For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:31-3) To understand The Wife of Bath we must first understand the patriarchal, medieval world in which she lives. This was a time in which the country was ruled with the iron fist of the Church and women were very must ranked as second class citizens.
Women had their own, very specific place within society. All women were expected to marry and even Nuns were seen as the brides’ of Christ. However, marriage was not the union of love that it is today. It served three functions; the first is as a socio-economic institution. Marriage united wealthy and powerful families. This was known as the marital debt. The bride’s family would produce a dowry as a gift to the groom; this would consist of money and land. It was therefore a legal, property transaction and would consolidate an estate.
As weddings were based upon the families’ monetary gain the families arranged them and often underage girls would be married off in this way. It was not uncommon for children of eight years old to be married in this way. The second of the main functions for marriage in the medieval age was quite simply to produce a healthy supply of good Catholics, keeping the Churches full. The third and most extraordinary purpose for marriage was that men were not expected to keep their carnal desires under control. St Paul declared that ‘…
if they could not exercise self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion’ (1 Cor. 7:8-9). Virginity was the ideal state for a good Christian, however it was seen that it would be impractical and improbable to believe that everyone would, or in fact, could remain in this perfect, pure, virginal state. St Paul realised that not everyone was bound to this taintless and immaculate life. He states that every man has his own ‘special gift’ and each is different to the next and that if marriage was properly approached it could be regarded as a remedy against lust.
Thus endorsing marriage as a secondary state after abstinence. However, although marriage was allowed and actually seen as a vital element within society it was still frowned upon to take any pleasure in the physical side of matrimony, especially for women. There were also many rules and regulations attached to love making within marriage. It was sinful to have intercourse with your spouse during times of penance such as lent and advent or on the eve of any feasting day. You must also avoid sex on Saturdays, as it is the eve to the Sabbath. You must also wash and wait before entering a church after sexual relations.
Pope Gregory the Great gave this advice: It is not fitting that a man who has approached his wife should enter Church before he has washed. The ancient Law prescribed that man in such cases should wash, and forbade him to enter a holy place before sunset. But this may be understood spiritually, for when a man’s mind is attracted to those pleasures by lawless desire, he should not regard himself as fitted to join in Christian worship until these heated desires cool in the mind, and he has ceased to labour under wrongful passions. It is easy to note that sex is seen as an unclean act used only to procreate.
Robert Manning of Brunne also alliterated this sentiment by stating that if a man lay with his wife during times of penance they sin greatly. This attitude goes far to explain the unhealthy view of women. If making love to your wife, purely because you love her, is seen as wrong and dirty therefore are women seen as wrong and dirty also? The answer unfortunately is yes. St Augustine proclaimed that ‘women is a temple built over the sewer’. Thus claiming that although women may seem beautiful and pure, underneath they are as unclean and as filthy as a sewer.
This diseased picture of women creates a catch 22 situation for females at the time. This is a time where women can only fall into two categories. The Pit or the Pedestal – Eve or the Virgin Mary. Both of these images are highly unrealistic. As we know now, no one is all good or all bad. The figure of the Virgin Mary was the church’s retaliation against the image of the courtly lady in medieval fiction. She is maternal, warm, caring and compassionate. She is also excluded from original sin as she gave birth to Jesus through Immaculate Conception. What is the opposite to immaculate?
Dirty. Again a reference to sex as filthy. Eve, on the other hand was a temptress. She encapsulates all that is wrongful in women. Vanity, cupidity and lust. Alisoun is a faithful representation of Eve. Her physical description shows us that she has many sexual attributes. She has broad hips, which is a sign of fertility, a gap tooth and she also wears scarlet stockings. The original scarlet woman, however red is also a sign of danger. She also has the sign of Mars, which is a red birthmark on her face. Mars is the God of war so this would also be a sign of her fierce nature.