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The Power of Monarch in The Wife of Bath

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Literature in the fourteenth-century brought about numerous characters, both major and minor, that presented allegorical issues pertinent to society. Characters that audiences have come to love (and hate) were featured in (fourteenth-century) works such as The Divine Comedy, Katherine, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Along with these works, one of the most recognizable pieces of literature to have come out of this century was Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Within this anthological text, there are a plethora of diverse characters who all have a common reason for being united in one setting; a pilgrimage. Chaucer depicts many social and societal issues through the actions of his differing characters. One of these characters, the Queen, is introduced in the tale of “The Wife of Bath” and her character sparks much action in the story. While her role may be considered small compared to other main characters in all the stories conveyed in The Canterbury Tales, her personality/actions speak for themselves through the poetic creations of Chaucer. Her power and ranking in the social hierarchy scale helps to establish her character. While Middle English audiences popularized “The Wife of Bath,” tale, it should be reminded that the Queen took part in distinguishing this story from others. If one were to examine the Queen’s power in a different literary period, such as the nineteenth-century Victorian Era, one will discover that the Queen’s character would be viewed in a pessimistic point of view. While fourteenth-century audiences accepted the Queen, nineteenth-century audiences were believed to have not been as accepting of this character of the Queen due to the large amount of power that this woman held in this society.

Middle English literature encompasses one of the first big advertisements of the English language. Much of the literature in the fourteenth-century was designed for educated readers who were were fluent in the English language and unable to speak Latin or French. Anthologies became popular in this time period since French works could finally be translated into English. The organization and collection of stories in The Canterbury Tales mimics the structure of an anthology. The Middle English “Wife of Bath” tale incorporates much history and tradition in its lines of text. While the Middle English style was inspired by the French, the themes in the story were inspired by everyday life of fourteenth-century English citizens. Society, during this time period, held many concerns about sex, war, and disease. Illegal activities such as rape were viewed as a crime and had very serious consequences such as death. War and disease (like the Black Death) swept the fourteenth-century people making these two topics big subjects of focus in Middle English literature (Simpson & David 13-15). In “The Wife of Bath,” there are many instances were sex is addressed by the main character of the story. Geoffrey Chaucer was a fan, however, of Latin literature. His inspiration helped him form his pose in his works. In terms of the development of his story, Chaucer supposedly: drew upon a centuries-old tradition of misogynist writing that was particularly nurtured by the medieval church. In their conviction that the rational, intellectual, spiritual, and, therefore, higher side of human nature predominated in men, whereas the irrational, material, earthly, and therefore, lower side of human nature predominated in women,” (Simpson & David 230). Chaucer’s exploration into misogynist writing with helped to inspire the main character’s backstory of “The Wife of Bath,” yet he gives a minor character, the Queen, high power. Yet, this story (within a series of stories) was accepted in society. By creating a character that is able to lead a land that is full of so much havoc and death, it helps to reaffirm just how much authority and power the Queen must have. Under her rule, it shows how society was accepting of females as rulers.

In the “Wife of Bath” tale, the Queen punishes the knight’s rape crime in the story by making him solve a very simple, yet difficult question. The knight in the tale serves as an allegory of men who valued sex in the fourteenth-century. By giving the knight a very difficult question, the Queen is viewed as assertive and powerful since she is one of few people who hold the answer. She uses her power and authority to send him on a difficult quest as a means of punishment to find the answer, instead of killing him. The Queen tells the knight that, “I graunte thee lif if thou canst tellen me What thing it is that women most desiren: Be war and keep thy nekke boon from iren. And if thou canst nat tellen me anoon, Yit wol I yive thee leve for to goon a twelfmonth and a day to seeche and lere” (Chaucer 250). On the knight’s journey, he has twelve months and a day to figure out the one thing women desire most. The author uses the knight to reveal to audiences the major things on women’s minds during the fourteenth-century. He learns that riches, honor, pleasure, flattery/attention, trustworthiness are all things that please women, but not the true number one thing women desire most. Towards the final moments of his journey, he finally discovers the true answer that is given to him by a woman. Sovereignty is what women desire most. The fact that Chaucer has a woman answer one of the hardest questions in the fourteenth-century demonstrates how he believes females are capable of being knowledgeable and powerful enough to know something men do not. The knight’s quest in the story is an example of romance literature, which is when person is seeking out a question/action to be fulfilled, and poetic devices such as iambic pentameter are inserted in this text (Knapp). Knowing that the principle of sovereignty is what women desire most, Chaucer tells his audience that women aspire to have more power in society. All of the events (pertaining to the knight) in the “The Wife of Bath” were all thanks to the Queen and the power she implemented.

While fourteenth-century audiences were intrigued and entertained with the characters of “The Wife of Bath” in The Canterbury Tales, nineteenth-century audiences (of the Victorian Era) may not have held the same belief. Middle English literature contains different messages for Victorian audiences since the work is predated five centuries. The Victorian period occurred throughout the 1830s to early 1900s. Literature of these years can be described as a mixture of romance and realism. In the beginning stages of this time period, poetry was one of the most popular forms of literature that audiences read. Collections of poems were popular, but not so much as the anthologies that were in Middle English times. Victorian literature flourished, the scientific innovations of the printing press and distribution of serialized novels.

The nineteenth-century was crucial to history since scientific advancements were beginning to make people question the legitimacy of the church. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution made people think twice about what the church had to offer (Dinscore 197-199). Along with this religious debacle, one of the most notable characteristics of this time period that is how women were treated. They were given little, if any, power to do the things they wanted. Men of this time frame were the leader of the house and leader in their work environment. This is reminiscent of the misogyny that Chaucer once researched in preparation of The Canterbury Tales. Also, within the Victorian era, characters in stories put much weight into what society thought about them. Their social standing was important to them (Dinscore 198). While there may have been progression in technology, there was more regression in terms to gender stratification. Ultimately, this style and content of writing strongly disagrees with principles of the Middle English era.

Chaucer’s story of “The Wife of Bath” contrasts with many of Victorian era literature due to fact that it was meant for Middle English audiences. Since power was such a huge part of Victorian life, one would think that Chaucer’s power demonstrated in “The Wife of Bath” would please audiences, but this is not the case. The type power that Victorian literature described best was in regards to a character’s social standing, unlike the Middle English’s monarchial power described by Chaucer. The Queen would have disturbed audiences since she has monarchial power over the land and is not afraid to do what she thinks is fair for her people. The Queen valued justice, unlike how Victorians valued social standing. Victorians would have had trouble trying to relate to a character that disregards what people think of her. Contemporary critics of “The Wife of Bath” claim that, “the queen’s judicial power in the tale is appropriated and fundamentally illegitimate, that she maintains a false pose of sovereignty when she assumes control of the sentencing” (Thomas 88) and it would not be a stretch for nineteenth-century audiences to agree. Victorians would have criticized this woman (the Queen) for not only ruling, but demanding a man to go on a quest. Scholar J.R. Watson claims that, “Women, with some exceptions, were thought to be less capable of the required intellectual effort” (Watson 12) thus supporting the notion that men are more capable of leading and demanding. There could have also been discontentment for nineteenth-century audiences since the Queen gave the knight such a long amount of time to complete his quest. Victorians might have criticized how long it took to travel since they lived in an age with better transportation and resources. Male readers especially would have questioned just how stable the sovereignty could be under a woman (referring to the Queen). They might have also questioned whether or not the rape crime that the knight committed was really a crime and actually a misunderstanding. These audiences would have liked to know where the king was in the story. Grammatically speaking, it would have been a challenge for Victorian readers of “The Wife of Bath” to also understand the language and poetic style of Geoffrey Chaucer. Words were spelt differently and the way he writes some of his female characters as being contributors to society might have frustrated Victorians readers since men were deemed the superior sex. When the knight learned about the (incorrect) things women supposedly loved most in life, all the things he learned made it look as if women are doing more demanding rather than meeting their demands. All in all, the Queen’s power would have troubled the Victorian audiences since they believed men should make all the rules and demands, not the woman.

In conclusion, the tale of “The Wife of Bath” is an effort by Geoffrey Chaucer that embodied many allegorical characters in the nineteenth-century and also highlighted on what women wanted during that time period. The characters, especially the Queen, all work with one another to establish the idea that women are capable of leading and being capable of doing things with positions of power in place. In regards to the nineteenth-century’s view of the Queen and her power, there is high probable cause for audiences to dislike the story’s depiction of the Queen in power since their society’s views deemed men more fit to lead in positions of power. While this all may be speculation, past critics and research on the nineteenth-century provide this best possible defense. Literature is a looking glass of perception and observation. The different literary periods, whether it be Middle English or Victorian, do have one thing in common with one another; a devotion to characters in dramatic settings.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath.” The Canterbury Tales, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 231 – 258.

Dinscore, Amanda. “Victorian Literature and Culture.” Association of College & Research Libraries. N.p., Apr. 2010. 197 – 199. Web.

Knapp, Shosana. “September Notes.” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. 8 Sept. 2016. Lecture.

Simpson, James and David, Alfred. The Middle Ages, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 13-15, 13-15. Print.

Simpson, James and David, Alfred. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 230 – 258. Print.

Thomas, Susanne Sara. “The Problem of Defining “Sovereynetee” in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” The Chaucer Review 41.1 (2006): 87-97. Web.

Watson, J. R. “Ancient or Modern, ‘Ancient and Modern’: The Victorian Hymn and the Nineteenth Century.” The Yearbook of English Studies 36.2 (2006): 1-16. Web.

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