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While there are places where the opinions of the medieval listener and the contemporary listener coincide, generally the vastly different contexts in which we assess the Wife of Bath divide our responses. Set in a strict world of Catholicism, aspects of religious blasphemy such as the allusion to the ‘lighte’, like Jesus, in justifying her acts may draw more gasps from a medieval audience, but the proposed argument is just as questionable in modern minds. Contrastingly, the hints of feminism would fit quite comfortably in the twenty-first century, but her perseverance into domination of the marriage and infidelity do quite the opposite. Combined with her multiple contradictions, she is presented as a largely unreliable narrator, and both listeners would be unsure how exactly to respond to the Wife of Bath.
The Canterbury Tales follows the journey of a number of pilgrims through the stories they will tell, in heroic verse, after first giving a prologue of the characters, and then allowing them to portray themselves to the group. This forms multiple levels of narration, with Chaucer’s own thoughts more apparent in the prologue, and then layered by the Wife of Bath as a character – both truthfully and superficially, for her existence as an unreliable narrator creates a further depth to her arguments.
Immediately her word is questionable, where she uses the teaching that ‘God bad us for to wexe and multiplie’ as a justification for enjoying marital sex, yet despite her five ‘housbondes at chirche dore’ she bears no children. Furthermore, her love of marital sex is revealed to be untrue: ‘I suffer him do his nicetee’. So while she formulates many firm arguments with realistic household imagery and the careful manipulation of Bible teachings, like dismissing St Paul’s call for virginity as mere counsel, and ‘counseilling is no commandement’, she slowly builds to the true purpose of her speech.
This is summarised aptly by the imagery of the ‘nigard that wolde werne a man to lighte a candle at his lanterne’; in essence, the Wife attempts to justify adultery, and the reference to such a Christian idea (Jesus being the light of the world) while attempting to do so ensures that a medieval audience would condemn this woman. This is the pinnacle of rebellion in a patriarchal society, moving past calls for a mere ‘wood leon’ to cuckolding. In a medieval world this would have been rejected for two reasons: one, the religious implications, essentially the restrictions that the Church placed on sex and especially the forbiddance of extra-marital relations; secondly, in a relationship the man was supposed to have the power and the woman was part of his property – such a reversal of roles would not be permitted.
However, a contemporary listener might take a slightly different view on the Wife of Bath in this respect. While the idea of adultery remains just as appalling, her previous arguments seem proto-feminist in the sense that both should be equal in a relationship. She says that while she must give her body to him, so too ‘I have the power duringe al my lyf upon his proper body, and noght he’ and that he cannot ‘be maister of my body and of my good’. Originally, this idea evokes some sympathy in the modern listener, but the perseverance of her argument soon moves it beyond acceptability, vying for mastery: ‘I hadde hem hoolly in myn hand’.
The layered elements of the narrator are most apparent when the Wife voices common complaints of women at the time (originally suggesting her drunken husband had said these, though later revealed to be merely one of her trickeries). ‘We love no man that taketh kep or charge’, she argues, although ironically her entire speech is about taking charge of men, and her wish for women to be free (although very fitting with modern viewpoints) is shown by Chaucer to be misguided as she constantly hints at infidelity – especially with the return of ‘Jankin’. Similarly, the Wife claims that men must guard women like they must ‘kepe a castel wal’, and that it is the husband’s fault if she is unfaithful; despite this she wishes to be allowed out unaccompanied. The contradictory and unreliable nature of her narrative make the listener less and less inclined to have a positive reaction.
Throughout her prologue, the logicality of some of her arguments is constantly contrasted by the undesirable character traits presented both by Chaucer and by the Wife herself. In the Portrait of the Wife of Bath, there are innumerable mentions of her sexual promiscuity, such as her ‘hosen… of fyn scarlet reed’, or her ‘gat-tothed’ smile. These suggestions are later cemented by the Wife’s own comments, wishing ‘to be refreshed half so ofte as’ Solomon, which would certainly make the listener unsure how to react to her. However, she does also provide a number of logical arguments which not only ring true with contemporaries, but would have stirred a few nods in a time of growing disquiet with the Church’s invasive attitude to sex.
Chaucer uses realistic characterisation in her metaphor that a lord ‘nath nat every vessel al of gold’, but ‘somme been of tree’ and that these served just the same purpose – while the gold is beautiful, it is the wooden dish that is used every day. This refers to virginity being good for the saintly, but not necessary for the ordinary man or woman, and, after all, ‘if ther were no seed ysowe, virginitee, thane wherof sholde it growe?’ This argument is embellished through interpretatio, using other household metaphors. So, these realistic ideas are easily acceptable for a modern audience, and, when not taken to their extremes (i.e. her later call for infidelity) they can be received positively by a medieval listener.
In conclusion, there are many instances where the Wife of Bath’s use of common sense and relatable metaphors, such as the ‘pured whete-seed’ and the ‘barly-breed’, ensure both listeners respond in a positive way. However, while gender-equality appeals to a contemporary listener, to a medieval one this would have completely contradicted the social norm, and her following attempts to justify adultery would make both very uneasy. In essence, although the Wife is seen to make a number of logical judgements, her underlying message and the constancy of her trickery (as seen through the ‘deceite, weping, spinning God hath yive’ to use on her husbands) make her narration overly unreliable and ensure that both listeners, on the whole, respond negatively to her.
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