Women in the medieval times were cast into very distinct roles. There was a strict code of conduct that was followed. They were to be submissive to their husbands and follow their lead. A woman's place was also in the home and the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. fell into their domain. Women who deviated from these cultural-set norms made for interesting characters. Chaucer's use of women and their overstepping their boundaries and typical roles in society make them most memorable.
Most of the gender expectations stemmed from the Church and biblical history. There were many anti-feminist feelings due to Eve causing the fall of Man. Women were perceived to be responsible for most of the suffering to man, and were therefore inferior and to be dominated by their husbands and men in general. "The courtly lady of medieval poetry has much in common with the images of the Virgin" (Martin xiv). Chastity, purity, and holiness, were all associated with the expectations of women from role models such as the Virgin Mary type-cast women into a saintly role. Because women were thought to have caused so much suffering on behalf of mankind, they were to be controlled, held in check and not exhibit any outward signs of defiance or concern for themselves. Their purpose in life was to serve others at their own expense.
There were typical male traits, and these had a more positive connotation to them. In the following list of terms, the first are meant to be masculine and the second to be feminine; "limit and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong" (Cox 8). The more desired traits like the obvious light' and good', were saved for the traditional male. These ideas stem from the Aristotelian paradigm, and are consistent with gender roles in Chaucer's world. The Wife of Bath was expected to have the feminine traits, but she would not accept that. Why should the positive traits be reserved only for men? Being born a woman should not automatically exempt a woman from being cast into a more positive position within society.
What makes Chaucer's characters so unique and unforgettable is that he cast them outside of these roles. Bordering on the controversial but lightened by his use of humor, his characters come to life with unspoken feelings and ideas that speak out against the norms and traditions holding them down by society. The Wife of Bath is such a character; it is ironic that her title includes the word wife' when the word has a loyal, submissive ring to it given the context in which she was developed. Upon reading "Canterbury Tales", it becomes quite obvious that she defies the common notion of what a medieval wife should be. Instead, the Wife of Bath represents ideas that are far ahead of her time. It is not that women in her time did not feel or secretly agree with her non-traditional thoughts, but most did not speak about it. Chaucer brought to life the first medieval feminist.
Chaucer's character asserts the idea that it is not just women, men also were created for reproducing the human race. This is evident in the following passage:
Glose whoso wol, and saye bothe up an down
That they were maked for purgacioun
Of urine, and oure bothe thinges smale
Was eek to knowe a female from a male,
And for noon other cause-saye ye no?
Th' experience woot it is nought so. 125-130.
It is also important to note that Chaucer also has his character go against the traditional Christian concept of the Church and assert that sex can also be for pleasure, not just for the sole purpose of procreation. The Wife of Bath presented the notion that the stereotypes that locked men and women into distinct roles deserved to be challenged. Why not re-marry until you're happy? Who says a woman cannot be in control of her husband? She ultimately challenged beliefs...
Cited: Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath 's Prologue and Tale."
The Norton Anthology English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Cox, Catherine S. Gender and Language in Chaucer. Florida: University Press of Florida, 1997.
Hallissy, Margaret. Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows: Chaucer 's Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Jennings, Patrick. Online Webct posting. 18 April 2004.
Mann, Jill. Feminizing Chaucer. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002.
Martin, Priscilla. Chaucer 's Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990.
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