When given sovereignty over her husband, a wrinkled, grotesque, elder sheds her skin and becomes exquisite. Her beauty and grace become unmatched. The Wife of Bath and her Tale afford a multidimensional sense of women possessing mystical spiritual power while simultaneously being at odds with their objectification in medieval courtly love satirized elsewhere by Chaucer, therefore suggesting a complex view of women who have the ability to be enlightened through suffering. A voice is given to Alyson or as she is strictly referred to as “The Wife of Bath,” is the creation of male narrator Geoffrey Chaucer who does not place women in a neatly labeled box. Instead, Chaucer embodies a feminine narrator in The Wife of Bath depicting a range of traits that can be interpreted through the Christian ecopoetic tradition in addition to symbolic Biblical representations. This shift in developing female characters outside of being passive objects of lust seen in poet Geoffrey Chaucer during the fourteenth century is significant to the feministic movement of the twenty-first century where objectifying women is no longer accepted but instead met with resistance.
To cut off one’s head is a gruesome act and is enforced as punishment for great wrongdoing, and when a lusty bachelor’s head is demanded it is women of the court who assure that it remains in place for the time being. This scene discussing the rape of a maiden and the Queen saving the bachelor’s life depicts a multifaceted concept of what it means to be a woman because it depicts the potential subversiveness of mystical spiritual power in relation to the objectivation and suffering women face. This paradox is set in a fairytale-like, mythical setting that can be coined as an “overlay landscape” in Christian ecopoetics. At first, women are depicted as victims because of the beauty they hold results in violation. It is said that the forests currently populated by holy friars were originally inhabited by supernatural creatures including elves and incubi many hundreds of years ago. Then, Chaucer alludes to women no longer needing to fear the incubi that previously assaulted and impregnated them in the woods. Instead, they should be wary of the friars, “in every bussh or under every tree” who will be quick to dishonor them with their religious beliefs (Chaucer, 879). Nevertheless, the friars who renounced all worldly pursuits and devoted themselves to a monastic lifestyle shuddered at the thought of lust in which both men and women alike posed to each other. These holy men were satirized by Chaucer for their misaligned beliefs where women represented sin, but their own greed was met with a blind eye.
In every man’s heart, there is a seed of evil and if he chooses to water it, lust will sprout up and around, consuming his mind. Spiritual work Philokalia includes St. Gregory of Sinai discussing a life free of passions rooted in the human flesh, and he includes advice to those who wish to follow his lead. Holy father Gregory writes, “fire, darkness, worms, hell correspond to passions-lusts of all kinds, the all-embracing darkness of ignorance, the unquenchable thirst for sensual pleasures” (Kadloubovsky; Palmer, 44). Therefore, passion was given a stark negative connotation. Passion was equated to demons themselves, and only a passionless soul had the ability to perform sound reasoning. In addition, the tendency of voluptuous passion that appears in sexual contexts is said to be, “the chief cause of lustful burnings, confusion of thoughts and darkening of the soul (Kadloubovsky; Palmer, 50). As a result, it is recommended to avoid objects of sexual fantasy altogether. No saint can know passion; because no saint surrenders to passions without forfeiting a saint’s character. [i]Nevertheless, in the time of King Arthur where objectification is an issue, women must also fear lust-filled Knights who give into the demons that tempt them. The beginning of the Wife of Bath’s tale describes a rape scene, where a Knight “saugh a maide walkinge him biforn, of which maide anoon, maugree hir hed, by verray force he rafte hir maidenhed” (Chaucer, 242, 886-888). The bachelor is characterized as a man who could not help himself and the young maiden is portrayed as a victim.
As aforementioned, evil has the ability to sprout up and out from the heart and cast a great shadow on the capacity for one to perform sound reasoning. The characterization of the young maiden as being sexually assaulted extends beyond being at odds with the objectification of woman in medieval courtly love because the casual nature in which The Wife of Bath’s Tale dealt with rape can be mirrored in the handling of sex crimes occurring in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Italy. Punishments for rape were kept at a minimum. During the fourteenth century in which The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a rapist had the option to pay a fine despite the laws demanding his head. In addition, it was said that if the rapist and his victim looked for solace in the Church, he would be granted immunity from his devious crime. After much research Guido Ruggiero claims, “rape was treated as an extension of the customary victimization of women, that is, as a fact of life that was accepted and not considered particularly troubling” especially for a woman of marriageable age (Graval, 123). While Holy Fathers Barsanuphius and John write in Philokalia to avoid objects of passion to celibate male monastics, their advice would extend to bachelors as lust is firmly tied to evil. They advise other holy men to, “deal with women as though they were fire” so that they, “become established in the fear of God” (Kadloubovsky; Palmer, 377). This specific spiritual text also tells men to avoid looking at women and to limit the length of their conversations to subdue the temptation of desire in their hearts. While the bachelor with a heart filled to the brim with misogyny, and power, and lust, and evil was not entering a monastic lifestyle, he commits a grave crime, nonetheless. [ii]
Christ was nailed to the cross and a crown of thorns pierced his forehead to save mankind. With his death and resurrection, Christ is upheld as a sacrificial victim whose victimization became a source of spiritual power, therefore the distinctive nature of suffering women face such as rape has the ability to enlighten their overall existence. This allegorical theory focuses on the characterization of women as victims of objectification, and thus it predicts women obtaining Divinity through spiritual power because of the challenges they face. The logic stands strong, for Christ’s, “suffering, human nature, and obedient death launched a complex act of sacrifice that culminated in the heavenly sanctuary and in taking a seat beside God’s throne” (Nelson, 253). Thus, the obstacles women face inside the overlay landscape has the ability to bring them closer to God. This then can be applied to the Wife of Bath’s Tale to both the maiden and the Queen. The maiden symbolizes the great suffering a victim faces, and the theory would predict that she would move forward with her life closer to God. On the opposite side of the spectrum, enlightened by the challenges she endures by being a female the Queen chooses to challenge the Knight’s moral code. Therefore, the Queen uses her spiritual power in good practice by saving a life and hoping to save his soul as well. [iii]
A light of grace arguably created through suffering the objection of women is shown upon the Knight. The one-tonality in which depicted women as wounded by men analyzed beforehand is broken, because the Queen and her ladies of the court spare the Knight from his impending death by praying to King Arthur to show mercy. Thus, the life of the lusty bachelor is given to the Queen and she tells him, “I graunte thee lif, if thow kanst tellen me what thing is that wommen moost desiren. Be war and keep thy nekke-boon from iren! (Chaucer, 243, 904-906). The power dynamics shift as the Queen overrides the legal process, for it is a woman saving the life of a man with poise in the overlay landscape. She is the one who develops the plot by challenging a man who portrayed his lack of respect for women by violating a maiden against her will to ponder for a year what women desire most above all. Thus, Chaucer’s multifaceted female characterization begins to appear, for the Queen wields spiritual power over her husband and as a result, decides another man’s fate.
Giving yourself to another human in marriage is a thing of beauty comparable to a form of monasticism. As it so happens, the Knight meets an old woman wise beyond her years who offers her aid on the condition that he completes any favor afterward, therefore spiritual power is once again solidified in the tale. This is because the “old hag” demands a marriage after correctly informing the Knight that women desire sovereignty over their husbands above all worldly things. Thus, the Christian ecopoetic tradition of marriage as cosmic symbolism is incorporated between the Knight and the old woman. This entails a martial unit united through reciprocal service where the man is expected to lay down his life for his wife and the wife leads the husband toward wisdom and higher faith. In this tradition, Christ is the bridegroom and the Church represents the bride in an otherworldly eternal pairing. The cosmic symbolism of marriage is mirrored in the Bible when advising wives to, “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (English Standard Version, Eph. 5:22-33).
With increasing age comes decreasing beauty in the eye of a lusty bachelor, for a woman’s features begin to shrivel. Nevertheless, the Knight expresses his many woes to his wife, and she portrays her enlightenment because her experience with evil and suffering adds to the grace she currently holds. In Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, St. Basil of Caesarea makes it explicitly clear that there are two types of evil: one that is created by humanity and the other by a well-meaning God. The latter is considered that which is “toilsome and painful to our sense perception: bodily illness, and blows to the body, and lack of necessities and disgrace, and financial setbacks, and loss of property” (Foltz, 129). Therefore, St. Basil asserts that God has the capacity to enact punishments in the form of sickness and poverty in order to ensure salvation at the completion of one’s lifetime. Consider a woman facing blindness, weakness, famine, shame, poverty. [iv] This very woman does not have the same sight, energy, or financial funds to commit sin when compared to a wealthy woman in good health. The evils that torment her everyday life on Earth have the ability to provide her with eternal life in heaven by obtaining true virtue. When this god-fearing “old hag” who saves a life is cast down as less than her husband in social status and class, she rebuttals by gently saying, “poverte ful ofte, whan man is lowe, makes him know his God and also himself” (Chaucer, 253, 1201-1202). There is nothing prideful, nothing sinful, nothing of injustice inside the woman’s heart, arguably in part because she faced financial setbacks. [v] The old woman who proclaims the way of God is one of great piety who embraces her age in a mild and gracious manner in part because of the suffering imparted on her. [vi]
Wielding power can be loud, and it can be brutal, but power also comes from quiet influence. When ridiculed for her low social class, she speaks of what it means to possess nobility in relation to her poverty, therefore portraying her “elvishness” by shifting the Knight’s view to a more Christian based stance. The “old hag” tells her husband that nobility, also known as “gentilesse,” is not a privilege of birth given to the wealthy and that living in poverty is quite compatible with true “gentilesse.” This is sound reasoning, for “every authority shows that gentilesse is a human virtue that is a gift of God to be nurtured by man” and “gentilesse” can be defined as “truth, honor, fidelity, [and] generosity of spirit.” (Foster, 101). This argument presented by the wife depicts her mystical spiritual power, for she uses sound Christian reasoning to change her husband’s incorrect statement. Therefore, this spiritual power can be connected to the tradition of an “elvish” nature, where the wife’s “elvishness” resides, “in her ability to convert, to turn people from one system of belief to another without exerting any force” (Robertson, 178). This once again relates to the cosmic symbolism of marriage, for the wife has agency and is guiding her husband to higher faith in part on account of her suffering.
Thus, only the Knight’s complaint about his wife’s deep-set leather-like wrinkles remains unspoken. On account of her appearance, the “old hag” claims she understands her husband’s desire for an appealing wife and allows him to decide between her being foul and faithful versus young and free. Following the theme of sovereignty, the Knight responds, “‘My lady and my love, and wif so deere, I putte me in youre wise goverance. Cheseth yourself which may be moost plesaunce, and moost honour to yow and me also” (Chaucer, 254, 1230-1233). Therefore, in true fairytale fashion in the overlay landscape aforementioned, the wife becomes both beautiful and true because the husband acknowledges her spiritual power. It is then said that the married pair proceed to live their lives in perfect joy and reciprocity. It is important to note that Chaucer recreated prior stories in his tales and the story of, “a loathly hag who was transformed in the marriage bed into a shape of youthful beauty was told again and again in the Middle Ages” (Eisner, 7). Thus, this choice given to who was once a lusty bachelor show parallels to other texts. This motif tied with the concept of sovereignty began with an “Irish loathly lady” personified as the royal rule of Ireland and shifted into sovereignty over a husband in the English Arthurian tales. The possession of the “Irish loathly lady” was passed from king to heir if she was desired by the men when the motif originated. Nevertheless, another choice appeared in Arthurian The Canterbury Tales where the “loathly hag” has agency because a man is, “forced by circumstances to accept whatever proposal the loathly lady advanced…whether he preferred her beautiful by day and ugly by night or vice-versa” (Eisner, 140). The motif is further changed by Chaucer who creates the Knight character who must marry the “old hag” and then is given a choice between having an ugly and faithful wife or a beautiful and free wife.
Hence, the Wife of Bath’s Tale centered around an old hag turned fair and faithful wife depicts a new form of women in Medieval writing. While there is a dispute as to whether the tale is meant as a criticism of misogyny, it is clear that Chaucer creates a multifaceted woman, not simply a passive victim of lust through the “old hag” in addition to the Queen. The Wife of Bath’s Tale includes a range of characteristics given to women including an “elvish” power capable of leading her husband and being victims in medieval courtly love, therefore suggesting a complex view of women who have the ability to be graceful because of their suffering.[vii] This condition of suffering in order to possess spiritual power as a woman faded with time as the years progressed. Currently, women are acknowledged for their strengths, and it is acceptable for their characterization to be authoritative without needing an explanation. This concept of a strong-willed female protagonist was not widely accepted in the fourteenth century, and thus Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Talesis one of the first of its time. While he still includes women being objectified, he differs from male narrators who failed to give their female characters agency in their own lives. In the present, women act as authors and they can tell their own story.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Penguin, 2005.
Eisner, Sigmund. A Tale of Wonder: A Source Study of The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Burt Franklin, 1957.
Foltz, Bruce. Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
Foster, Edward E. Understanding Chaucer’s Intellectual and Interpretative World. Vol 41, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.
Gravdal, Kathryn. Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law, by University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 122–140. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhdm5.9. Accessed 25 Sept. 2020.
Kadloubovsky, E., and G. E. H. Palmer. Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. Faber & Faber, 1951.
Nelson, Richard D. “‘He Offered Himself’: Sacrifice in Hebrews.” Interpretation, vol. 57, no. 3, July 2003, pp. 251–265. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001364600&site=ehost-live.
Robertson, Elizabeth The “Elvyssh” Power of Constance: Christian Feminism in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Volume 23,2001, pp. 143-180. https://doi.org/10.1353/sac.2001.0048
The Bible. English Standard Version. Biblica, https://biblia.com/bible/esv/ephesians/5/22-33
[i] Conduplicatio (of the word saint)
[iii] Logos: Deduction
[vi] Ethos: old hag