English literature spanning various centuries reveals idiosyncratic trends and ideals of British history, which allows students and scholars to examine and assess successive literary periods. Indeed, literature can be situated within its historical context because literature cannot be separated from the context in which it as written. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales underscores societal concerns with regards to corruption. Moreover, it provides a window into the historical ideals with regards to gender and how women were expected to behave and comport themselves according to their class. In a similar fashion, Beowulf, a classic in old English literature, reflects the cultural mores of the Vikings and the proper role of women through potent symbolism. As scholar Matthew Innes points out, Viking conquerors carried with them and diffused their culture and customs, which the epic of Beowulf evinces. Such notions are attested by archeological evidence contained in burial mounds (Innes 372). As such, regardless of the time period in which literature was penned, it is undeniable that literary works cannot be separated from their historical and cultural contexts. By comparing two epics, world literature provides windows into prior epochs and cultures that contribute to the understanding of cultural idiosyncrasies within the trajectory of western civilization.
Literary depictions of the church and clergy further articulate the centrality and importance of the Church in late medieval life through its criticisms. Christianity served as a unifying force amongst the various socio-economic classes. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales limns three separate clergy members in various fashions to convey certain ideas about their role in medieval society. Chaucer opines about the clergy and the corruption e eschews in its through various stories. In the story of the Prioress, there are several ways Chaucer calls into question whether she is deserving of the special status and benefits she gets as a member of the clergy. She keeps her complexion looking beautiful, models herself on the courtly lady, which deemphasizes following the rules of the monastic life. In the story of the parson, who is a priest of the town, Chaucer praises him as a model of what a member of the secular clergy should be. Chaucer defines him as a model priest because the parson is learned and not ignorant as he knows Latin and the liturgical rituals he must leaned. Moreover, the parson is holy in thought and words and patient in adversity and does not curse at people if they do not pay their tithes. Indeed, the parson and Chaucer alike are concerned with providing to his parishioners rather than gathering tithes, as he offers spiritual and financial assistance to the members of his parish. The Parson lives a simple life and does not need much substance as focuses on charity and service rather than on his own benefits. In addition, he travels to all of his parishioners despite the distance and models his life on the gospel. The parson is lauded because he knows the gospel and actually lives according to its precepts. The parson knows he must do this because he is a priest, and if he does not follow the paragon of being a good Christian according to the gospel then he knows his parishioners will not act accordingly. Chaucer thus proffers a particular way of envisioning his commitments and obligations as a priest. Such a model priest that is also proffers a criticism of the priesthood and the church, which is implicit in such praise. The critique of acts priests should not do implies that they do these things such as lack of access to the mass. Moreover, they curse parishioners who do not provide tithes and who do not make themselves accessible to priests.
Chaucer criticizes the monk rather than the parson for not living up to the ideals for what they are supposed to represent. The monk was expected to live up to that which grants him and those in his status special status such as following a life that he swore to follow by pursuing study, a life of preaching and a life of poverty. As such, Chaucer proffers a critique of the monk that the monk does not want to follow the rules even though he swore the rule because he articulates his love of hunting, love of food, and love of women. As such, Chaucer asserts that although the monk may be living an admirable life and he may be a good and fun person to hang out with, the monk is nonetheless abominable for abusing his position and special status and is not living in the manner that he should be because his money that pays for his feasting and clothing, which is not deserving. The secular clergy is also criticized for not supporting the laity and looking out for their own interests and not serving the laity. Chaucer’s criticisms are grounded in the acceptance of the system of the church and are not critical of the existence of a regular clergy and a secular clergy. Such criticisms are made because Chaucer envisions that it is possible to be a good monk, nun, and friar and thus it is even more problematic and worthy of satire and criticism that the prioress, monk, etc do not follow the rules and guidelines because they could live up to such worthy ideals.
Furthermore, Chaucer portrays the proper role of women through a dyadic representation of good women and sinful women. He calls into question several times whether or not the Prioress is deserving of the special status and benefits she gets as a member of the clergy. She keeps her complexion looking beautiful who models herself on the courtly lady and deemphasizes following the rules of the monastic life. As such, good women according to Chaucer exhibited obedience to the men in their lives, especially to husbands and fathers. Within the patriarchal world in the medieval era, ideal women are Christian believers who adhere to the precepts and customs of patriarchal society, as they obey cultural rules and comport themselves as good mothers and wives. Both the Clerk’s tale and the Wife of Bath illuminate how women lived in the medieval era as well as their role towards the end of the fourteenth century in Europe. Moral dualism permeated the Christian Church’s image of ideal women, as celibacy was prized while female sexuality was attacked as carnal an physical love was viewed as both sinful and destructive (Chaucer 13). Women’s identity was subsumed by those of their husbands, which resulted in the severe curtailment of women’s autonomy and rights. Such a portrayal in the Canterbury Tales reveal the English practice of coverture, which undergirded marriage laws in England and stripped women of the political and economic agency (Patterson 135-136).
The Wife of Bath thus must be read within such a cultural and historical environment as an aberration. Chaucer’s general prologue suggests that her eccentricity lies not only in the sartorial patterns she dons but also in her mobility and the knowledge she possesses. As such, contrary to the fact that Chaucer calls her as the Wife of Bath, a discursive indication that women’s identity was indeed subsumed by that of their husband, the Wife of Bath is not a prototypical female figure or ideal women in medieval Europe. The indeterminacy of the Wife of Bath’s social role, eschewing any idiomatic stereotype or association, unlike other characters in the Canterbury Tales such as the miller who is directly linked with ignorance and corruption. To an extent, thus, Chaucer deployed an ahistorical literary tradition rather than negotiating the historical and cultural contingencies within the world in which Chaucer lived in (Patterson 136). As such, the Wife of Bath transcends gender stereotypes and expectations that lacked a specific social and economic categorization. While some scholars contend that the Wife of Bath occupied a social echelon at the top of urban society, others decry such categorization due to the fact that she lives her life according to her own set of values that granted her social mobility and public agency (Sheehan).
Although the Wife of Bath lives in a world marked by male hegemony and intellectual supremacy, she nonetheless remains a potent figure who is able to assert her autonomy and exert agency in the public sphere. The Wife of Bath uses discourse and language to carve out a new niche for women within the traditionally male intellectual world. She speaks her own mind and commentates on religious matters, thereby immersing herself in a social sphere traditionally confined to men. Indeed, the language of the Church has remained the preserve of men within Christianity. The Wife of Bath conveys her access to masculine knowledge, as she asserts her intellectual agency and power that other women in the Canterbury Tales lacked access to as she is able to read, interpret, and critique religious texts through both her empirical knowledge as well as the influence of scientific authorities. Despite this fact, Chaucer underscores how her identity regardless of how much she transgresses the stringent confines of her gender will always remained defined by her relationships with others, especially men.
In a similar fashion, the renowned English epic Beowulf presents the titular character as the epitome of a noble mortal man and functions as a corollary to the ideal noble woman. Beowulf is compared to a dragon murdering Sigmund of the Volsungs, the primary for of the Vikings, a Scandinavian peoples who engaged in ferocious raids (Beowulf 59). Beowulf nobly perished as a result of slaying a dragon more immediately than Sigmund did who extirpated several years later. However, the epic attributes all positive characteristic traits to the good grace of God regardless of how strong humans are because death is inevitable. The epic was recorded in a Christianized Europe, which imbues it with social and cultural currency in the British Isles and thus dates the potent influence of Christianity far earlier than the hegemony of the Scandinavian Vikings. The Prose Edda further demonstrates that the initial portions of the epic presents Christian justifications for the myths, which suggests that Beowulf presented various elements of Viking society and culture (Beowulf 3-8). Religion and public comportment were of paramount importance in the time period that it portrays. Similar to the Canterbury Tales, Beowulf illuminates proper gender roles in relation to Christian impulses, which underscores how both preoccupied the political, social, cultural, and economic concerns in Europe during the time period in which the epic was penned.
Beowulf provides commentary on male camaraderie during fourteenth century, which centers on eating practices and behaviors. Before the commencement of the battle with the dragon, Beowulf's Thane's swears his duty and allegiance to him while dining in a mead hall (Beowulf 193). Additionally, Beowulf's company dons high-quality armor, which elucidates how both armor and gifts as treasure forged loyalty between men and amplified camaraderie. Beowulf’s father had taught him at a very young age the importance of giving freely so "that afterwards in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line" (3). Such logic suggests that gifts will ensure that lords secure the loyalty of their pledged servers. However, Beowulf's generosity rather than his personal wealth is credited for this reality. The epic thus connects his personal virtues to his ability to inspire loyalty in his men, and he procures his wealth vis-a-vis adventures according to the Vikings despite the fact that Beowulf does not render it raiding.
Grendel's mother retains both the characteristics of a giantess and Loki. Loki had helped sire the Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent, and the ruler of the underworld Hel (Sturluson 39). Grendel's mother embodies a powerful, strong woman who gives birth to creatures that are the progenitors of various calamities. However, Grendel’s mother also resembles non-canon stories of the demon Lilith who claimed to be Adam's first wife who vacated the Garden of Eden and emerged as the mother of the demons in Abrahamic mythology. She also shares the same desires for female vengeance evident in many of the other Viking sagas. Grendel’s mother articulated her desire to avenge Grendel by attacking the hall of Hrothgar (58). She resembles Gurdrun's murder of Atli's progeny as well as Atli himself. Both Christianity and Norse mythology within Vikings culture gender natural calamities by giving them female attributes. As such, Grendel's mother unequivocally destabilizes gender norms by embodying shifting social and cultural norms.
Conversely, the ideal woman portrayed in Beowulf, Queen Wealhtheow lacks the agency evinced by women in other Vikings Sagas, including those of the Volsungs and Laxardals. Queen Wealtheow’s role in the epic focuses on proper comportment and public etiquette. As the famous epic notes, "Wealhtheow came in, Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies. Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted the men in the hall, then handed the cup first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian" and proceeded to pass the cup around until all guests drank as well (Beowulf 43). The queen’s proper role and function as keeper of the hearth promotes the unity of the warrior caste. Moreover, she does not actively engage in the convincing process for the warriors to attack and brutally defeat Grendel. Such scenes suggest that the ideal woman acts as a good, passive hostess and who does not exhibit ostentatious behavior that women engage in as evident in other Vikings and European works. Queen Wealtheow starkly contrasts from the far more chaotic figure embodied by Grendel's mother, as Queen Wealhtheow adheres her "proper" role as an elite woman. By fulfilling their "proper" gender roles as elite women suggest that male camaraderie was forged by their efforts to Grendel and preserve proper cultural mores.
Literature can never be separated from the cultural and historical context in which it was written and retains currency in the present day for its didactic function. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provide a collection of tales that illuminate medieval life with regards to gender portrayals and religious life as well as the quotidian in an age marred by natural calamities, warfare, and social mobility. Chaucer limns women in both a positive and negative manners as a war to underscore to proper behaviors women were expected to adhere to. Similarly, Beowulf provides a complex image of a society and culture complicated by religious sentiments and gender expectations. While Chaucer deploys a timeless literary technique in is portrayal of the Wife of Bath, Beowulf exhibits a dyadic approach to gender representation and discursive framing. Chaucer also uses such modes of representation by offering portrayals of sinful women as corollaries to proper women who adhere to their submissiveness within the constraints of a patriarchal society. Despite reflecting the epochs in which they were written, classic epics in world literature retain their didactic function while presenting cultural truisms that retain currency within the context of modernity.
Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1985. Print.
Innes, Matthew. Introduction to Early Medieval Europe, 300-900: The Sword, the Plough and The Book. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Patterson, Lee. Experience Woot Well it is Nought So’: Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’ s Press.
Sheehan, Michael M. “The Wife of Bath and Her Four Sisters.” Critical Essays on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Malcolm Andrew (ed). Buckingham: Open University Press, 1991. Print.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005. Print