The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the fourteenth century. The Tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest as the pilgrims make their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. The ‘collection of tales’ was a very popular structural device in Chaucer’s time, and indeed The Canterbury Tales are said to resemble Boccaccio’s The Decameron. However, Chaucer’s magnum opus seems to be the first work to depict a group of pilgrims and a story-telling contest. Chaucer’s pilgrims are from all walks of life (The Knight, The Miller, The Cook) and this allows him to represent a plethora of different social groups and classes, meaning he can paint a critical portrait of English society. Chaucer wrote in the vernacular, whereas most (but not all) writers preferred to write in Latin or French (the language of the court, of which Chaucer was a part). The reason Chaucer’s poetry has transcended time is because of the linguistic skill he possessed and his ability to express himself in his own tongue. He wasn’t the only writer to write in Middle English, but he was certainly one of the best.
By making himself one of the pilgrims, Chaucer becomes less of an omnipotent narrator and more a part of the story itself. This, as Valerie Allen writes, means that his “own stance on the issues he raises is hidden within a complex creation of masks and disguises.” Therefore, Chaucer can comment on and criticise any part of society without fear of punishment, because it almost seems as if he is not to blame. In fact, Chaucer avoids responsibility for some tales completely. Before the Miller’s tale, he says that he thinks he should “reherce it heree” as if it is not his own creation, and he goes on to say:
“…but for I moot reherce
Hir tales alle, be they bettre or werse,
Or elles falsen som of my mateere.”
He completely avoids responsibility for any radical opinions he may be voicing, claiming that he is simply fulfilling his obligation to his fellow pilgrims. He writes: “Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys. / The millere is a cherl, ye knowe wel this…”And so we can take it for granted that Chaucer was completely honest and did not hold back: he had no reason to. A number of the tales have been categorised by critics depending on their topic of discussion: some tales discuss marriage, some religion, others ‘gentillesse’. This essay shall examine the ways in which Chaucer presents his views on women, marriage and love as a whole, and it shall discuss the proposition that Chaucer was what we would call a feminist.
The obvious place to start is Alisoun, infamously known as The Wife of Bath. She is a weaver who sells cloth, but this is not her only source of income. In her Prologue (which, incidentally, is about four times as long as her tale) she explains that she has acquired most of her money from husbands, of which she has had five. The first four were much older than her, but the fifth was almost half her age. She is very blatant about her methods, and explains that she controls her old husbands by sleight of hand and deceit. She says: “I broghte it so aboute by my wit / That they moste yeve it up…” She is described as having ‘maistrie’ over her first four husbands just as Mrs Elton controls Mr Elton in Austen’s Emma. In this way, The Wife of Bath could be seen as a pioneer in the feminist movement; she even turns on its head the medieval belief that men have more reason than women, and uses the theory against itself:
“Oon of us two moste bowen, douteless;
And sith a man is moore reasonable
Than woman is, ye moste been suffrable.”
Her dominance over her husbands suggests that she is rejecting medieval etiquette and beliefs, and Chaucer himself could be showing his support for female emancipation. The sharp spurs she wears accentuate her authority. Moreover, the fact that she has her own beliefs and disregards certain tenets of the Church (she ignores Jesus’ teachings to the women at the well) shows her as a strong-minded and free-thinking individual. She is, therefore, a determined feminist. And although she was kept under control by her last husband, she soon gains her freedom by pretending to be dead after he hits her. We applaud the Wife for her use of wit and confrontation of established male dominance. We also applaud her for her confrontation of Biblical Texts; she claims that the Bible does not condemn promiscuity, citing Solomon (amongst others), who had a number of wives.
The Wife of Bath, as well as being a feminine figure to be revered (or even feared), could also be seen as a sympathetic character. She is old, single, and in search of a new husband to look after her. Moreover, she is not described as particularly attractive (she is a large woman with a gap between her teeth). The reader therefore sympathises with her in her almost futile quest for a husband. Her tale, when she gets around to it, depicts an old woman finding love and marriage with a young Knight, and then becoming young again – this is exactly what The Wife of Bath desires to do herself. The Arthurian age which she selects for her tale suggests that The Wife of Bath is living in a fairy-tale world where old-women can magically transform into pretty maidens. In fact, Ian Bishop described the tale as “an unconscious ritual act of self-fulfilment”. The Wife of Bath is nostalgic about her youth:
“But, Lord Crist! whan that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
But age, allas! that al wole envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
Lat go, farewel! the devel go therwith!
The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle…”
Chaucer could be showing his sympathy for the plight of old and single women, and the above passage suggests that the reader ought to pity and show kindness to women like The Wife of Bath, who are taken advantage of for their money and then deserted.
However, many critics have used The Wife of Bath in order to present Chaucer as an anti-feminist. Many have claimed that Chaucer’s depiction of the Wife’s deceptive and manipulative nature would have been seen by the contemporary reader as a reason not to trust women, rather than as a plea for equality. Moreover, the Wife is seen as a particularly comic figure. Her ‘long preamble of a tale’ is extremely drawn out and, because it is so dramatized and colloquial, is said to be far more interesting than the tale itself as a piece of writing; this, in itself, is comic. Her five husbands and her blatant rejection of Orthodox norms would have been seen as not only outrageous but extremely funny. Chaucer could, therefore, be warning the reader against letting women have freedom and emancipation, lest we find ourselves being dominated by women such as the Wife – thus he would be an anti-feminist. Chaucer never allows the reader to make a finite decision about the Wife – we see her as cruel and domineering, as well as pitiable and sympathetic. She is, in herself, a conundrum.
Another tale that is commonly discussed by feminist critics is the Merchant’s Tale. Both the Miller and the Merchant rejoice in vulgarity and impropriety. The Merchant is a wholly misanthropic man, and indeed his prologue complains about marriage; he claims: “We wedded men lyven in sorwe and care.” In fact, his whole tale seeks to show the deceptive nature and scheming of women. Ian Bishop writes:
“The outrageous anecdote that supplies the plot for the Merchant’s Tale purports to show that an erring wife will always find a ‘suffisant answere’ for her husband, even when caught in the act with her lover.”
This would, therefore, suggest that Chaucer was an anti-feminist, and this would be completely believable were it not for the reader’s sympathy for May, the young wife of the old January. She has been forced into marriage with an old and incapable Knight and does not love him as he loves her. The Merchant tells the pilgrims:
“The slake skyn aboute his nekke shaketh,
Whil that he sang, so chaunteth he and craketh.
But God woot what that May thoughte in hir herte,
Whan she hym saugh up sittynge in his sherte,
In his nyght-cappe, and with his nekke lene;
She preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene.”
Moreover, January is ignorant of his wife’s discontent, as he sees marriage as little more than “the occasion for licensed lust” (Bishop). Should the reader pity May’s situation? She is in a loveless marriage with an old and somewhat ignorant man. Chaucer could be supporting a woman’s rights to choose her own husband.
However, the reader also sympathises with January. He loves his wife so devoutly and sincerely that it seems impossible to dislike him. Unaware, he bends down for May to lift her into the tree (so that she can commit adultery), and this suggests his submittal to her every will. He says to May:
“‘For Goddes sake, thenk how I thee chees,
Noght for no coveitise, doutelees,
But oonly for the love I had to thee.
And though that I be oold, and may nat see,
Beth to me trewe, and I wol telle yow why.
Thre thynges, certes, shal ye wynne therby:
First, love of Crist, and to youreself honour,
And al myn heritage, toun and tour…’”
The reader pities January not only because he loves her so much, but because his love is completely unrequited. There is, therefore, a conundrum of sympathies – both the characters are sympathetic to the reader. Moreover, can he really be blamed for his helplessness and stupidity? January is made even more sympathetic by Chaucer’s presentation of May later on in the tale. She is both a hypocrite and a liar:
“‘I have,’ quod she, ‘a soule for to kepe
As wel as ye, and also myn honour,
And of my wyfhod thilke tendre flour,
Which that I have assured in youre hond,
Whan that the preest to yow my body bond…’”
These sentiments, although sweet and kind, are insincere, as demonstrated by her adulterous actions with Damyan, the young squire. May commits adultery with Damyan at the first opportunity, and indeed she takes advantage of her husband’s trust (he trusts her to go to Damyan’s bedside). She is therefore seen as a scheming, disingenuous woman, and Bishop notes that she “hardly needs the supernatural promptings of Proserpina to supply her with her ‘suffisant answere’.” He goes on to write: “She has no difficulty in persuading her husband, who is so susceptible to ‘heigh fantasye’.” Even though the tale ends with a reference to Mary (“God blesse us, and his mooder Seinte Maire”), there is undoubtedly a presence of the flawed Eve. Chaucer could indeed be criticising women for their deception, but he could also be criticising the tendency of older men to seek and marry younger wives to satisfy their needs. The Merchant’s tale of adultery and harlotry could stand as a warning to the ‘Senex amans’ figure, as could The Wife of Bath’s prologue.
Another tale that ought to be discussed is that of the Franklin. Bishop explained that the similarities between the Merchant’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale “merely have the effect of indicating essential differences between the two tales.” The heroines of each tale are completely different from one another: May is adulterous, Dorigen is faithful. The fact that Dorigen stays committed to her husband throughout his long absence slightly contradicts what the other pilgrims have said about marriage, and indeed it suggests that many women can be trusted. However, many feminist critics have pointed out that the tale is not simply an appraisal of Dorigen’s fidelity. Dorigen has been labelled stupid and dim-witted by a number of critics. They suggest that when she makes ‘in pley’ her offer to love Aurelius, she is making a huge mistake, and that it is her fault entirely. Although this argument is weak, she can still be held accountable for the predicament she finds herself in, and her error could represent the female’s lack of reason. The fact that she only escapes her predicament by doing ‘as myn [Dorigen’s] housbounde bad’ could indeed suggest that women ought to be subjected to the orders of their husbands, a very common view in Chaucer’s patriarchal society. Dorigen is only freed because she is under her husband’s command. The tale ends with the Franklin asking who was ‘mooste fre’, meaning both free as well as generous. The reader is unsure of the answer, but it is certainly not Dorigen: she is sent between the two men under their orders and is, at one point, depicted praying on her knees to one of them. Thus, again, Chaucer could be supporting male dominance.
The Miller’s tale is very like that of the Merchant’s in that the young wife is committing adultery with a younger man while the older husband is ignorant. As aforementioned, this could suggest the female nature to be deceptive and adulterous. It is very interesting that the only person left unscathed at the end of the tale is the young adulterous wife. The old carpenter is left with broken limbs, Absalom has been tricked and the young scholar has a scalded bum. Chaucer could again be warning us against female deception, suggesting that the benefits of adultery are only truly felt by women. However, the men of the tale are depicted as incredibly stupid and foolish, whereas the carpenter’s wife use her wit and intelligence very skilfully. She is able to use her sexual attraction as a lure, and indeed she tricks all the men of the tale. Whether this is Chaucer’s way of praising female individuality and intelligence is unsure.
Chaucer’s discussion of women is endless, and this essay has only broken the surface. However, The Canterbury Tales is by no means a feminist or anti-feminist collection of poems. In fact, Chaucer is extremely equal-handed in his tackling of the subject of female emancipation. He keeps the scales moving, never showing his true beliefs. The reader is constantly left asking questions, and this is one of Chaucer’s greatest techniques.