Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer had skillfully adapted the methodology of frame within frame story telling was a process of storytelling that had only begun to evolve during those times. This method involved the putting together of stories of a number of people. In the main story there is the gripping tale of a group of pilgrims who have taken on the perilous journey together to a pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Among all the story tellers there are a wide variety among which some are of noble birth and a large number who are mere common folk. The more interesting among them is Bath’s wife. She has been married five times. She was probably on the lookout for making a sixth match.
The entire layout of the Canterbury tales and it’s story telling sessions is merely a frame by frame unraveling of the society of those times the socio cultural fabric, the interrelationships and the interpretations that are a part and parcel of everyday fare in any given community. The story provides the picture of the society in which we live and faces different issues.
There must be made a special mention here about the position of women during those days. This is very important to concentrate on the women’s condition in the society. The women have no identity of her own, in the society or even in her home. They were considered more to be a part of the property of the male who was considered in every way to be the woman’s lord and master. She was to pander to his wishes in everything. He was to but command and the lady would be ready to do her Master’s building. The wife was a mere puppet of her husband, who used to treat her like a thing.
Position of Women in Canterbury Tales:
It is essential therefore, to reflect upon the position of women in the society during the times of Canterbury Tales. The stories told by the various pilgrims featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are all centered on women and their position in society. The stories may be vile, full of crime and innuendo on the male female relationship but ultimately all of them are a mirror to the actual women to the society of those says. The low position they occupied, the hard work they were expected to do and the debauchery they were accused of perpetuated of doing were all a preamble of the women’s actual position in society which was literally under man’s command.
The tale of Bath’s wife is a poignant reminder of the desire of women kind of any age to gain the respect and as Bath’s Wife say’s ‘Sovereignty over her men’. This one singular desire of women kind has been beautifully portrayed by the narrative of Bath’s wife. These desires were given vent to through the stories expressed in the Canterbury Tales. Her sheer desires and little dreams are well written in the story.
There are a number of instances in the Canterbury Tales where a women’s plight can be assessed. When a criminal talks of his carnal desires or mentions a noble women in an attempt to tarnish her good name shows the attitude towards women and the general public’s low opinion about them. The story is the clear reflection of the society and their thinking about women.
There have been many instances where the men have treated their women kind as mere commodities or even akin to or equivalent to animals. Such incidences can be very painful to read but they are the truth of that time. They are seen as beasts of burden in a society that put them on the lowest rung of human enterprise, the women can only dream of a paradise where men acknowledge their supremacy. The vision of Bath’s wife is that the dilapidated existence of a women be assuaged somewhat so that there is more equivalence in the gender balance. The objective therefore is to recognize the contribution of women and given them due respect for all they do. The story conveys it part clearly among the society and the people.
A Knights’ Perspective on Women:
The tales recited by Bath’s Wife is that of a knight who falls out of favor of king Arthur’s court and is punished. The punishment is also unique wherein he has to find the answer to a difficult question and that too over a period of a year.
The knight from Arthur’s court had raped a peasant women because of which he was disgraced. However, he was punished by the angered women to find out within a year what it was that women desired the most. The knight had to find the answer to the question as to what it was a women’s heart desired. Once he had the answer to this question he would be let off from his punishment and given a reward. This punishment was perfect for a rapist, so that he could understand the real women and in further life may not treat any woman like a thing.
The knight is unable to find the answer till the very end of the year when he meets an ugly, wizened old woman who offers to solve the conundrum for him. In return she demands a promised gift to which the knight agrees. The answer she supplies to the knight is that every woman wants ‘sovereignty in love’.
Thus when the knight presents himself before the women’s tribunal and given his answer he is made much off and spared the death sentence.
Meanwhile the old lady who gave the correct answer demands to marry him and be his wife. At such a turn of events the knight is quite nonplussed as he feels that he has been given a sentence worse than death. However, his lady wife enlightens him with the fact that she could be the most beautiful woman he had ever seen but he would then forever be uncertain of her faithfulness as he would be jealous of whosoever even looks at her would he not rather have a wife who was totally devoted to him and he would always have an easy mind on how she was conducting herself. The knight sees the wisdom of her words.
The Underlying Question :
This essay is an exposition of what is really the position of women in the lives of men in a particular time and at a specific place or region to ascertain how their fortunes are being framed by society and sovereign alike. Having married five husbands, the wife of Bath is quite dissatisfied as she has been unable to find true happiness or an acceptable balance of caring and sharing between the men she married and the men she desires to marry.
Using the story to give vent to her hearts innermost desires to have supremacy of her next or sixth husband, she had been married five times earlier. The first three husbands were older to her. They had been besotted by her and were given to pandering to her every whim.
Each of her three elderly husbands left her richer when they passed on. Thus, when she was to marry for the fourth and fifth times she was reasonably wealthier than her prospective proposers. Yet, she is not quite happy with both the matches because she is unable to dominate them. These last two husbands are younger and keep an eye out for other ladies which are why Bath’s wife gets rid of them.
Her objective on coming to the pilgrimage is to seek such a man who would allow her sovereignty while paying attention to her every need. She desires the ‘Sovereignty in love’ which has been eluding her and which she feels is an empty void in her life.
Sovereignty of Women Denied:
There is little or no desire on the part of the women for the riches or the treasures that are showered upon them by their knights. They are only desirous of having supremacy in love and over their men folk. There is an overall need to make their men appreciate their presence not merely as a commodity or a form of property but as a partner who is ready to take up an equal share of the burden of living together in harmony. The women are willing to take on the toughest of burdens but they only want to have a position of love and respect it he hearts of their men. They want that the men should appreciate their presence not merely as a decoration but as a significant part of their lives.
There have been several facets of women and their positions in society that have been highlighted as the Canterbury Tales unfold. The position talks of women as articles of property, as objects for use and even as completion among men who want to create a macho image of themselves by maintaining a number of women in the their harems. The gender relations reflected in the Canterbury Tales reflect the perspectives of the various characters towards the opposite sex. Obedience and obsequiousness were held high during the age where the women were objects of subjugation and the men were the overlords. If the woman was known to be duly subdued she could even be compared to the highest deities but if she was slightly questioning of her position in society and her family she would be criticized as a debased woman given to debauchery and various heathen proclivities.
The gutsy Wife of Bath has seen much in her life and is willing to share her experiences if they would benefit anyone. She has been portrayed as rather larger than life by Chaucer who gives her an eye catching personality, a ready to argue tongue and a mind that is willing to reason out the kinks that bind and restrict the freedom and expression of women in everyday life.
She gives an interesting corollary when she gives the example of the comment of a lion when he sees the picture of a man killing a lion that the picture would have been different if it had been painted by a lion. Similarly she talks about the value of the many stories that talk of good and bad wives and virtuous and sinful women. She makes the declaration that the stories would have been very different if they had been left to the women to be written. Indeed the subject matter of the stories would be drastically changed if the authorship had been that of the women and that too on the subject of men.
In the end she sends up a heartfelt prayer to the powers that be that the men should be made more considerate to the needs of the women and those who dared to give pain and misery to women should be made to suffer unbearable and untold multiple attacks of pestilence and wrath of the Gods. She is, however, in favor of men who give their sovereignty to women and are willing to see their point of view also every now and then. The gender equation in her mind is that of equality and not one ruling over the other in any way whether it is man or woman.
Potter, Russell A., "Chaucer and the Authority of Language: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular in Late Medieval England", Assays VI (Carnegie-Mellon Press, 1991),