and tale by defying all norms.
Her defiance of patriarchal portrayal and expectations of women can be seen in her unconventional appearance. She is described as being “gat-toothed,” considered indicative of lasciviousness, but rather than being ashamed, the Wife revels in it. Her clothes and “coverchiefs” are of fine quality and her shoes “moiste and newe” (line 9-14, General Prologue), lending her an ostentatious extravagance. Alisoun seemingly showcases herself and her wealth through her attire without feeling abashed. She wears clothes not deemed appropriate for her class, but she believes that if she can afford to, she may as well flaunt her wealth (accumulated from successive marriages to rich husbands). Her name suggests this as well; since every character is addressed by their occupation, it is implied that Alisoun’s profession is ‘wivery.’ This is more than simply amusing or even empowering, as Peggy Knapp points out in Chaucer and the Social Contest, bringing to our notice how a woman’s survival depends on her being married. She postulates that “behind the immediately funny joke that she makes her living by being successively married are some potentially painful ambiguities about estate, identity and independence,” thus confronting the uncomfortable truth about women’s inheritance rights (or lack thereof).
Priscilla Martin comments on this as well, claiming that Alisoun would have accumulated considerable wealth and thus “if affection had not cemented the marriage or developed during it, bereavement would be regarded as liberation, a release of capital, and the opportunity to acquire more. It is an obvious consequence of the separation of the affective and the economic.” With the clergy attempting to warn all off marriage in order to keep them celibate, the Fathers used every means they could- including propagating a negative image of women to remove the desire for marriage from the hearts of men. Thus a marriage for love was virtually non-existent and it was more a social contract. These ideas, expressed and critiqued in her Prologue, culminate in a moral in the Wife of Bath’s Tale that she recites to the other pilgrims. The “autocritee” she yearns fro is translated into the authority of the hag, and the desire of all women to have sovereignty over their partners is addressed.
According to critic Hassily, “As we have seen, education, money, and legal rights are the main components of mastery in marriage. […] the ‘master’ is the one who knows, the one who, through knowing, has authority.” Further, Hassily believes the Wife of Bath wants to make women not only “the educational authorities but also the curriculum,” and this same intention can be attributed to Chaucer as an author and teacher ahead of his times using Alisoun for his purpose. As H.M. Leicester famously said, “there is no pilgrimage, there are no pilgrims” and this is translated by other critics to “there is no Wife of Bath.” The Tale therefore, shows the knight in the same predicament (with his body being commodified) that he put the young virgin he raped in. He protests against marrying the old hag who told him what all women want, “Tak al my good, and lat my body go” in an ironic reversal of traditional gender roles. The Wife of Bath’s Tale has an almost matriarchal where the men are repressed and the women hold authority.
Thus the question “Who peyntede the leoun?” becomes a symbolic question on ambiguous authority. Critic Artenie makes a mythological analogy, finding Alisoun similar to the Sphinx, a lion with a woman’s head. She compares Alisoun’s impressive headgear to the head of a Sphinx. “Furthermore, […] the lion’s body with enormous claws is similar to the Wife’s “spores sharpe.” The sphinx is the comprehensive symbol of a female trapped into a man’s body.” However, the lion’s body as a representation of man is an image of strength and dignity but these same traits become ridiculous when attached to a woman. It is the patriarchal discourse that painted the lion, and Chaucer relies on that authority when he ‘paints’ the Wife. Also, Chaucer pushes further and annihilates this authority when Alisoun burns the ‘Book of Wikked Wyves’ in order to free everyone from the gender prison. Laura Wang, too, comments on the imagery of animals with reference to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, finding “a curious quality to Alisoun’s allusion.” As with her religious references, she does not narrate the entire fable of the man and the lion but chooses the part supporting her argument.
Wang finds that, here, the lion and Alisoun become one “single, maligned entity,” with the Wife asking the lion’s question as her own. Alisoun also refers to ugly women as dogs in her Prologue, referencing male opinion with,
“And if that she be foul, thou seist that she
Coveiteth every man that she may se;
For as a spaynel she wol on him lepe,
Til that she finde som mn hire to chepe.”
(Prologue, lines 265-268)
She claims that ugly women are devoid of mates but still harbour passion. The Wife is thus inverting the Christian and Classical concept of the great chain of being, reducing women to the level of beasts. However, she maintains that men and women are equally animalistic. This comparison of herself with animals is seen as “playfully antifeminist” by Wang and can be representative of the patriarchal imposition of animalistic bounds on women. She is attempting to provoke the misogynistic society in a comical yet succinct way.
Thus, in her comment on the painting of the lion, the Wife of Bath can be seen talking about the woes of marriage as well as the inaccuracy of male portrayal of women and the subjective truth. Priscilla Martin, in Chaucer’s Women, asserts,
“The Wife of Bath is fully aware of the misogynistic succession that behind Jankin are centuries of men vilifying women, that the anti-feminist tradition is ‘man-made.’ It is not objective, any more than the picture of the lion represents the lion’s point of view. The literate have been men and in western Christendom they have increasingly tended to be members of an unmarried clergy. Jankin’s favourite reading is propaganda for this cause. Not only have more books been written by men, but they have been written by men with a vocation for celibacy. Or worse, they have been written by clerics without a vocation for celibacy who are tormented by their own lapses and forbidden desires.”
The Wife of Bath therefore attempts to alter these societal norms and declare the desires of women- something unthinkable at the time. She addresses issues brushed under the carpet for centuries and which would continue to be brushed away for centuries hence. She is a protofeminist rebel, openly appealing for women’s rights to autonomy and sexuality. Chaucer thus combines genres of satire and romance in order to address these pertinent issues, subverting, through his character of the Wife of Bath, patriarchy and marriage.