The Canterbury Tales
provides a detailed look at currents of thought in the medieval
world of its author, Geoffrey Chaucer
. Many of his stories serve as responses to one another over a selected topic. This dynamic
between the stories creates dramatic interest. It also helps to fully describe the characters who tell the stories by showing their views on the discussed topic. One of the topics over which there is much interchange
is what the correct place of women
is in relation to men
. The Miller
implies through his bawdy
tale that a woman should be innocen
t and passive
, but will usually have the upper hand. The Wife of Bath
takes the idea a step further in her prologue
and tale, exemplifying that a woman should have sovereignty
over men. The Nun's Priest
responds through his tale that women are humble
objects of men and are not to be trusted, for he believes that women will lead men astray
. All three tales discuss the place of women in relation to men in the context of medieval society.
The Miller through his tale shows his belief that women are innocent and passive, but will have the upper hand when they are the subjects of men's attention. The Miller's Tale is comedic story utilizing a great amount of lewd humor and has its roots in the common folk tales, or fabliaux. One of the main characters is a young woman named Alison, who is wedded to the jealous old carpenter John. When describing Alison, the Miller says, "Fair was this yonge wyf, and ther-with-al as any wesele hir body gent and smal" (93). He also says, "She was ful more blisful on to see than is the newe pere-jonette tree; and softer than the wolle is of a wether" (93). Alison is compared to many beautiful and soft objects, conveying a sense of innocence.
Alison is also portrayed by the Miller as a passive participant in story's love triangle. She is wooed by both the wily clerk Nicholas and the effeminate churchman Absalon. However, she herself does not take any action in this conflict. Rather, she passively chooses between the two, selecting Nicholas. Nicholas and Absalon compete for her attention, but her only role is to bestow affection upon the winner. Since Alison is an embodiment of perfect femininity in the story, she is used by the Miller to show that a woman should be passive in her relationships with men.
By the story's end, Alison clearly has the upper hand over her husband, her lover, and her former admirer. Absalon, thoroughly humiliated by Alison's practical joke, is then exposed to that which he hates when Nicholas passes gas right in front of him. For his part, Nicholas ends the story with a severely burned buttocks courtesy of Absalon's hot poker. And John becomes the laughing stock of the town when he crashes from the ceiling in his tub-shaped ark, speaking nonsensically of an impending flood. Only Alison escapes harm of some kind in this story. She has the advantage over all of the men. She makes love to Nicholas as she desired, rids herself of the nuisance of Absalon, and avoids condemnation from her husband because he is believed to be crazy. Through this clever ending, the Miller illustrates that the philosophy of passivity he earlier prescribed her allows some advantages in a relationship.
The Wife of Bath also expresses her views on the subject of women relating to men, saying in her prologue that women should have sovereignty over men. This is a somewhat different idea of how a relationship between a man and a woman should be proceed than the Miller's. Believing experience to be the best authority, and having had five husbands on which to practice, she details how she gained sovereignty over her first three and justifies the practice. She says, "Atte ende I hadde the bettre in ech degree, by sleighte, or force, or by som maner thing, as by continual murmur or grucching; namely a-bedde hadden they meschaunce, Ther wolde I chyde and do hem no pleasaunce" (115). She views this as a perfectly acceptable practice, and cares little for her husbands' views on her conduct. And indeed, by her account it seems that the husbands are weary, but happy with the relationship.
The Wife of Bath uses the example of her fifth husband to show that ignoring a woman's desire for sovereignty is a hazardous choice. She says of him, "He nolde suffre nothing of my list. By God, he smoot me ones on the list, for that I rente out of his book a leef, that of the strook myn ere wex al deef" (120). Unlike her first three husbands, he does not allow her sovereignty over him. In revenge, she takes the book from which he reads disparaging accounts about various women and rips three leaves out of it, hitting viciously in the meanwhile. He responds by hitting her back, and she feigns death. She does not come back to life until he promises to allow her what she wants. In this way the Wife of Bath shows that it is to a man's detriment not to allow a woman sovereignty. He will either be hurt by her, or lose her forever.
When she finishes her prologue, the Wife of Bath tells a story with the express purpose of illustrating her belief that women should have sovereignty over men. The lusty knight of the tale is ordered to find out what women truly desire by the Queen or he will be killed. Just before the date of his return to the court, he finds an old hag who tells him the correct answer. The Wife of Bath relates his answer, "'My lige lady, generally,' quod he, 'Wommen desyren to have sovereyntee as wel over hir housbond as hir love, and to been in maistrie him above; this is your moste desyr, thogh ye me kille'” (129). She directly states her belief through the character of the knight.
The Wife of Bath also uses her story to exemplify that submission of men to women is the correct conduct. When the knight is forced to marry the old hag, he communicates his dislike for her due to her age and ugliness. She defends them as assets and then offers him a choice between an old wife who is guaranteed to be faithful, and a young wife with whom he must take his chances. Exasperated, he leaves the choice to her, putting his fate under her control. She is greatly pleased by this, and allows him to have the best of both worlds by transforming into a beautiful young woman and promising to remain faithful to him. Through this happy ending, the Wife of Bath communicates the moral that things will go best if men allow women to have completely sovereignty in marriage.
The Nun's Priest's tale expresses an opinion contrary to that of the Wife of bath; that women should live modestly. In the beginning of his tale, the Nun's Priest describes a widow in glowing terms. He stresses her humility and modesty. In his description, he says:
Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek hir halle, in which she eet ful many a sclendre meel. Of poynaunt sauce hir neded never a deel. No deyntee morsel passed through hir throte; Her dyete was accordant to hir cote. Repleccioun ne made hir never syk; attemptree dyete was al her phisyk and exercise, and hertes suffisaunce. (149)
She does without luxuries and is better off for it, in the opinion of the Nun's Priest.
Unlike in the Wife of Bath’s tale, women are the objects of men in the Nun’s Priest's tale. Chanticleer, the rooster, has seven wives in the story. They are his mistresses and he believes he has mastery over them. Out of them, his favorite is Pertelote. She is described as, "Curteys she was, descreet, and debonaire, and compaignable, and bar hir-self so faire." Qualities of surrender are described in her, such as courteousness and discreetness. Since both Chanticleer and his mistresses are presented in a positive light, the Nun's Priest shows that the proper place for women is as objects of men.
The Nun's Priest uses the character of Pertelote to presents an image of women as untrustworthy. When Chanticleer has a foreboding dream and confesses his fright to Pertelote, she scoffs at him. She tells him that dreams are mere "nonsense" and nothing to be afraid of. Chanticleer counters her assertion with a series of anecdotes and quotes from various sources including the Bible. With his evidence, he thoroughly dominates the argument, but out of love for Pertelote, defies his dream. When the fox overtakes Chanticleer and runs off with him, the dream is proven to be true. The Nun's Priest uses Pertelote as a metaphor for all women providing false consul. The male figure corrects her, and is then proven to be true. Through the tale, the Nun's Priest portrays women as untrustworthy.
Throughout his stories, Chaucer used imaginative characters and clever tales to compile a book that is both informative and entertaining. He portrays different medieval opinions through his characters, who respond to one another’s tales. One of the topics that his characters shared their opinions on is the correct place of women as related to men. The Miller sees women as innocent and passive, but with a significant advantage over their male suitors. The Wife of Bath believes that women should be the controlling party in the relationship, and repeatedly illustrates this belief in both her story and prologue. The Nun's Priest shies away from this interpretation, instead opining that women should be humble and the objects of men who might give bad consul. All three used their stories to respond to one another's opinions, creating dynamic interest through the book. Chaucer has woven a fascinating picture about the widely varying beliefs about the place of women in Medieval society.
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