How are gender relationships depicted in Chaucers "Wife of Bath"?

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How are gender relationships depicted in medieval literature?

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is one of the twenty-four stories which make up The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer towards the end of the 14th century. The premise for The Tales is that of a group of pilgrims each telling stories in order to win the prize of a free meal, the primary narrator is a naïve pilgrim who is not described. The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, which bears a close visual resemblance to the English written and spoken today. The Tales were unfinished as Chaucer died before their completion and the order of the stories has been disputed due to the fragmented nature of his work. This essay will be looking at gender relationships in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale and in medieval Literature as a whole.

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a middle-aged woman from the west country, who strides into The Canterbury Tales on a large horse with her spurs jangling and riding in the fashion of a man rather than the side saddle that was typical of women, ready to assert herself in the company of pilgrims made almost entirely of men. Rich and elaborate in design, the Wife’s clothes reek of extravagance, her stockings “weren of fyn scarlet reede” and “on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe” show how wealthy she has become from her conquests of men. In the General Prologue where each of the characters is described in terms of their profession she is clearly a ‘professional wife’ who has travelled more than almost all of the other pilgrims making her a bold, adventurous and sociable character. Men were the ones who travelled to distant lands in search of adventure, this challenges the accepted ideas about gender of the time. This portrait of a woman is very peculiar for a piece of medieval literature, men tend to have the starring role and women are usually featured as beautiful ladies in distress or as villainous old hags. The Wife of Bath is neither a helpless damsel in distress nor a typical old crone. She is the first of her kind in English literature.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is the life story of Alison who has married five times, this in itself is unusual for a woman in medieval literature as it is usually the rogue male who has multiple lovers. Chaucer certainly informs us of Alison’s backstory to a higher degree than he does the other pilgrims. There are many pieces of literature which condemn women, from the highest class to the lowest, Chaucer does not ignore this with his characterisation of the Wife but rather embraces it to make her who she is. The Wife is noisy and bossy, she torments her husbands and has a large enough sexual appetite to compete with the most sexual of men. But Chaucer has also made her capable of love, vulnerable, optimistic and argumentative against medieval anti-woman ideas. It is not clear whether Chaucer wants us to sympathise with the Wife and see her as the first feminist and defender of women’s rights or if we are to view her as an elaborate joke of what would happen if a women were to ever have as much freedom as a man.

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The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is different from any literature which had been encountered, as is her Tale. The male lead is not a typical heroic knight but a rapist, the main female role is an ugly old woman and the force of good in the story is a court full of powerful women. All the standard ideas of gender relationships are both turned on their heads and brought into sharp focus.

The Wife conforms to a number of anti-female stereotypes of the medieval period, stereotypes which were created by men for the purpose of a patriarchal society. ...

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