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In both the Book of Margery Kempe and the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in the Canterbury Tales, the female protagonists manipulate clerical discourse to challenge the male dominated institutional church and create new spaces for women in the late Middle Ages. Both texts take place in the Middle Ages, where religion was interpreted and distributed, and therefore controlled, by male authorities, or church fathers. As illustrated in the texts, religious texts were often manipulated by men to control and oppress women. However, both Margery and Wife of Bath resist this oppression by reversing religious discourse and using it to their respective advantages. Margery and Wife of Bath directly subvert male dominance with their own education of the religion, and their personal interpretations. The women’s use of religious teachings ultimately question the authority and reliability of interpretive structures. Both texts depict how male and female interpretation of the same text can stand in direct opposition, revealing the unreliability and instability of interpretation, as it depends on who is interpreting and to what end.
In the Middle Ages, Christianity was dominated by male authority figures, for example God, Jesus, Priests, Bishops, and religious scholars, also known as church fathers. As a result of this structure, women fit into the religion insofar as men dictated. The male interpretive structures of religious texts allowed them to police women’s choices and oppress them in society. For example in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” the Wife of Bath is told that she should have only been married once, because “That sith that Crist ne wente never but onis/To wedding in the Cane of Galilee,/That by the same ensample taughte he me” (Chaucer 10-12). She is reprimanded with Jesus’s words that he used to scold the Samaritan: “‘Thou hast y-had fyve housbondes,’ quod he,/‘And thilke man, the which that hath now thee,/Is noght thyn housbond’” (17-19). In this example, the amount of men women are allowed to marry is being dictated by a biblical story of this one instance where Jesus, a male figure, disapproves of it. At the end of Wife of Bath’s prologue, she talks about her fifth husband Janken: “He spak more harm than herte may bithinke./And ther-with-al, he knew of mo proverbes/Than in this world ther growen gras or herbes” (772-774). Janken would constantly regurgitate stories of women in the Bible or legends of women who cheated on their husbands, or killed their husbands. He would use these as an excuse to berate and abuse Wife of Bath, telling her that: “‘A fair womman, but she be chaast also,/Is lyk a gold ring in a sowes nose’” (784-785). The female ideal of the Middle Ages is a virgin, modelled after Virgin Mary, the woman who gave birth to the Jesus, the head of the religion. Men used her as an example to ensure their wives’ fidelity, and police women’s sexuality. Wife of Bath points out: “…it is an impossible/That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,/But-if it be of holy seintes lyves,/Ne of noon other womman never the mo” (687-691). Men only praise women who are “Saints,” or in other words, women who abide by the standards they created using the Virgin Mary as a model. They have taken the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman and created a code of behaviour with which to hold women accountable to, and use to criticize women who deviate from it. For example, in The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery expresses her devotion to God in a very physical and visceral way that differs from the institutional church’s definition of how a woman should behave. While the church uses scripture to dictate proper behaviour, Margery uses her body as a locus of knowledge that God directly uses to communicate with her. As discussed in class, men are associated with the spirit and women are associated with the physical body. Because the female body has more open orifices that are susceptible to sin, there is a need to contain the body in an enclosed physical space as to prevent a violation of the openings, like nuns in a convent, or Anchoresses who take a vow of enclosure to stay in cells attached to churches. Margery does not abide by this, and instead travels often and goes on several pilgrimages. She is not contained, making public spectacle of her physical experiences of God, using her body as a vehicle of expression rather than something to be hidden and put away. As a result, she is frequently accused of Lollardy and or heresy. She does is not accordance with the male ideal of a religious woman, and is almost condemned several times and nearly burned at the stake for it. Even the clothes she wears are policed by the institutional church. Margery claims she is commanded by God to wear white, but white clothing is only appropriate for virgins. The Archbishop asks her: “Why gost thu in white? Art thu a mayden?” (Kempe 2923). When Margery responds that she is a wife, the Archbishop orders: “to fettyn a peyr of feterys and seyd sche schulde ben feteryd, for sche was a fals heretyke” (2925). The Archbishop arrests Margery because she does not follow his interpretation of religion, but rather her own through her relationship with God; he polices her using male interpretative structures.
Both Wife of Bath and Margery resist this oppression in their own ways to meet their own respective ends by claiming knowledge. Wife of Bath justifies her knowledge through her life experiences: “‘Experience, though noon auctoritee/Were in this world, were right y-nough to me/To speke of wo that is in mariage” (Chaucer 1-3). Margery claims knowledge through physical experience of God, and her visions. Both Margery and Wife of Bath use this knowledge to manipulate clerical discourse to oppose male dominance. For example, Wife of Bath’s claim to knowledge through life experience gives her the agency to speak about sexuality. She dismisses the institutional church’s value of chastity, arguing that: “Men may devyne and glosen up and doun./But wel I woot expres, with-oute lye,/God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;/That gentil text can I wel understonde” (26-29). Wife of Bath takes the scripture and interprets it for herself, in direct opposition to the institutional church and in defiance of men’s desire for their women to be chaste; she manipulates the scripture in a way that justifies and even celebrates her actions. In response to the claim that she should only marry once, Wife of Bath once again turns to her knowledge of the Bible and brings up several examples of men who had multiple wives:
“Lo, here the wyse king, dan Salomon;
I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon” (35-36)
“I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Iacob eek, as ferforth as I can;
And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two;
And many another holy man also.
Whan saugh ye ever, in any maner age,
That hye God defended mariage
By expres word? I pray you, telleth me;
Or wher comanded he virginitee?” (55-62).
Wife of Bath makes a strong statement by using authoritative male figures to prove her points. By referencing Abraham, Jacob, two of the patriarchs of the religion, and King Salomon, the wise king, as people in the religion who had multiple marriages, she topples the arguments counter to hers completely, using their own methods against them. Margery Kempe also uses clerical discourse to prove her knowledge and defend herself against claims of heresy and Lollardy. After the Archbishop arrests her for wearing white and not being a virgin, she is examined by clerics while she prays and weeps at the back of the chapel. The Archbishop “ful boystowsly” (Kempe 2942) asks her: “Why wepist thu so, woman?” (2942) and she answers: “Syr, ye schal welyn sum day that ye had wept as sor as I” (2943). He proceeds to “put to hir the Articles of owr Feyth…[Margery] answeryn wel and trewly and redily wythowtyn any gret stody so that he myth not blamyn hir” (2944-2946). The Archbishop and the clerics conclude that: “Sche knowith hir feyth wel anow. What schal I don wyth hir?” (2946-2947). They are unsure of what to do with a woman who is not in line with what they expect from a woman of faith, but is nonetheless a woman of faith. Margery answers the Articles of Faith confidently, and challenges the Archbishop by explaining that her tears are an expression of faith after he rebukes her for them. In fact, she is often rebuked for crying so loudly and bitterly, with one priest saying to her: “Damsel, Jhesu is ded long sithyn” (3496). When Margery stops crying she responds:
“Sir, hys deth is as fresch to me as he had deyd this same day, and so me thynkyth it awt to be to yow and to alle Cristen pepil. We awt evyr to han mende of hys kendnes and evyr thynkyn of the dolful deth that he deyd for us” (3497-3500).
Margery turns the priest’s question around and changes the issue from being about her seemingly inappropriate crying to the fact that he does not think of Jesus’s sacrifice as often as he should. She cries because she is constantly, eternally mourning Jesus and how he died for the Christian people. Instead of being shamed for her crying, she succeeds in actually shaming the priest for claiming to be a lover of Jesus, but appearing to forget about the gravity of his sacrifice and not expressing his gratitude and love as deeply or severely as Margery. Following this, a “good lady, heryng her communicacyon, seyd, “Ser, it is a good exampyl to me, and to other men also, the grace that God werkyth in hir sowle” (3500-3501). Margery recruits the support of another woman in the crowd, empowering her in a way. This immediate reaction shows how Margery is successful in creating a new space for women to engage in clerical discourse. Furthermore as pointed out in the question, Margery uses a parable, a traditionally religious form, and tells a tale that deeply touches the Archbishop and the clerics. After she tells her story, one of the clerics that opposed her earlier comes to her and “preyid hir of forgefnes that he had so ben ageyn hir. Also he preyid hir specyaly to prey for hym” (3017-3018). Using clerical discourse, Margery not only vindicates herself but also places herself in a position of authority, so much so that clerics who originally oppose her are now asking for her to pray for them. By manipulating the discourse, she reverses the power balance and destabilizes the authority, creating a space for herself amongst the Archbishop and the clerics within the institutional church. Margery and Wife of Bath appear to be using what theorist Stuart Hall would call a transcoding strategy, which is to take a previously existing meaning and reassign it a new meaning. Margery and Wife of Bath contest the meaning of something from within it, taking the original interpretive strategy and challenging it from within itself. By doing this, they successfully create new spaces in Christian society where women have autonomy over their own bodies, whether they be used sexually or as a vehicle through which God can communicate, and agency over their choices without being berated and rebuked. Just as the cleric begs for Margery’s forgiveness and prayer, Margery’s husband Janken gives her autonomy, as well:
“And whan that I hadde geten unto me,
By maistrie, al the soveraynetee,
And that he seyde, ‘myn owene trewe wyf,
Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf,
Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat’—
After that day we hadden never debaat” (Chaucer 817-822).
The female protagonists successfully use a transcoding strategy and manipulate clerical discourse to voice their own interpretations and question the singular male interpretation. The two women challenge the authority of male interpretation, and the interpretive structures that exist in their time. It is apparent that who is interpreting is more important than what is being interpreted.
In both texts, the female protagonists subvert male dominance by using their own interpretations of religious texts. In doing so, they successfully destabilize the male interpretive structure that already exists in the Middle Ages, creating a space for women within a Christian society that is not dictated by church fathers. Their manipulation of clerical discourse makes one question the reliability of preexisting interpretive structures, revealing how the people who are interpreting abuse the source to fulfill their own needs. Margery Kempe and the Wife of Bath’s access to the Bible by claiming knowledge through different physical experiences. Their success in their endeavours forces one to question all interpretive structures, and think critically about the ones that exist presently. Does one readily accept what already exists? Or should one constantly be questioning the reliability of these structures, breaking them down and revealing the possibility of hidden agendas? Margery and Wife of Bath appear to prove the latter, imploring both a Medieval audience and a contemporary audience to doubt and debate preexisting widely accepted interpretations.
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