Sexual relations between men and woman have created issues of life and death from the beginning of time. In most classic Western beliefs it began when Eve with the help of the Devil seduced Adam thus leading the downfall of humanity into an abyss of sin and hopelessness. This issue arises in all literature from Genesis, Chaucer and into modern day. Authors, clerks and writers of all types have aided stereotyping women throughout history and Geoffrey Chaucer is not an exception in most cases. However, in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath we can find the beginnings of a new type of woman arising from the dark ages of the post-Roman era.
And of course at the center of his character’s struggle is sex. As this topic develops, we shall take a brief look into sex, women, the Middle Ages and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath as an example of Middle Ages reflections. The woman of the Middle Ages tended to be pawns of men in religion, politics and economics (Gies). “Although a woman could hold land, inherit it, sell it or give it away and plead for it in law courts, most of a woman’s life was spent under the guardian ship of a man” (Gies 41). These set standards for the dominance of men during and following much of the Middle Ages.
As in the Wife of Bath’s case women recovered some rights when they became widows. Sometimes a widow even successfully sued to recover land sold by her husband (Gies 44). “Medieval ideas were far from the Victorian notions that women did not enjoy sex. Physiologically, men and women were considered sexual equals – in fact women were commonly credited with stronger sexual feelings than men” (Gies 48). Another misogynistic theory in the Middle Ages was that women stated that the female seed gradually collected in he womb, increasing sexual desire as it accumulated Gies 48).
Menstruation, seen as the equal of male ejaculation provided periodic relief” (Gies). In one case a woman brought a man before the courts on rape charges. She conceived during the intercourse, therefor the jury acquitted the man because it ruled she must have enjoyed the sex because she conceived, which was a popular belief during the Middle Ages (Gies). These beliefs no doubt were ridiculous attempts to discredit women so the power of men could be upheld throughout the nations, in this case Great Britain. Like the Devil, women were perceived as masking their pernicious in attractive guises, and it was part of the xemplum’s purpose to unveil their subtleties and sorceress in order to underscore the need for vigilance against them” (Gregg 85). “Women and Jews together came to be viewed not just as the spiritual inferiors of the Christian male, but more specifically and perniciously, as the embodiments of carnality and sexual peril, with all that implied for the damnation of one’s eternal soul” (Gregg 85). So does the Wife if Bath become a model of feminine virtue?
She states that many Biblical characters had many wives, like Abraham and Solomon, so if she was were not to marry she could not control her lusts. (Chaucer 278). Is it better to make her a model of attainable perfection than to make her a model of unattainable perfection (Gregg 85). “The Wife of Bath’s accusation against clerical stories, then, was not hyperbole, and, after the era of courtly love, it pervade not only popular pulpit tales, but influenced secular literature as well (Gregg 86). “… It enabled a projection of male sexual guilt onto an un-empowered other, woman…” (Gregg 86). This in turn permitted the rationalization that women’s inferiority and sexual aggressiveness requires male governance” (Gregg 86). Women became the screens upon which fleshly passions could be safely projected. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath comprehended this phenomenon clearly: ‘By God, if woman hadde writen stories/ As clerks han withinne hier oratories,/ They wolde han writen of men more wikkednesse/ Than all the mark of Adam may redresse. ’” (Gregg 93). Chaucer’s Wife of Bath correctly asserts, it was clerks stories that were privileged over women’s, and for clerical stories to impart the desired object lesson.
The image of women must be one that could plausibly absorb the unregenerate sexual passions of the male and manifest them in a way men could rationally accept” (Gregg 93). She is a plump, florid, jolly, bold, lusty and voluptuous woman. She is a valuable woman by any means because of her apparent wealth. She is bold in her descriptions of her sexual experiences. She is not a typical woman of the Middle Ages and therefor poses a threat to mean and the current social order. Her husband varied in personalities. Her first was rich, but unable to fulfill her demands sexually. The other husbands were sexually vigorous, but harder to control.
She tamed them by accusing them of promiscuous behavior. It becomes clearer that the woman Chaucer has created is a domineering and controlling type. An Oxford clerk became her fifth husband. He beat her. As a result she punished him by throwing a book of his into a fire, revealing a nature of woman as a punisher and a lawmaker. The wife of Bath raises many valid points throughout the prologue, but Geoffrey Chaucer voids her opinion because of her questionable background. It is as if her intelligence is over-shadowed by the fact she had five husbands thus making her discernible.
Women are depicted as untrustworthy and tempter of men. The wife of Bath’s theme is experience verses authority. She announces her theme as ‘marriage is a misery and a woe,’ but the theme she actually develops in the prologue and the tale is the power of self-determination. So if the Wife of Bath proves that if the wife has the authority in a marriage, both husband and wife will live happily ever after. The Wife of Bath continues to look for husband six. Of course the tale is a tale of rape and life and death. The knight is morally raped when he is forced to relinquish his power to the queen (Williams).
This again shows the forcible removal of power for men and the fear that it reaches as high as nobility. We also see that a woman in the form of the Queen has been given all of the power. As the tale unfolds we see the wife is the rapist knight herself. The wife having created the knight and using rape as a thematic device becomes a perpetual self-rapist (Williams 66). Her tale thus unfolds as anti-feminist cliche: all women want to be raped (Williams 67). Throughout her tale she fulfills her desires and resolves the oppositions that she faces (Williams).