Chaucer's Favorable Treatment of Women's Plight for Equality

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Chaucer’s Favorable Treatment

of Women’s Plight

for Equality

Joe Bohn


Christian Moraru

June 17, 2000


Joe Bohn

English 303W-01

Chaucer’s Favorable Treatment of Women’s Plight for Equality

Throughout Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” characters are depicted which epitomize and exaggerate the corruption and injustices commonly experienced during his lifetime. Chaucer explicitly utilizes his characters as instruments, which serve to ponder taboo subjects of the times. Amongst these taboo topics, he makes his strongest points by portraying Alison, the Wife of Bath, in order to shed light upon the plight of medieval woman’s oppression. Chaucer urges his audience to consider and reconsider patriarchal society’s treatment of women.

        First, we must recognize that Chaucer had much reason to sympathize with the plight of women. According to a 1357 record—made when he was approximately fifteen years of age—young Chaucer was employed by a wealthy count. That Christmas, the countess showed him great kindness by providing him with a generous amount of money, such that young Geoffrey could buy himself clothing and other items (Beidler 4). Clearly, this generosity would have left a mark upon him at such an impressionable age.

        According to an ambiguous legal record, there was another instance in which a woman showed kindness to Chaucer. In his later life, he was accused of a crime, although there is no certainty as to whether or not he was guilty. A woman named Cecilia Chaumpaigne bailed him out (Beidler 6). Once again, Chaucer would have had much reason to hold women in high regard.

        Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is an instrument for arguing in favor of female sovereignty and exposing the injustices of inequality. Within the framework of the larger story, Alison’s tale allows Chaucer to disguise himself, further distancing himself from being the author of the overall work. He convinces the audience that Alison is the author of the tale, such that he might effectively make his feminist argument. In addition, by naming the female protagonist “Alison,” Chaucer implies that this character is no less typical than any other woman in her views of oppression. This name, “Alison,” commonly epitomized fair and beautiful women in poetry of the times (Maclaine 101).

        In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the audience is addressed by what is traditionally considered to be a confessional. In accordance with the medieval literary and satiric convention of the “confession,” Alison reveals intimate facts, which a one would not ordinarily reveal to strangers. Alison is described as a lavish yet militant woman in search of her sixth husband. Chaucer forces his audience to face medieval ideals of celibacy, trying to expose its fallacy (Maclaine 102)

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        In the male-dominated literature of the times, it was common for men to speak of the woes of marriage. In Alison’s Prologue, she argues that she is also worthy of speaking of the woes of marriage because of her worldly experience:

                Experience… / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me

                To speke of wo that is in marriage (l. 1-3).

Chaucer implies that—although his audience is not used to hearing of women’s woes in marriage—they do exist.

        Chaucer’s Alison further embodies feminism by defying Catholic virtues of virginity, saying that celibacy is for people who aspire to ...

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