Female Repression and Female Authority in Wife of Bath


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The Wife of Bath’s: Is it Feminism or is it Identity?

“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales addresses topics of female repression and also female authority. The Wife uses heavy citations from the bible, naming important male figures of which she compares her experience with in order to justify her many husbands and sexual experience. If one addresses the contradicting nature of what male authority inflicts upon female expression many layers of power dynamics between men and women would surface. The Wife of Bath’s response to these dynamics does not characterize her as a feminist in the militant sense neither does it reduce her to female submission like is expected from religious contexts. But actually, the female authority, through Chaucer’s interpretation, is allowed to speak in the same fashion that male authority has dominated the culture and texts during middle ages, allowing the Wife to be labeled neither feminist nor submissive, but as a woman who has the same authority to express and detail her experiences just as any other male representations.

To characterize The Wife of Bath’s as one recognizable label of feminist or experienced female would take away the impact of her authority, according to Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson in “The Wife of Bath and ‘Al hire secte’: Medieval Feminist?” this labeling takes away the power that the wife possesses, “To think about how a voice like the Wife of Bath’s might constitute a point of resistance is to move away from naïve readings of her as either a militant feminist or as trapped in the prison-house of masculinity ideology, towards a strategic exploration of how medieval subjects, female and male, are caught up in systems of power relations,” ( Evans, Johnson 2). This concept is further explained with evidence from cultural and historical theories such as the way the term feminism was described during this middle era. Feminism was depicted as something group of women did in response to male oppression, but when examining “The Wife of Bath’s tale” there is no direct evidence to portray any sense of feminist group activity rather it is an individual response to her own personal experiences,

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“Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age

Upon this nombre diffinicioun.

Men may devyne, and glosen up and doun,

But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,

God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;


Through specific word choices and representation of spiritual citations the Wife of Bath’s is clearly answering to only her own individuality, not willing to take on the name of feminism and apply it to her experience. “Men may devyne, and glosen” this language is interesting because it is saying that men only guess or suppose what the female role and experience should be, exposing the faults in this idea Chaucer represents The Wife as someone who is overtly commanding her own authority, and acknowledges the hypocritical nature of scripture and male dominated theories. According to Evans and Johnson femininity during the middle ages was directly tethered to the concept of sexual identity which The Wife of Bath’s challenges and manipulates into her own individual experience.

Theophrastus and Jerome are important counterparts of The Wife of Bath’s experience because she directly mentions Jerome in her narration, which offers another point of view when examining the feminist or anti-feminist nature of Chaucer’s tale. The aspect of religious contexts is a significant part of the tale and it is important to note that these feminist portrayals are still presented by male authority so it is significant to see how Theophrastus and Jerome are challenged by Chaucer through the voice of The Wife of Bath’s in order to further examine the overall female agency depicted in the text. From the article, “But what good is it to keep a careful watch over her? If a wife is unchaste, she can’t be guarded, and if she isn’t she doesn’t need guarding. In any case, the compulsion to be chaste is an untrustworthy guard-the woman really to be called “chaste” is the one who could sin if she wanted to,” (358). Jerome poses this idea of chastity of a woman and gives an explanation of a trustworthy and untrustworthy woman. This is ironic because Jerome states that the woman who chooses not to sin is the one that deserves trust and protection, as if her choice not her compulsion, is what allows her to be valued at something higher than the woman who is not chaste. The Wife of Bath’s chooses her own sexual experiences and marriages, but according to Jerome this is not what allows her to be trustworthy, instead she is a deceptive woman. If one observes this in comparison with the Wife of Bath’s individual sexual identity,

“For hadde God comanded maydenhede,

Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede;

And certein, if ther were no seed ysowe,

Virginitee, wherof thanne sholde it growe? (76-78).

In this passage the Wife of Bath entertains the idea that if God “commanded maydenhede” he would have condemned all marriage, this challenges the previous idea of a women’s virtue and necessity to fall under the expectations and judgments of man. The Wife gives multiple examples confronting the ideas of Theophrastus and Jerome and even addresses Jerome directly. In this, Chaucer is grappling with the thematic arcs of female agency, but not in regards to femininity as a whole, but rather exploring the female identity, as it is rendered and particular to a specific person, in this case the Wife of Bath’s.

The Wife of Bath, or Alison, is countering the contradictions presented in Jerome’s response to marriage through literal interpretations of scripture as stated in Walter Smith’s “The Wife of Bath Debates Jerome,” “What she offers is far from a “rebuttal of St. Paul” as is sometimes claimed; indeed time and again, she defends the plain sense of the Bible, of the “literal text” in Carolyn Dinshaw’s phrase, and of St. Paul in particular, against Jerome’s sometimes biased and distorted interpretations of Scripture,” ( 130). Where it could be argued that Alison is misusing scripture it is important to note that she is in fact simply stating what is literally presented in the Bible as a way to counteract the skewed interpretations of Jerome, “Are we, then, never to cease from lust, so that we shouldn’t have these limbs to no purpose? Why should a man abstain from his wife? Why should a widow keep herself chaste, if we were born only in order to live like animals? or, What harm will it do me, if my wife sleeps with someone else?” (368). This interpretation of why God created genitals on the human body is an example of the way Jerome dissects aspects of human nature and manipulates it so that it fits into his argument for celibacy. He often compares the sexual desire of those who have chosen to digress from his interpretations of virtue to that of animals. It is interesting that nature in this form of sexuality is valued to that of animalistic behavior and it is carnal even if it is done for the reasons of procreation. Previously in the Jerome readings, he stated the functions of the genitals could be valued to that of excreting excrement’s from the body once again baring the aspects of humanity down to their bare and primal necessity without engaging with humanities complexity of physical desire in both primal and complex forms.

The Wife engages with the question of what is the purpose of genitals in the prologue, but offers a perspective that speaks to her own individual authority and acts as an voice for what a female’s dissection of the same idea would amount too when answering to a male’s distorted perception,

“Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette

That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?

Now wherwith sholde he make his paiement,

If he ne used his sely instrument?

Thanne were they maad upon a creature

To purge uryne, and eek for engendrure. (135-140)

In this passage The Wife addresses the utility of “his sely instrument” allowing for the reader to engage the meaning behind the choice of calling the male gentiles “sely” in regards to how should man make payments to his wife. This is an important passage in the prologue because the male and female dynamics are formulated through a woman voice instead of through the voices of other male interpretations like, Jerome, St. Paul, or other voices presented in texts during the time. Although it is ultimately Chaucer’s authorial congress that is presenting the challenging dynamics, it comes through the opposition of male authors like Jerome, creating the space for an interpretation that could have come from a Wife of Bath’s point of view. In the text, “To purge uryne, and eek for egendrure,” specifically engages with the points made by Jerome, but to the benefit of the Wife of Bath’s argument, which is that, the genitals were created in order to urinate and procreate. The tone of this passage is humorous at first glance, but also imitates claims made by Jerome in order to portray how the same pieces of an argument can be moved around in order to produce different, but justifiable, examinations of the biological functions of the genitals, but also that they are there for sexual experiences as well.

The female as presented in the Wife of Bath’s does rely on the individual experience that is represented through her many marriages, but avoids the tropes of collective “feminism” in the sense that it is a group of woman writing back against patriarchal repression. Instead one must look at the female voice in this text as writing against the contrived writings of Jerome because it is specific to this text. The idea of including a movement within these contexts is counterproductive and allows for many missed meanings when looking at the claims and experiences of the Wife such as, her views on marriage and other men in the Bible,

He seith, that to be wedded is no synne,

Bet is to be wedded than to brynne.

What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye

Of shrewed Lameth and of bigamye?

I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,

And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan,

And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,

And many another holy man also. (60-64)

The Wife’s view on marriage has to address the men in the bible that she feels are justified in a way that her own marriages and experiences are not. This is another expression of her own individual female identity that focuses on the, “shrewed Lameth and of bigamye,” specifically addressing the multiple wives that these “holy men” such as Abraham and Jacob had in the same passage as a known bigamist, Lameth. The language also reveals another satire because of the use of the use of “hooly” and “bet is to be wedded than to brynne.” The overall tone of this passage illuminates another aspect of male contradictions and misconstrued scripture which is portrayed in the Chaucer Review by Walter Smith who examines another passage in which the wife challenges Jerome and other theologies on polygamy and multiple wives, “Alison’s comments mock those who, like Tertullian and Jerome falsely read into John 4:17 a condemnation of polygamy—a meaning which she doubts Jesus intended. All such speculation about the meaning of “numbers” is part of the wasted effort of men to “devyne and glosen” over small details in texts,” (134). The Wife’s expression of self is identified through her comparisons between her own experience and of other male authorities while dissecting the contradictions in the arguments of Jerome, “First of all Lamech,who was a man of blood and a homicide, divided one flesh into two wives; the same punishment of the flood destroyed both homicide and bigamy (Jerome means by this marrying a second time]. ‘I- ‘I- “. The holiness of monogamy is illustrated by the fact that a bigamist cannot be chosen as a priest,” (364). She doesn’t completely reject his entire authority, but rather she is obtaining the freedom to express ideas and opinions that are often ignored or denied to females. This expression of her female authority should not be compared to speaking as a mouthpiece for all women, but rather showing the justifications for The Wife and only for her personal experiences. Smith states that The Wife is equalizing the marriages of Jacob and Abraham so that they are the same as the eight marriages of The Wife. According to Smith she does this by comically exploiting Jerome’s stance on marriage because after the first there is no difference as to how many marriages follow.

It is important to examine the way her marriages and husbands are described in the “Wife of Bath” because that is the basis for experience and authority over her own individuality. Her husbands become her rebuttal against Jerome’s belief on marriage, “Jerome argues that virgins who have consecrated themselves to God are guilty of incest if they marry. Marriage is a short-term prospect, for it ends with death. He demonstrates the spiritual distinction between a virgin who thinks only of God and a wife whose thought is on how to please her husband,” (365). Jerome’s stance on wives is a grouping of all females together in what Evans and Johnson would call a “secte” this is important to note because it is from this where the “feminist” misconception is formed from those viewing The Wife’s response as a polemic for rights for all women. If one were to examine the husbands and her experience with each, it would illuminate the concepts of The Wife’s individuality and Chaucer’s portrayal of one person’s response to another’s idea.

Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!

As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke

How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke.

And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor,

They had me yeven hir gold and hir tresoor;

Me neded nat do lenger diligence

To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence, (206-212)

This passage portrays the relationship between husband in wife as a give and take between the marriage, “They had me yeven hir gold” shows the idea of The Wife’s husband gave her “tresoor” and riches. The Wife later says how she no longer needed to “wynne hir love” like other women do because her husbands gave her everything. This passage is important to the overall identity verses femininity because it intentionally separates The Wife from other women and simultaneously is revealing the specific details of her marriages that are particular to The Wife alone. Perhaps this is the textual evidence leading to the debate between The Wife and Jerome also with Theophrastus detailing of what a wife needs from a husband, “We always have to be noticing her appearance and praising her beauty, in case she thinks we don’t like her if we ever look at another woman. She has to be called “Madam”…” (358). Comparatively the tone of The Wife’s passage is indicating a stance that directly opposes Theophrastus’ claim by saying that she does not need her husbands “diligence.” The differences in perceptions of womanhood speak to the way Chaucer has depicted The Wife of Bath’s and her experiences, which offer more of a focalized viewpoint than Jerome’s broad perception of marriage.

Walter Smith examines the debts a husband pays to his wife through the texts of both The Wife and Jerome who offer ideas about sexual “debts” that are to be paid between husband and wife, “The Wife’s insistence and the husband’s need to pay a sexual debt to his wife is consistent with the provisions of medieval canon and civil law, which put a wife on an equal footing with her husband in regard to the conjugal duty. Alison’s stress on the husbands need to pay his debt reflects or parodies a preoccupation of Jerome,” (141). Smith acknowledges the satire in Jerome’s response to The Wife’s claim that Husbands are in sexual debt to their wives, but also it is interesting that even with the satirical tonality The Wife and Jerome are in somewhat of a mutual agreement although the difference is within their tones and context which is reflected in Jerome’s response, “And at the same time the meaning of the words must be taken into account. He who has a wife is regarded as debtor, and is said to be uncircumcised, to be the servant of his wife, and like bad servants to be bound. But he who has no wife, in the first place owes no man anything,” (141). Again, Jerome’s stance while it is anti-feminist it cannot be ignored that he is also speaking against marriage as a whole. Jerome is speaking about a husband’s servitude to the wife where as The Wife of Bath’s is developing a relationship between the husband and wife, which further portrays her circumstances and views on marriage.

Although the Wife is responding at some points, humorously, to Jerome it is important to note the passages in the prologue that speak to The Wife’s fifth husband who was at first her servant. In the text the Wife discusses her fifth husband but also how she “enchanted” him when he was a servant,

“I bar hym on honde, he hadde enchanted me, –

My dame taughte me that soutiltee.

And eek I seyde, I mette of hym al nyght,

He wolde han slayn me as I lay upright,

And al my bed was ful of verray blood;

But yet I hope that he shal do me good,

For blood bitokeneth gold, as me was taught-

The word choice in this section becomes vivid and the use of metaphor illuminates the more carnal aspects of desire, which The Wife often depicts in some of her marriages. She is also being elusive, “I bar hym honed, he hadde enchanted me,” making it appear as if she is using deception to enchant this servant. This use of imagery, “bed was ful of verray blood,” and “blood bitokeneth gold,” becomes a source for The Wife to express another aspect of her stance on sexual desire and ultimately what she was taught “soutiltee” or trickery from her mother who “taughte me that soutiltee.” It is interesting to see how another woman has influenced the Wife’s actions which gives another dynamic to her own individuality, and the idea that Chaucer created a woman who is in authority over her own identity.

The Wife of Bath’s individuality is weaved in-between the challenges and responses to male authorities such as Jerome and St. Paul. Although Chaucer is directing the voice and tone of The Wife she is providing another perception of female identity that is belongs to her. Through the debate again Jerome, other themes of marriage, love, and desire are presented by a voice that speaks of her own “auctoritee” revealing one woman’s personal identity.

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