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The “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is one of the most popular Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The story particularly provides a number of important insights on the role of women during the late middle ages. The tale was written at a period when significant imbalance of power existed between men and women in the society due to the domination by males. Generally, women were not identified by their occupations or social status but rather by how they related with men (Blake 45). For example, a female was usually identified as a maiden, wife or widow and was deemed to be only capable of cooing, bearing children and performing other women’s work. Consequently, women mostly relied on men for their survival and were perceived to be subordinate to their male counterparts.
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Chaucer’s Canterbury tales have in the recent past been adapted and rewritten by various authors and poets such as Patience Agbabi in her poem “The Wife of Bafa” due to their relevance in the contemporary societies. Forni (2013) explored a number of present day adaptations of the various Canterbury Tales by Chaucer in today’s popular genres including Television series. According to Forni (3), Chaucer has a significantly popular afterlife and the popularity of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales such as the “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is attributed to his literary intercourse of the societal and gender challenges in the later middle ages. This paper argues that the “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and its adaptations challenges the imbalance of power in the male dominated society by asserting female equality with men.
Imbalanced Societal Power Relations
Throughout the tale, Chaucer (2012) challenges the typical customs of the time which assigned certain roles to women and required them to accept such roles without questioning them. This is particularly evidenced by the fact that although the society despises women who have had multiple, marriages, Alyson has already been wedded five times, and she believes this experience has made her an expert when it comes to men. She particularly challenges the notion that women should not have multiple marriages by using the biblical stories where many holy men such as Jacob and Abraham had multiple wives and marriages (Robertson 508).
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The tale begins with a lengthy preface narrated by her, about her life experience. She declares that the experiences she has had in life are enough for her to openly say that experience is better than authority. After marriage by five husbands, she believes she has accumulated enough knowledge and experience to conclude what life and especially marriage is all about. She finds nothing wrong with being married multiple times and rebukes Jesus’s action of condemning the woman who had five husbands. She instead favor’s the biblical command of procreation as commanded by God.
The events narrated in the tale particularly take place during the reign of the famous King Arthur. King Arthur is seen allowing his wife and her female companions to rule without interference. It was an era that was dominated by fairies and elves. They were later replaced by friars that seemed to be everywhere. The Incubi raped women. The Friars do it too, but according to the author, at least they don’t impregnate them in addition to dishonoring them like their predecessors. The author is seen to suggest that rape by the friar is better compared to that of the many fairies and elves before him. Arthur’s court is dominated by women, the queen being supreme among them.
Wife of birth continues to defend her views by referring to King Solomon, and to St.Paul’s criticism that it is better to marry than to perish in eternal fire. She demonstrates her knowledge of the bible, with clear quotes from it in order to defend her point of view. Wife of birth challenges anyone with a different point of view to prove to her that God commanded virginity. In addition, she declares that sexual organs are for the purpose of pleasure and unlike many other women; she has always been ready to be intimate with her husband as he pleases. She then narrates tales of her previous husbands, reveals how she had the authority, and gained sovereignty over them. Unluckily, just at the time she was beginning to gain complete mastery and ownership over one of her husbands, he dies. However, she did not stop there as she continues to explain how she gained control over the fifth husband.
At one time she asks the Knight a rhetorical question: When did God explicitly forbade marriage? Tell me (Chaucer 28). This narrative is similar to the story Patience Agbabi gives in ‘the wife of bafa in which she tries to tell the plights and misconceptions associated with the Nigerian woman. She says her father had four wives, so she got herself five husbands (Agbabi, 41). Generally, the two tales particularly attempt to confront the societal double standards which have placed strict limitations on the feminine power regarding marriage. For example, Alyson quotes the biblical cases where holy men had multiple marriages and wives to show why the society should stop looking down upon women who wed multiple men during their lives. Consequently, the author uses the character to address the deep rooted societal double standards and advocate for the equality of men and women when it comes to morals.
Similarly, on the fateful day when the knight and his new friend were brought before the queen, he tells the queen that he has been honorable in keeping the date and finding the answer to her question. The queen orders him to tell them the thing that every woman desires most. The knight tells them that the woman above everything else wishes to have sovereignty over her husband as she would have over her lover. She wants to control him in such a way that he is not above her (Chaucer 124). The whole courtroom is quiet because the knight has discovered the answer to every woman’s unspoken desire. They all agree that he has been able to save his life and he is free to go.
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The prologue of the Wife of Bath was written in the fourteenth century at a time when the social structure was evolving rapidly and in a positive way. As the say always goes, change is inevitable and after the fourteenth century a lot of structural functionalism changes in the society have been achieved. The fourteen the century male dominated societies were slowly progressing into both gender sensitive and gender equal societies; a situation resulting from the emergence of feminism epistemology (Chaucer 112).
For example, the wife of Bath’s is perplexed by Jesus’ rebuke of the woman at the well who had five husbands. She prefers the command to go forth and multiply. She sees nothing wrong with her position since Solomon had a lot of wives and St. Paul said it is better to marry than to burn. She even challenges anyone to prove that God ordered virginity in the scripture. If all people chose chastity then who would bring forth the future virgins? According to her, the wife believes that sexual organs were made for procreation as well as sexual pleasure. She confesses to being ready for sex whenever her husband desires it, unlike many non-passionate women. The wife of Bath goes ahead to narrate about her five husbands and how she was able to dominate all of them. Similarly, in Patience Agbabi’s prologue, the author talks about the Nigerian woman being young and fit at only twenty-nine. She says her first two husbands died of exhaustion, in her version the fifth who was a lawyer was just interested in books and Playboy magazine. She burnt it one day, and he became a wife batterer, an action which he regretted when she fought back (Agbabi, 45).
On the other hand, in Chaucer’s version, the wife can get the upper hand on her fourth husband, but he unfortunately dies. She sees her fifth husband during the funeral of her fourth, and she cannot get her eyes off him (Chaucer 82). The fifth husband’s name was Jankyn, a young clerk who she married before a month was over. She was twice the age of her new husband, he, however, became absorbed in his books after the honeymoon. This is a similarity with Agbabi’s poem of “the wife of Bafa”. What further troubled the wife of Bath’s is the fact that her husband’s papers were demeaning to women. He one night read to her about Eve’s deception and went ahead to read about unfaithful women, prostitutes, and even murderesses. He read every disturbing thing he could find about women aloud so she could hear.
The woman had heard enough, so she grabbed the book and hit him with it on the head which caused him to fall backward into a nearby fire. He got up and retaliated by hitting her with his fist. The impact caused her to fall to the floor, and she pretended to be dead. He bent over her to check if she was okay. She hit him yet again and then played dead once more (Chaucer 116). The young man having panicked promised her anything in the world as long as she did not die on him. And just like that, she gained power over him. She was faithful to him from then onwards until the day he died. The belief to her and one that is portrayed in this tale is that the happiest of unions are those that involve the wife having complete sovereignty over the husband.
This view is shared by the Nigerian businesswoman in the wife of Bafa. For example, the relationship between the wife of Bafa and the wife of Bath’s is undeniable. Both are feminist in their stance and both talk of issues that society would instead not talk about but are essential. They tackle the question of why men can be polygamous, but the practice is frowned on when it comes to women. The businesswoman says her father had four wives, the wife of Bath’s says Solomon had many wives. They are addressing matters of equality and what society perceives as wrong or right.
Another thing that both poems address is the issue of marrying younger men which is a subject that was and still is frowned (Wynne-Davies 88). On the other hand, in demonstrating her manipulative character, in one instance, wife of birth withholds sex in order to manipulate his husbands. She withholds sex from his husbands until she gets what she wants. She continues to reveal different methods she uses to manipulate her husbands. Some of which include, deliberately attacking them with complaints and several biblical quotes just to justify her accusations. According to Forni (59), there is significant coherence in the framing of Chaucer’s tales and the modern works.
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Forni (11) suggests that the popular recreation of Chaucer’s tales is a reflection of the cultural value as well as the representation of his medieval imbalance of power in the contemporary culture. From Chaucer’s literature, it is evident that women during this era were never identified by their social status. Women were during this period solely identified by the men they related with and not their occupations. A female was either entrenched between being a maiden, spouse or a husbandless widow who were only capable of bearing children for the society and other sort of women-related works. Such a situation of gender parity as portrayed by Chaucer was quite unfortunate. Women, just like men ought to have an equal treatment in this traditional society Chaucer puts in his writing. The majority of the time as Chaucer puts it, women had to depend on men for their personal survival; this was solely because women in the 14th century were insubordinates to men and recklessly mapped incompetent gender (Blake 109). In a liberal thinker’s perspective, the women treatment as portrayed in this book shows how much women have struggled to achieve the equality they possess in this century. Women have undergone real challenges from the male dominated societies into becoming equal and at least they should smile about the selfless achievements. On the realists perspective, their take is that women deserved such treatments in the traditional societies; at least it has made them have something to become proud of which is the acquisition of an equal society through their struggle against male domination.
Throughout the tale, six thematic areas highlight on the imbalance of power in male dominated society; these thematic areas include the following: behavior in marriage, female dominance, and economics of love, sex and lollardy, femininity and lastly, the critical part of antifeminism. Behavior in marriage as put in Chaucer literature behavior in marriage is captured when Mary Carruthers and Hellen Cooper are on their way to Alisoun (Chaucer 117). In this particular scene, there is not a single portrayal of how marriage behaviors should be carried out. Alison does not conform to her roles as wife. Moving forward, Alisoun in her marriage behaviors seemingly represent the epitome of struggle towards achieving equality by women in the male dominated society. The audience in the book is however shown a liberal dimension of marriage; that is how a proper marriage should work and look like. The Wife of Bath’s Tale was purposefully written to teach young women how to become model wives.
In addition, there is quite a different link based on such behaviors between men and women. Sexuality dominated the renaissance period with women behavior such as Alisoun being associated with Lolardy (Chaucer 121). Women became their own enemies and even though they were used by men for sexually, they believed nothing was entirely wrong with sexual promiscuity. Their reasoning was quite shallow and simple; that God created human beings to procreate. Ideally, for the gender imbalance to cease, such view of women should be shunned. Both men and women should interact based on ideas and not sexual desires. Similarly, today’s Feminism as an idea emerged in the epistemology period when women and some men who believed contrary to the male dominant societies came up with the idea of feminism.
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The woman demonstrates her experience on a number of societal issues. For example, Regarding poverty, she says that it is God who decides who to grant riches and who not to. If the heart is delightful, poverty is not shameful. She quotes Seneca who was a wise man by saying that he who accepts his poverty is rich, but those who desire what others have and complain always will be poor. He who does not covet his neighbor’s property is rich though he may not think that he is. While quoting Juvenal, she says the poor do not have to worry about getting robbed, and credits poverty with making a person wise. It also brings people back to God (Chaucer, 2012). The poor know their real friends which are a luxury the rich cannot claim to have. The woman tells her husband not to insult her poverty ever again.
By presenting the character of the Wife of Bath as an ugly woman, Chaucer tries to explain that a person is not his lineage of descent. One may be the son of a gentleman yet he turns out to be a villain, being from nobility would not guarantee one’s behavior to be noble. She maintains that nobility and gentility will come from God alone and not one’s bloodline. To be born poor is not ungentlemanly. Bad behavior is what makes one uncivil. She gives an example of Tullius who rose from poverty to wealth. She says a person will become gentle when they live right and refrain from sinning (Chaucer 158). She then tackles the knight’s claim that she is old. Since she is old and ugly according to him, she tells him he should be happy that there is no fear of being cuckolded by her, the way younger women would do. She, however, acknowledges that he has needs and she is willing to fulfill them. She gives the knight two choices (Chaucer 161). The first option is to have her ugly and old but loyal, faithful and humble till the day of her death, or have her young and pretty and bear the burdens of having a beautiful wife such as unfaithfulness.
The young knight is thoughtful for a long while as he tries to weigh these options with which he has been presented. At last, maybe out of hopelessness, he leaves the decision to her telling her that whatever pleases her will suffice for him. The lady is pleased with this answer and asks her if she has won and been granted the will always to do as she sees fit. The young man answers in the affirmative and so she tells him to kiss her, and he shall find her to be youthful and fair as well as loyal to him. When he kisses her, she transforms into a lovely young woman. So they live happily for the rest of their lives. This ending is connected to the prologues of both the wife of Bath’s and the wife of Bafa. According to Wynne-Davies (63), the idea is particularly set forth by both texts is that marriages prevail best when the woman is given total control over her husband.
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In conclusion, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer successfully tackles the power imbalance between men and women in the society. Women’s role has evolved from a time that they were seen as property, to a time that their voices can be heard. The wife of Bath’s and Chaucer’s other works was written at a time when women’s roles were less defined and quiet. Literary works such as Chaucer’s poetry have helped, with his ideas being adapted into many modern productions such as spoken word performances, hip-hop tracks, and movies. Geoffrey Chaucer is long dead, but his poetry and ideas are guaranteed to be there for generations to come. Both “The Wife of Bath’s Tale and its adaptations are feminist in their stance as they mainly tackle the question of the imbalance between men and women in the medieval societies and the contemporary modern society respectively.
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