Women are a force to be reckoned with in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. Women are always painted as fragile, voiceless, nameless property of men. Fairies are usually the only powerful and independent women in Medieval Literature. But, this does nothing for the reputation of women because they are not technically human women. However, this text possesses strong, smart, and powerful woman. The prologue and tale symbolizes girl power in every possible way. They both do them incredibly distinctly, but they both exemplify the ways females can be dominant while still being oppressed by society. In the Wife of Bath’s prologue, power is represented through marriage. In the Wife of Bath’s tale, power is represented through the ability to develop or destroy men. Although these are two incredibly distinct quests to sovereignty, the two passages exemplify the theme of female power. More importantly, Geoffrey Chaucer’s stories represent the ability, in unique ways, for women to be a feminist and grasp dominance in a patriarchal, and anti-feminist, society.
The Medieval society the prologue and tale are set in is a very anti-feminist society. When women are not depicted as fragile, silent, and chained down, they are depicted as despicable, lustful, and full of trickery. Misogyny slithered all around society trying to bite, and poison, women and their image. Women were painted by men as: obsessed with the body instead of the mind, earthly instead of heavenly, practicing gluttony instead of temperance, talking too much instead of practicing literacy, mimicking Eve instead of Christ, worshipping material things instead of spiritual, engaging in lasciviousness instead of celibacy, using experience instead of authority, being irrational and emotional instead of rational, and having folk wisdom or superstition instead of book learning. These were the stereotypes of women of the era.
Chaucer even uses all of these accusations to create his women in the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale. Retha Knoetze, from the English Department at the University of South Africa, argues: “the Wife of Bath is a character made up of stereotypes from antifeminist writings; critics therefore argue that a contemporary audience would not have taken this character seriously. However, there are grounds for believing that a medieval audience or reader could conceivably have interpreted the Wife of Bath’s prologue and Tale as providing a serious defence of women.” (35). Some believe the stereotypes produce a humorous tale. However, the author did not mean to be funny. Chaucer is challenging misogyny. By using all of these misogynistic accusations, he builds masculine and powerful characters. They become masculine enough to break off their chains of oppression, and seek and capture power in an era full of misogynists.
In the Wife of Bath’s prologue, the woman talks about her uprise in the male-dominant society. Lady Allison is “an early, robust, feminist character… She is an independent woman [who is] sexually experienced [and] challenges patriarchal norms… Her crafty use of sex and marriage is necessary because they are the only methods available to her in such an oppressive time for women.” (Brodie 1). She gained her power and strength through her societal duty, which is marriage, but she marries very strategically in the prologue. When she is young and in her prime, she marries to build herself up. Her first marriage is to an old, wealthy man. When he dies, she gets married to another old, wealthy man. She knew that by becoming the wife of these men who were approaching their graves, she would inherit all of their wealth. And, because she is widowed, she is not abused by society, for widows are okay because it signifies you were once married and follow the rules of society. So three marriages and deaths later, she is incredibly rich and she is also free and independent.
Now that Lady Allison is full of money and confidence, she becomes a bit masculine. She chooses her own husband, a young one. Then after that one doesn’t work out, she chooses a fifth one. In each of the marriages, she uses sex to get what she wants. She will restrict them from sex until she gets what she wants. Her marriages are her power. She is the controller and conductor of them and uses them to thrive and gain freedom. She even is granted a voice after her marriages. And, in her story to the men on the pilgrimage she explains her strategy and also throws in feminist discourse.
When talking about one of her first three husbands, Lady Allison says “Thou shalt nat bothe, thogh that thou were wood, be maister of my body and of my good; That oon thou shalt forgo, maugree thyne yën… We love no man that taketh kepe or charge Wher that we goon, we wol ben at our large” (319-321). In this passage, Lady Allison is discussing how she would not allow her husband to have control over her body and everything she owns. She even broadens it beyond herself and makes it about all women. She says that women don’t want possessive and controlling husbands, they desire freedom. Now that Lady Allison is free, she is able to be feminist and powerful. She uses her experiences in marriage to first gain authority and freedom, then to become a feminist.
The Wife of Bath’s tale shows the power of women, and not their general power, but their power over men. A young knight in the novel rapes a young woman, and the King makes an impulse and irrational decision to kill the man. The Queen convinces him to put his fate into her hands. After successful persuasion, the young rapist knight becomes her problem. Instead of killing him, or even abusing him in any way, she decides to punish him philosophically. She tells him to go search and learn of what it is women desire most. She gives him a year and a day to do this. By doing this, she is helping women gain a voice in society, to pluck the stitches from their mouths that kept their lips sealed. Men are educated on women instead of learning about them through false books, stories, or stereotypes.
Not only do women have a voice in the tale though, these women have incredible power. That is even the knight’s answer in the end, that women crave power. When he speaks before the Queen and the women, he says: “Wommen desyren to have sovereyntee. As wel over hir housbond as hir love, And for to been in maistrie him above; This is your moste desyr, thogh ye me kille, Doth as yow list, I am heer at your wille… In al the court ne was ther wyf ne mayde, Ne widwe, that contraried that he sayde, But seyden, ‘he was worthy han his lyf.” (1043-1051). In this dialogue, the young knight is explaining that he found the answer of what women desire most. What women desire most is power. This includes power over husbands and in all final matters. And, not one woman disagreed with him in the audience and believed he found the answer and should be allowed to live.
Women crave power. Women have power. This rapist knight is one example of their power. This knight’s life lies in their hands. They have the ability to make or break him. Instead of being destroyed though, they build him into a new man. He becomes educated, understanding, and moral. He is rewarded in the end for his miraculous change. Most critics depict this part as a barrier in classifying the tale as feminist, however it is very feminist. The young knight is a submissive character to his wife. She holds all of the sovereignty in the marriage. The woman has the power to make the marriage wonderful or horrible. She transforms herself into what she wants to be, into what she believes he has earned after his journey, newfound wisdom, and transformation. She chose to reward him, and “because she chooses, this discredits the antifeminist tone,” (Brodie’s Notes). Her freedom to choose is what shows that it is not a misogynistic tale. She controls the marriage. And, this shows that women have power because they can build or destroy men. They can build them by educating them and raising them, or they can destroy them through lies, accusations, and terrible marriages. Power over men is what they wanted, and it ends up being what they have.
Both the prologue and tale exemplify power, yet they find their mastery through different techniques. The prologue is through marriage and lust, for she uses marriage to gain wealth and influence. And, the tale is through man’s fate, for they had the ability to build or break the young rapist knight. The prologue is actually more singular and personal because she uses marriage to make herself wealthier and stronger. But, the tale impacts a broader sea of people because it helps all women. All women are given a voice and all women took part in this man’s destiny.
Although the experiences are very distinct, they are also very didactic. They not only teach men, but women as well. They teach of the overcome of struggle for women during this society. Both of the texts use some of the misogynistic stereotypes to build their power and feminism too. Lady Allison is lustful, talkative, manipulative, and materialistic. The women in the tale are considered superstitious, deceitful, and experienced. But, they both later ridicule the stereotypes and argue for freedom and feminism. The uniqueness of the prologue and tale allows Chaucer to demonstrate the different ways to be powerful in a man’s society.
In conclusion, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is a large step for women of the middle ages. Chaucer demonstrates the way women can rise is a misogynistic society. The prologue shows a woman who rises to power through strategically marrying men. The tale shows the making and breaking of men, the other sex. Both of these methods work for their eras and show that freedom is possible in this oppressed society. The prologue and tale are sometimes perceived as anti-feminist because the women are comprised of a plethora of misogynistic stereotypes, but by incorporating this into the narrative of these women, Chaucer is able to further masculinize the women and poke fun at the stereotypes. This prologue and tale awakens the minds of Medieval society, transforms antifeminist thoughts, and paves the way for Medieval feminism.