She feels that they did not necessarily satisfy her sexually but the control that she could exert over her husbands was consolatory. However her fourth and fifth husband left her vulnerable, subjecting her to physical abuse in the case of the fourth husband, and verbal taunting from her beloved Jankyn from his book of ‘wikked Wyves’. She decides to tackle Jankyn’s abusive nature by ripping a page out of his book to which he ‘smot me on the hed’13 deafening her in one ear.
Yet his own shame in his actions, proves that the Wife of Bath is one of the ‘wyse wyves’ who speaks to wrongly accuse her husbands, in order to keep them in order and faithful to her. Her tale mirrors her aims in real life ‘sovereynete’14 and ‘maystry’15 are desired by women, the elfin woman in the tale has this power over her husband and this in turn rewards him for his honour despite his overall reluctance and her power within their marriage allows her to be both faithful and beautiful; the Wife of Bath remembers her beauty and her youth and desires equal control over her husband and marriage.
With regards to sexuality, the Wife of Bath is promiscuous, she boasts about her husbands not being able to satisfy her and how she made them ‘werke’16. Her lewd actions perhaps give an indication to Chaucer’s distaste for female aspiration. It seems that the Wife of Bath seeks to extracts as much for her benefit out of marriage, like Nicholas and Alisoun of The Miller’s Tale she indulges her sexuality, on a somewhat grander scale; she uses marriage for her benefit as a business transaction, and she seeks love in an equal relationship, something that would not have been commonplace in medieval times.
Knowledge was widely held as a male authority, As Carolyn Dinshaw writes about Richard of Bury He urgently exhorts men not to be seduced away from the “paternal care of books” by the lures of the “stomach, dress, or houses” ‘ 17. Knowledge was regarded as a patriarchal right, Nicholas the Clerk and his studies uses his wit and knowledge to trick John, who believes he is knowledgeable, and Jankyn, the Wife of Bath’s fifth husband sees fit to taunt his wife with his knowledge of classical and biblical tales.
However one must consider the challenge to the misogynistic views of her peers that Wife of Bath delivers in her prologue, despite her misinterpretation and ambiguity when quoting such sources as St Jerome and St Paul to support her views on remarrying after the death of a partner, and the importance of virginity. ‘on of us tuo mot bowe, douteles, and siththen man is more reasonable than womman is, ye moste be suffrable. ‘ She clearly feels that men should back down and allow freedom and control within the marriage, possibly due to the fact that women were allotted so little freedom in general society.
For men to be more reasonable surely this would require them to submit to feminism, and the desires of women as the Knight does in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. This anonymous but noble knight rapes a young woman whilst out riding, and as his punishment, direct from King Arthur, he must submit to the wishes of his wife. He submits further to femininity by agreeing to marry the haggard elfin woman in exchange for the secret, and he keeps this promise.
His reward for his submissiveness is that his elfin wife gains youth, beauty and faithfulness; this argument although seemingly unrealistic like the similar misread arguments proffered in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, incites a challenge to patriarchy. As discussed earlier, The Miller’s Prologue and Tale are fabliaux, coarse and comic tales for entertainment purpose rather than a critical satire or romantic tale. Chaucer deliberately uses the Miller and his low brow tale to disrupt the natural social order (The Monk should have followed the Knight with his tale.
) and fittingly the Miller shows little of the knowledge that is afforded to his fellow pilgrims. His characters show little intelligence and knowledge allowing for them to be easily misguided. The only character with savvy, Nicholas, who is brought down when his wit and vivacity fail him when he repeats the same trick, as Pearsall states ‘this is a lapse from the high standard of cunning and inventiveness we expect of him, and he is duly punished. ’18 Knowledge is to be used in whichever way possible as without it an individual can not succeed in their aims, regardless of their moral intentions and gender.
Gender is considered thoroughly by Chaucer throughout the Canterbury Tales, and taking The Miller’s Prologue and Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale we learn that Chaucer did not stick with one particular stereotype, as always he experiments with his characters in order to provide a comment on medieval society and its values. In particular he seems to appreciate the female desire for equality whilst upholding the qualities of chastity and love; we see this in the likeable character of the Wife of Bath, but her lascivious nature is her most prominent fault.
She holds her own opinions on selected texts and will argue her cause. Alisoun rejects her chastity by engaging in an erratic relationship with Nicholas, and making a mockery out of her husband shows her to have a lot in common with one of Jankyn’s Wikked Wyves.
Chaucer uses the themes of sexuality, marriage, knowledge, and the character structuring in order to provide an in-depth exploration of gender. 1 Chaucer, G. The Miller’s Tale, in The Canterbury Tales, Kent:Wordsworth, (2002) , page1092 ibid Chaucer pg 103 3 Chaucer, G. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, in The Canterbury Tales, Kent:Wordsworth, (2002) Pg 222 4 ibid page 212 5 Dinshaw, C. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, in Chaucer’s Sexual Poetic, (Ed) Dinshaw, C. Univeristy of Wisconsin Press: USA (1989) pgs 18-9 6 The Canterbury Tales II: Comedy pg131 7 Chaucer, G. The Miller’s Tale, in The Canterbury Tales, Kent:Wordsworth, (2002) pg 112, 8 ibid page 122 9 Pearsall, D. The Canterbury Tales II: Comedy, in The Cambridge Chaucer Companion,(ed).