Geoffrey Chaucer is considered to be one of the founding fathers of British literature and his many works are still widely read today. This can be specifically seen as Chaucer’s Canterbury tales have recently been re-produced for BBC television and also “The Knight’s Tale” was the inspiration for Brian Helgeland’s 2001 motion picture ‘A Knights Tales’. Therefore, it is difficult to ignore the originality and inspiration that Chaucer’s writing can provide.
However, trying to understand whether Chaucer could be considered a feminist writer proves much harder and there are many possible ways of understanding Chaucer’s work and life, some of which make him out to hold a feminist stance more than others. Nevertheless, there are also other factors which must be considered that limit the emphasis of feminism within Chaucer’s work. The primary problem in a discussion that identifies ideology within Chaucer’s work is that they are reliant upon speculative suggestion that do not always hold substantial evidence to support their claims.
Also, there is very little knowledge of Chaucer’s intentions, especially as The Canterbury Tales are an uncompleted source due to Chaucer’s death before completion, and they are over 600 years old. However, to disregard the tales completely would be unwise as it provides a highly valuable insight into the 14th century, especially as there are no other sources on par with Chaucer’s work. Understanding Chaucer’s lifestyle and occupations can help to increase the understanding and intention of his work. Chaucer experienced many cultures, and also people from a range of classes and professions.
He was also married to a knight’s daughter, a person of higher socio-economic status than himself. Chaucer also came into contact with a lot of powerful women throughout his life and this could have had an impact on the way he viewed women within his society. Therefore, it is difficult to assume that he would be unable to avoid those influences and it is doubtful that they did not contribute to his work. It has been suggested that due to his life experiences, “no one could have had better preparation for work of such scope”1 Chaucer’s poetry was designed to be read aloud”2 and The Wife of Bath’s tale and prologue was no exception to this.
It was commonplace for poetry to be performed and not produced as a written text because the printing press did not exist. Therefore, the appearance of Chaucer’s work could vary in each performance due to artistic interpretation as there are no directions for a performer within the text. This makes it difficult to judge Chaucer’s intentions and ideology within the text, as it is difficult to underpin the delivery that he intended for his work.
Although the text appears to support some feminist viewpoints there is certain amount of ambiguity within it that must be acknowledged. Developing an insight into the historical period of Chaucer may also help to develop arguments of how he may be considered a feminist writer and understanding and judging him by the standards of his period provides a better context for how his writing should be interpreted. Although the economic social structure of the period of Chaucer was changing, the gender relations were much more rigid.
The 14th century was a time when males dominated positions in power and public and religion and the scientific understanding of the period supported the notion of male dominance. Also, it was only men that wrote accounts of women from this period, the voices of the women were left unheard. The notion of writing about women drew them into two polarised concepts, either ‘Madonna’s’ or ‘Whores’. The basis for this understanding was heavily influenced by the religious understanding of women, which placed Madonna’s as ‘pure’ figures such as the Virgin Mary and whores as a ‘temptress’ such as Eve.
Therefore, to find an account of women that gives them a voice, identity, and opinion such as in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, is a very rare occurrence from this period and although by today’s standard this would not be considered as significantly feminist, in the context in which it was written, it could be considered a highly feminist piece of literature. Therefore, to understand Chaucer as a feminist writer we must avoid comparing him to modern day feminists such as Margaret Atwood or Germaine Greer and remember the context in which he was writing.
It is possible to obtain insight about medieval people from Chaucer’s work and the descriptions of characters he provides supports other historical evidence, helping to create a greater understanding of the period. Chaucer also gives various representations of women within his work and this helps to develop an understanding of how he may have written from a feminist viewpoint. The character of the Wife of Bath especially enables a scholarly interest in understanding Chaucer’s view of gender relations.
The Wife introduces many factors that comment on the construction of gender relations. It is difficult to find a comparable portrait of the Wife’s debate over marriage debate in any other literature from that time period. The character of the Wife of Bath is one of the most realistic characters within the Canterbury Tales. Her character generates many attributes that can be considered to be of a feminist nature. The Wife’s character is headstrong in views, boisterous towards the other characters on the pilgrimages and she is highly opinionated.
For example, she openly talks about having five husbands, and finding the next, “I shall say sooth: the husbands that I had as three of them were good and two were bad”3 and she also considers herself an expert, which proves how headstrong she is, “Of which I am an expert in all mine age”4. The Wife does not conform to the stereotypical role of a woman in the 14th century. Altogether this allows Chaucer’s to generate a character that is opposed to the struggle and denigration of women and it also challenges the taboos surrounding female sexuality.
The attitudes towards female sexuality can be exemplified by the issues she holds against strict religious claims of the time for chastity and monogamy. Chaucer also uses biblical examples including Solomon to show that the Bible does not overtly condemn all expressions of sexuality. More importantly, by using intellectual examples to support the arguments, the Wife can be highly regarded. Chaucer extends the Wife’s criticisms of those who impose and educate the need for the submission of women.
Chaucer uses the Wife to claim that the reason for the bias against women in religious texts is due to the lack of experience and contact the writers of the texts in question have had. Therefore, by focusing upon the Wife’s character we are able to see many feminist attributes given to her by Chaucer and they all attempt to challenge those in power who hold the positions of influence, who are all male. The prologue of the Wife of Bath focuses on five marriages, which gives a great opportunity to convey a common female grievance of the period.
The major issues within the debates are over the validity of virginity and also male control within a marriage. The Wife of Bath uses her feminine attributes to gain control over her husbands. The relationship between the Wife of Bath and Jenkins, her fifth husband, provides an attention-grabbing account of an extremely male centric and anti feminist character that loses mastery to his wife by using violence against her. Although, within this account we learn she is overtly manipulative with her husbands.
To bring about her aims the Wife is required to use her sexuality as a weapon against her husbands in order to shame them into providing for her. Therefore, the prologue is open to interpretation as it can be viewed in many ways. It prompts a feminist side via the wife struggling to use her abilities to achieve her own goals within the rigid patriarchal framework. However, it can alternatively be viewed as a warning to men and a comedy about the treatment of men being exploited by the cunning of women. The tale continues to focus upon the issue of mastery by the use of a fable set in Camelot.
The fable opens with the feminist issue of rape. However, Chaucer plays little attention to that and also the Knight is not overtly punished for raping a woman. Nevertheless, this may have little to do with Chaucer not wanting to provide a feminist account over the issue of rape, as it must be noted that rape was not regarded as it is in today’s society. The way in which the fable seeks justice for the knight does provoke a feminist view of Chaucer’s work as the justice is issued by a Queen and also the Knight’s punishment provides a feminist moral to the tale.
For the Knight to avoid execution he is sent on a quest to find women’s greatest desires within one year. However, the Knight cannot find a complete answer and is forced to strike a deal with a woman to find the answer. The answer is that ‘women want mastery’, a clear feminist argument produced by Chaucer. Therefore the tale and the prologue parallel each other especially as the personalities of the Wife of Bath and the old woman the Knight bargains with are identical. The tale also introduces the fact that opinions of women are not based in fact within the 14th century but in male opinion and ignorance.
This concept that women are not endowed with the ability to influence mainstream culture is exemplified in the fable of a shield depicting a man defeating a lion, Chaucer introduces the idea that if the lion had painted the shield the picture may look very different. Therefore, by placing symbols within his text the audience is able to take the information and reinterpret it. In the same respect it is possible to view symbols within Chaucer’s text that suggest he is writing from a feminist viewpoint. For example, the Wife can be viewed to replace the lion.
It is possible therefore to see how Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath prologues to set up the arguments within the tale to reinforce a view about women within his society. The tale enables Chaucer to push the view further without causing offence, by holding it within a fairy tale story. This emphasises the view as including an unexpected political message within a fairytale would be like giving a political message within a Mills and Boon novel. Nevertheless, there are many problems with understanding Chaucer’s work due to his style and the fact that the tales were never completed due to Chaucer’s death.
It is difficult to take Chaucer’s fictional society as a sufficiently coherent group to understand his view, as character descriptions and accounts are vague and open to individual interpretation. Also, when the tales underwent re-productions, because they were not finished, some confusion became apparent with which tale was meant for which character. “Not all of them are appropriate to the tellers: the Sea-Captains tale for instance was obviously meant for the Wife of Bath”5 The style that Chaucer uses within the Wife of Bath as well as the tales in general, also creates problems when trying to fathom its real, underlying intentions.
The style is chaotic in the way it introduces story on top of story. By doing this a problem occurs with using the wife to understand a possible feminist viewpoint, as information may be omitted or included for style and character purposes. An example of this would be the fact that the wife gives no information about the death of Jankin, one of her husbands. A feminist writer would need to criticise problems and shortcomings within the current social order in an attempt to create an alternative view of they way society should be constructed.
Within the Wife of Bath’s tale and prologue no effective statement of the shortcomings of the current order is given by Chaucer’s character, the Wife simply attempts to remain focused upon her personal problems with her husbands. This is where the Wife may often be written off as an ignorant character who simply spouts her personal dissatisfaction. Therefore, it is difficult to assume that Chaucer was attempting to produce a feminist style within his work, as there is no direct attempt to change the minds of the audience with regards to gender relations.
The problems continue when trying to suggest Chaucer was a feminist writer because it is possible to assume that Chaucer was a satirist and believed that women would never achieve equality by looking at the tales, and more specifically, The Wife of Bath. Within the tales men are divided by their occupation giving them a defined social status. It is possible to identify that the Wife of Bath is skilled and owns a respectable and profitable business but however, she is still clearly and distinctly defined by her late husband.
This prompts the idea, that Chaucer actually wanted to promote an ironic and satirical portrayal of women within The Wife of Bath and also the idea that although he may sympathise with the feminist plight, Chaucer never promotes women and there power is actually based around manipulation. Also, it is important to recognise the fact that the Wife of Bath is still held with a patriarchal framework and is restricted heavily by men. The Wife of Bath could also be seen as not only a satirical character, but also one that is highly comedic.
Her overall nature could be considered overwhelming by men, especially those who are anti-feminist, who also happened to be a common recipient of Chaucer’s work. The wife illustrates many fears that men have concerning women and this could have had an overall comedic effect on the reader, rather than the reader viewing the text as overtly feminising. The fact that the wife’s prologue within the Wife of Bath is longer than any other character’s prologue within the tales could portray and represent the stereotypical talkative nature of women.
The fact that it is so lengthy could mean Chaucer actually condemned the plight of the feminist, albeit by subtle measures. This point then, clearly suggests that Chaucer was not a feminist writer. Literature in general can promote a range of issues and Chaucer can be seen as no exception to this rule. It is possible to push forward an intentional agenda in many ways such as raising an issue and playing it out innocently via fictions or alternatively, giving a thought provoking account the will require a response from it audience.
Also, unlike science or religion, literature does not give explanations as to its original intentions and it does hold a certain amount of ambiguity, and of course, interpretation is left open to opinion. Although this can be difficult to gauge and can prove problematic when substantiating with evidence, it does mean that Chaucer was attempting to give women a voice even if its accuracy is considered to be flawed. Subjectivity is the key to understanding Chaucer and it is near impossible to come to a definitive conclusion as to whether he was a feminist writer or not, and the main arguments concerning this have been identified.
It is extremely difficult to analyse Chaucer’s work as when doing so you are have forced to remove a 21st century understanding of feminism and feminist writing and constantly you are having to place analysis in its historical context. The concept of Chaucer’s life imitating art can also be seen, as he is keen to demonstrate many attitudes and philosophies that were new to his period, especially as he had seen change his own personal life as Chaucer is an example of the increasing social mobility.
Nevertheless he would be unable to move past the rigid basis for which women were understood and provide coherent feminist arguments. Ultimately it is difficult to believe that the reason why Chaucer wrote his texts were to promote feminism and be studied in this way. Confusion and conflict within the time at which the tales were written also needs to be considered as these could have appeared as a manifestation of feminism due to the change in opinions and society as a whole at that time.