On my trip to Canterbury at the end of year, I was delighted to see the marvellous statue that had just been set in the High Street in the city centre to commemorate the great poet; Geoffrey Chaucer. As ‘father of English literature’ (c. 1343 – 1400), his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales marked a new era in writing, and as such has been a staple of students’ set classics ever since. It was during A-level study that I first encountered The Wife of Bath, with the meandering prologue and tale told by the gap-toothed, garrulous old goat in question, in response to the eternal question ‘What do women really want ?’ If Sigmund Freud had not been able to nail that one, why would some aged harridan from the Middle Ages have the answer?
For my seventeen years, Alisoun did indeed strike me as a rambling woman of advanced years (forty!!), embarrassingly red-blooded, if not plain rampant. Her 15th century slot on the historical timeIine made her obsolete and irrelevant. I probably wished that she had taken herself off to a nunnery and left all us in peace rather than setting off to Canterbury with a motley crew of fellow pilgrims. However, the new statue made me go back to The Wife of Bath to reassess her, and the work itself, from whose pages she still springs out with the strangest vitality, some 600 years on. In the same way, she and the other characters burst out of the bas-relief of the plinth of the statue, overseen by the imposing figure of their creator, Chaucer himself.
Incidentally, the two parts of the final statue are the work of two separate sculptors; Sam Holland and Lynne O'Dowd. The 14th century author stands as if ready to welcome the pilgrims as they arrive, pointing them in the direct of the inn. Sculptor, Sam Holland, emphasized his desire "to imbue the sculpture with the man's characteristics: stoutness, wit, modesty and humanity. Looking at the figure straight on he appears dignified and wise but by walking round the figure it is possible to see a wry smile appear on the right-hand side of Chaucer's face, indicating perhaps his greatest trait - a sense of humour." What I appreciated the most in both the plinth and statue was that the facial details and expressions do not seem too ‘modern’ and really do conjure up (what I take to be) the mood of the Middle Ages. This is no mean feat since the majority of the characters have been modelled on present-day personalities with a Canterbury connection.
The same observation of blending into the spirit of other eras cannot surely be said of the statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, set alongside the other figures of past archbishops, queens and kings on the Western façade of Canterbury cathedral in 2015. In spite of the mastery of the material and clever craftsmanship, these two look hopelessly, comically out of place with their contemporary aspect, that no amount of regalia, draped robes and garters can offset.
Back to the story… . The telling of tales was a litarary form that coud be traced back to Boccaccio's Decameron, which Chaucer would have encountered during his career. However, in order to gather a selection of characters from differing social backgrounds and status, Chaucer came up with the novel idea of using a pilgrimage. As they head for Canterbury, seeking benediction at the shrine of "the holy blissful martyr," St. Thomas à Becket, the pilgrims entertain each other. Thus acting as raconteurs, they give accounts of their thoughts, morals and experiences through tales, in the hope of winning the prize for the best story-telling. We listen in to the observations made during and through these tales, witness the interactions of the players and note their behaviour, accompanied all the while by the narrator himself. This key figure, not be mistaken for Chaucer himself, makes the acquaintance of this mixed bag of characters as he too sejourns in the Tabbard Inn, Southwark, London. Canterbury Tales is indeed the narrator’s tale of the event and as such, encompasses those tales told during the journey in this frame narrative. Sadly, Chaucer died in 1400, well before the completion of the final work so we lack many of the tales, notably from the account of the return trip. Nevertheless, from the work as it stands, we gain a curiously human insight into historical and sociological aspects of life and times at the end of the Middle Ages. This is despite the fact that such works can be demanding for the modern reader, accustomed as we are to easily-digested texts that generally take the form of the novel. Today, we are no longer familiar with the biblical and mythological references to which some of the well-versed pilgrims allude freely in the Tales. Furthermore, even if Chaucer wrote in the vernacular (ie not in Latin, French or Italian) favouring the speech of the ‘common people’, his language is Middle English. Following the text in its orginal form may be somewhat problematic.
The Canterbury Tales is the unfinished story of the ultimate road trip. Chaucer’s individuals are thrown together; representatives of the aristocracy, aspiring to be nobles, are accompanied by figures from the church, alongside those from commercial ‘mercantile’ backgrounds, in addition to clerical intellects, craft guildsmen, the virtuous poor and finally the immoral lower class. Despite these distinct social categories, gone is the feudal structure with its set estates that created a quasi caste system. Society had been divided into three groups ; the first estate - the clergy (‘those who pray’) ; the second - the nobility (‘those who enter battle’ eg the knights) and the third - the peasantry and commoner (‘those who toil’). Such divisions had been slowly eroded over the late Middle Ages as demographic, economic, social and intellectual changes remodelled the country. Factors for this were both negative and positive in nature. They included the Black Plague (from 1348 onwards) that decimated swathes of the serf population and the clergy alike, years of famine brought on by incessant rain, Holy crusades which opened up new trade routes, thus introducing unfamiliar commercial goods, fields of culture and science and, finally, new centres of learning and intellect – with the founding of many universities. In addition, evolving laws, charters, concessions and taxation systems meant that the populace gradually became aware of their condition. Increasingly, they sought to obtain rights to rid themselves of the stranglehold of serfdom. Individual peasant revolts may have been crushed, but the widespread Peasant Revolt of 1381 demonstrated that the tide was slowly changing away from servitude. Except for womenfolk, that is….
Women were indeed in a category of their own. Born into the the second or third estate, as members of aristocracy or humble peasantry, they were even able to enter the church and thus become part of the first estate, just as men could. Unlike them, however, medieval women were also set into one of three additional estates that would reflect their feminine condition as either virgin, wife or widow. Whichever feminine estate a woman belonged to, she would unfaillingly be regarded as a potential ,or very real, source of danger and/or aggravation to men. The Church’s teaching and dogma presented the female as a tauntress, ready to lead the unwitting male away from his devote Christian vocation. Misogyny was widespread in common social mores and practices, and had been for centuries. It was quite normal to beat a woman to submission, to goad her into subservience, mocking her perceived inferiority as the weaker sex, vilifying her wanton or shrewish ways, correcting her incessant gossip, nagging or unruly temper with further physical punishment. Should the usual means of correction fail, the menfolk could always resort to the ‘ducking stool’ to calm unweilding behaviour, or the ‘scold’s bridle’ to silence an untamed tongue.
Married off at the age of 12, the Wife was not long a virgin. Having been in wedlock and mourning five times, she has continually wavered between the feminine estates of wife and widow. And she is not resistant to the idea of a sixth wedding, on condition that the terms of marriage be favourable to her good self. As she states clearly to her fellow-travellers, she refuses any form of spousal subjugation, unless it be that of the husband! This argument is the whole basis of her prologue and is further demonstrated in her tale. Not surprisingly, her thesis is deemed reprehensible, notably by the Clerk and the Parson, since it goes against the teachings of the church and is thus not only scandalous but also heretical. To the whole gathering, the Wife, with her red-stockinged garb, immodest wimple and hat, unruly manner and quick-fire responses is most surely a scarlet woman. Offset against the demure, genteel person of the The Prioress, the Wife comes into her own. Whilst Madame Eglantine believes that ‘Love conquers all’, the Wife has made it her mission to conquer over male supremacy in marriage. She is unaffected by the criticism she duly incites. If she listens to the traditional arguments put forward by the church and common opinion, it is only to better refute them. Moreover, her deafness is quite literal since her fifth,and favourite husband beat her after she attempted to burn his anti-feminist texts. Ironically, a certain degree of the mauvaise foi, hypocrisy and injustice that are characteristic of men’s treatment of women, is present in the Wife’s reasoning and argumentation. Perhaps the cleverest aspect of her portrait by Chaucer is that he demonstrates how she too is fully willing to use coercion and to employ any wily tactics for personal gain, regardless of the fact that, in so doing, she may be just as unscrupulous or plain tyrannical as the average misosynist. She deploys her weapons of feminine charm, using her physical attributes and devious words to bring any male to his knees in submission "For we are given such keen wits at birth, to cheat and weep and spin". Yet as she does so, she validates, to a certain extent, some of the misogynistic warnings of female cunning and treachery. Her acknowledged equestrian skills have likewise been used to master any recalcitrant husband, so that he yields "the full bridle in (my) hand" and until that moment of capitulation the Wife will be "the whip". She proudly states that the for any non-compliant husband "By God, I was his purgatory on earth… they were glad to surrender, as their best option". She has the ability to recognise human flaws and frailities in either sex, set alongside a capacity to give as good as she gets, and the will to get what she desires; power and sex. That the latter were typically male aspirations makes the Wife of Bath all the more captivating and often comic as she beats the menfolk at their own game !
"My feelings come from Venus and my heart
Is full of Mars; for Venus did impart
To me all of my lecherousness and lust,
And Mars gave me a hard and sturdy crust."
The Wife’s exposition of her theories, as set out in the prologue, draws shocked reactions. She launches into a defense of her right to remarry, using preemptive force in citing the Apostles, making references to the Bible and notable sources of misogynist argument - St Jerome and Theophrastus – before these can be used against her. She skillfully beats the opposition with its own weapons! Indeed, the Wife had already perfected this technique in mariage. The first three husbands had been sufficiently old and malleable, however the last two required new tactics in order to bend them into shape. Husband no: 4 was given a taste of his own bitter medicine – using jealousy to bring him to heel - whilst youthful husband no: 5 was rendered docile by fear of the consequences of his own violence towards her. The fellow pilgrims listen with interest, but recoil as she continues her speech, with the Pardoner voicing fears of entering matrimony again "I'd rather not get married, not this year".
Yet mariage is indeed a subject in which the Wife is a self-proclaimed expert and the trials and tribulations that she has experienced (and brought about) have given her the absolute authority in her field of expertise. According to her, nowhere is celibacy enforced and she certainly has no intention of remaining chaste – "May Christ Jesus send us husbands meek, young and fresh in bed…". Furthermore, virginity and abstinence may well be advocated by holy texts, but are not commanded and she proclaims heartily that "In wifehood I will use my instrument as freely as my Maker has it sent". Her lusty eagerness to use her "blessed" organ is matched by her insatiable hunger for power. Mere female emanicipation from male dominance is not enough for this wife; she alone will be laying down the law, calling the shots, holding the reins, gaining the upper hand. She puts forward her argument that this is the key to a successful mariage and sets about proudly demonstrating how domestic harmony was reached in her household "when I had by all my mastery thus gained for myself all the sovereignty".
From here, the Wife embarks on her tale, which proves to be a further means to drive the nail home. A tale of chivalry is given a new twist as a knight pledges allegiance to his liège in King Arthur’s court. Having ravished a maiden in the most unchivalrous manner, this "lusty liver" must face the death penalty. However Queen Guinevere intervenes and is granted the right to decide his fate. And as she takes full command of the situation, the tone of the tale is quickly established… .The queen sends the disgraced male on a year-long quest to find the answer to the question that she herself sets; What is the thing that women most desire? Having used brute male force against a woman in rape, the hapless knight is now at the mercy of the womenfolk, ready to use their claws against him, like cats playing with a mouse. Not for nothing is a female cat called a queen…
Not surprisingly, the knight’s search proves to be fruitless. He gathers responses that seem futile and inappropriate, but as he treks back to court he encounters an old hag who claims to have the answer. On arrival at court, he duly honours his duty to queen and court and indeed his reply to the initial question satifies all present. Sovereignity and mastery over the husband are the solution and for safe measure, the knight also implores the queen "Do as you wish; I am here at your will".
Yet the knight has not learnt to heed his own words or to honour the debt that he owes the old, lowly, ugly woman; to take her as his wife. Paying lip service is not enough here and so he is forced to betroth the "loathly lady" against his will. With reasoning and arguments that do justice to the Wife’s own line of defense, his aged wife presents her case at length, and finally offers him a choice. He may have her as a beautiful, yet flighty, unfaithful wife, who will cuckold him repeatedly, or as she is, dutiful, devoted yet physically repellant. By this stage, the young man is perhaps at a loss for words, or is at his wit’s end and decides to let her decide for him – uttering "I put myself into your wise governance" .In so doing, he has most certainly made the right decision. His declaration that "it is sufficient to me to please you" not only greatly pleases his spouse, but the Wife of Bath too since it convienently echoes her wish for "Freedom to do exactly as we please, with no one to reprove our faults and lies". In reward for his wisdom, the hideous old crone is magically transformed into a beautiful, adoring, virtuous young woman. In true fairy-tale fashion, we assume that husband and wife live happily ever after, on condition that he give in to her whims and will and thus satisfying the wishful thinking of the Wife of Bath herself…
The answer to the queen’s question still eludes most people. What do women want the most? I think it must be easier to define what individuals of either gender do not want, and then indeed hope for the freedom to be able to change our minds over what we do want, without reproach and repercussion.
Finally, an animated version of the Wife's tale...