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To love, honor and obey is a common part of the modern marriage vow. It is taken for granted that both partners will strive toward an equal union, in which neither is completely dominant or completely submissive to the other. While this may make sense to modern married couples, medieval couples had a very different idea of whether it was necessary, or even desirable for them to obey each other. Obedience to ones spouse is examined in several tales, but the conclusions drawn about this concept vary, especially when gender is considered. While several wives verbally demonstrate a desire for obedient husbands in The Canterbury Tales, obedient husbands are not always rewarded for their compliance.
While subservient wives are a staple in several tales, such as Griselda in The Clerks Tale and Constance in The Man of Laws Tale, a wish for acquiescent husbands is overt in only two tales. The first tale that male submissiveness is mentioned is The Wife of Baths Tale. The protagonist, a knight who has raped a woman, is sent out to discover, what thing is it that women moost desiren (III 905) and report back in a year. The knight asks many women what they desire from men, and he tells the woman that has spared his life, women desiren to have sovereynetee over hir housbond (III1038-1039). Not only does the woman who has spared the knights life agree with this assessment, but, ne wydwe that contraried that he sayde (III 1044). She believes that women should be able to exert power over their husbands in marriage, and that this desire was not an anomaly. This woman, who eventually becomes the wife of the knight, illustrates the first female in The Canterbury Tales who values an obedient husband.
The second instance of a woman expounding on the value of an obedient husband is the wife in The Shipmans Tale. In complaining about the stinginess of her husband, the wife claims that housbondes shoulde be hardy and wise, and riche, and therto free, and buxom until his wyf and fresh abedde (VII 175-177). According to the wife, these six elements are the simple equation for the perfect husband. While all of these elements are worth examining, the concept of male obedience is particularly conspicuous because it was a prominent theme in a previous tale (The Wife of Bath’s Tale), which was dominated by the female point of view. Once again, the theme of obedience arises as a desirable trait in a husband. Because there are so few instances of insight into the female mind in the various tales, the fact that a want for submissive husbands arises in both is particularly notable.
A compliant husband appears in both of the aforementioned tales, but the results of their obedience vary. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, obedience to a wife has exceptionally good outcome for the husband. After first learning to be a submissive male to the queen in order to be spared punishment for the rape he committed, the knight is forced to marry an old woman and is presented with the choice to have a young and beautiful wife who is independent, or an old wife who is true and humble. Rather than make the decision himself, he grants sovereignty to his wife, agreeing to abide by what she feels is best. The knight asserts:
I put me in youre wise governance; cheseth yourself which may be moost plesance And moost honour to yow and me also?? For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me. (III1231-12-35)
His words illustrate that he will be an obedient husband and accept that his wife can and should have the power to make a decision that will affect both of them. Because he gives up the role of being a dominant male, he is rewarded by his old and haggard wife giving him the best of both worlds, becoming, bothe fair and good (III 1241). Not only does the knight go unpunished for the monstrous rape he commits at the beginning of the tale, but he ends up with a beautiful wife who is humble and true to him. In this example, obeying his wife yields enormously pleasing results, supporting the idea that such behavior should be a model for all husbands.
The husband in The Tale of Melibee, however, does not receive such extraordinary rewards for his acquiescence to his wife. In the beginning of the tale, Melibee lists off several reasons why the counsel of his wife is suspect, ranging from every wight wolde holde [him] a fool (VII 1055), to the fact that he wants his solution to remain a secret, til it were tyme that it moste be knowe, and his ne may nought be (VII 1060) if he submits to her recommendations. However, at the end of the tale, Melibee’s attitude towards heeding his wife’s guidance undergoes a change. Melibee has heard of, the grete skiles and rsouns of dame Prudence, and hire wise informacion and techynges (VII 1869) and wisely, enclyne[s] to the wil of his wife assent[ing] fully to werken after hir conseil (VII 1870-1871). He subordinates himself to her, realizing that she is a wise woman with so greet discrecioun (VII 1871) and who is very prudent, as per her symbolic name, Prudence.
Despite his admission of the advantageousness of acquiescing to his wife, the consequences of acting on this discovery are much more abstract than the knight received. The story simply ends with Melibee telling his enemies that because they are repentant, he will be merciful. The dynamics of the marriage between Melibee and Prudence do not change. Melibee does not make a speech vindicating his wife, or even thanking her for her counsel. Instead, his submission to his wife’s counsel is overshadowed by the moral of forgiveness in the end of the tale. Rather than tangibly illustrating that Melibee benefited from his wise acceptance of his wife’s intelligent advice, the story neither rewards nor punishes him for his actions. This lack of concrete consequences for his actions causes ambivalence in what ideas the reader should take away from the story about male obedience.
The outcome of The Shipman’s Tale is equally problematic in regard to an obedient husband. The tale begins from the point of view of a woman, and this feminine point of view tells that her husband, the merchant, moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye as well as, payen for[her] cost, [and] lene [her] gold (VII 12, 19). The woman likes to go out on the town, but must be properly outfitted for such adventures, and her husband dutifully pays these costs. Not only does he pay for her clothes, but if she needs any money at all, he pays the cost and gives her more money. Dispensing money so freely and frivolously to his wife demonstrates obedience to the wishes and desires of his spouse. He does not seem to restrict or monitor how his wife spends his money, which illustrates the implicit compliance to his wife’s spending. This trust in his wife is rewarded by being cuckolded by a monk whom he has let stay in his home. This wife is the particular wife who named the six elements that every woman wants in a husband, and even she does not respect a submissive husband.
Not only is obedience to one’s wife punished in The Canterbury Tales, but the opposite behavior is lavishly rewarded. The outcome of The Clerk’s Tale is diametrically opposed to the idea of a submissive husband being desirable. Walter, the husband of the tale, refuses to submit to his wife in even the most basic request of a smock to cover her naked body on the walk back to her father’s house. Instead, he seems to delight in making unreasonable requests of Griselda to affirm her obedience to him. He torments her by deceiving her into believing that both of her children are killed in infancy, but is still not content when she stoically and unbelievably endures these trials. To test her even further, he pretends to divorce her to marry a younger wife, and requests that Griselda organize the wedding. Walter is the antithesis to an obedient husband, yet he escapes unpunished for the agony he causes his wife.
Not only does he avoid negative consequences for his actions, Walter’s attitude of tyrannical domination is positively reinforced by Griselda’s resulting attitude. Upon discovering that her children are alive, she exclaims that they were kept alive by their, benyngne fader (IV 1097)). Instead of retaliating against her husband for the suffering she was subjected to, she is ecstatic that she can again be with her true love and children. The narrator goes on to relate that the two of them lived, in concord and in reste (IV 1129), for the rest of their lives. The message that Griselda’s actions demonstrate is that it was acceptable for Walter to senselessly persecute her. The meaning beneath her actions, while not overtly articulated in the tale, is that she does not want a husband that will obey her; rather, an abusive oppressor is highly desirable.
While yielding to your wife is verbally demonstrated to be a desirable trait in a husband, the results of male submissiveness do not uniformly reinforce this desirability. Walter’s reward, having an incredibly acquiescent wife, rivals that of the knight in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, but for completely opposite actions. Instead of empowering his wife as the knight did, Walter belittles and oppresses his wife for his own selfish pleasure, yet both men end up with humble and submissive wives. The effect of this dissonance is to undercut the supposedly progressive ideas that are presented in the stories. The fact that Chaucer would put in a woman’s point of view and their desire for an obedient husband can be seen as a feminist sensibility that was far ahead of his time. He was giving voice to a population that was largely ignored and unheard, as well as partially breaking away from a misogynistic portrayal of a woman’s point of view. However, the subtext behind the message is not as positive. Chaucer puts the words to paper, but his husband characters do not strive toward this ideal, nor is an obedient husband always flatteringly portrayed. This conflict between the theoretical words of female characters and their real-life implementation serves to problematize what the reader interprets to be Chaucer’s intention behind giving women a voice in The Canterbury Tales. Did Chaucer value a mutually serving marriage union with uncanny modern sensibilities, or was he simply another jilted man choosing to illustrate another modern sensibility, that nice guys always finish last?
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