Close Reading 1

The Wife of Bath’s tale is set in a fairytale-like, mythical setting which can be coined as an “overlay landscape” in Christian ecopoetics. In this land, women are depicted as victims because the beauty they hold results in great 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, it is alluded that women no longer need to fear the incubi that previously assaulted and impregnated them in the woods. Instead, they should be wary of the friars who will be quick to dishonor them (Chaucer, 857-881). Nevertheless, in the time of King Arthur, woman should also fear lust-filled Knights, as 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). 

Thus, men are characterized as being filled with uncontrollable lust and women are characterized as objects and casualties of lust. In this case, the Knight who sexually assaults a maiden against her will is symbolic of losing one’s way to all that is Divine by succumbing to passion stemming from the human flesh. In Philokalia, St. Gregory of Sinai claims the body was created in the image of God and remained incorruptible because if contained a passionless soul. However, even a single thought can hinder one’s mind and the second the mind invites evil thoughts stemming from human flesh and earthily possessions, he is lost. St. Gregory compares the passion to devouring demons which entice the body to become, “unreasoning and senseless, subject to anger and lust” (Kadloubovsky; Palmer, 52). 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. 

In the case of the Knight, Philokalia would advise him to, “deal with women as though they were fire” so that he, “become[s] 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 ensure minimal desire in their hearts. It is clear the Knight does not hold this mindset, for he simply follows the evil thoughts that enter his mind without dispute and commits unreasonable acts. It is also clear that the maiden had no power in her situation, for she embodies a passive object that the Knight needed to have. Of course, justice was demanded to be served. However, it was also women who spared the Knight from his impending death by praying to King Arthur to show grace. Thus, the idea of women being more than a spark and victim of lust, is introduced with the Queen and her ladies of the court who give the Knight about a year or so to discover what women desire of all else. Here the power dynamics start to shift in the favor of a woman, mostly rooted in a spiritual sense of goodness and leading a husband to greater faith. The Queen initiates this turn of power that is developed while the Knight looks for women to help him answer this question. 

 While this event occurred in a mythical setting, 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. Thus, punishments were kept at a minimum where a rapist would pay a fine despite the laws demanding his head during the fourteenth century in which The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer. 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). 


A woman, like a man, is a multifaceted individual, not capable of being neatly labeled and placed in a box as was often the custom. Women as a whole were associated with men overcome by lust and straying away from Divine reasoning . The voice given to Alyson or as she is strictly referred to as “The Wife of Bath,” is the creation of male narrator Geoffrey Chaucer, and it depicts the concept of a multidimensional woman both victimized and in possession of spiritual power, therefore this departs from the one-tonality of woman seen in Medieval texts when discussing lust and marriage. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath herself exemplifies the misogynistic views held by males when self-proclaiming her promiscuity and misusing Biblical references. However, the reader is given a female telling a tale intertwined with women holding and maintaining sacred power over their male counterparts inside the cosmic symbolism of marriage. This shift in attempting to develop female characters outside of being victims 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.