The Wife’s Desire For Equality In The Wife Of Bath
By definition, a widow is “a woman who has lost her spouse by death and has not remarried”. Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, commonly included widows in his writing. One tale, entitled the Wife of Bath, showed how the protagonist Alisoun went against the normal and accepted actions of a widow. She remarried five times which was extreme regardless of the wide acceptance of remarriage at the time. The Wife of Bath, also known as Alisoun, was worldly and experienced, which was uncommon for women in this era. In The Canterbury Tales, we saw how other people view the Wife of Bath and what they thought of her. The Wife of Bath wanted to show that it was not dominance over her husband that she desired but equality.
During the medieval 14th century, women were expected to be obedient and avoid trouble. Some women dreaded these expectations, compared to others who followed them without argument. They were not allowed to own property nor could they inherit land from their parents if they had any surviving brothers. During this period, noblewomen were viewed as property. At this time, women were not allowed to get married without their parent’s consent, and they were not supposed to be allowed to get a divorce either. Most women had arranged marriages from the age of 19 to 24. Women in higher classes were more commonly set up in arranged marriages. Young single women and widows had some privileges that only men had at this time. Since women were inferior to men, they were taught to obey their husbands and fathers. Most women were restricted to household tasks like cooking, sewing, weaving, and spinning. The Wife of Bath, as seen in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, used her experiences with her husbands, to learn how to provide for herself in a world where women had little independence or power.
Because of the shorter life expectancy in the middle ages, widows were viewed as important figures in medieval society. Wealthy widows, unlike married women, were both legally and financially independent. Poor widows could present a difficulty in how they might be supported and protected. Widows were sometimes regarded with suspicion because they were sexually experienced but not married. The English tradition encouraged widows not to remarry. They were to remain head of their late husband’s home or become the head of a new home. There were two different approaches to widowhood. First, some considered themselves still under the power of their husbands and still acted in ways that the husband would approve. Then, some become independent and self-controlled. They learned how to take on the responsibilities of a man. Remarriages were based upon money or satisfaction. Some feared that if a widow remarried, then she would neglect her children. Widows were looked down upon if they remarried or started to take on more responsibilities. As soon as women started to take on the roles that men usually did, they were immediately judged.
Chaucer addressed the difference of power in the male dominated society of the 14th century in his tale of The Wife of Bath. At this time period, women were identified by their relations with men not their occupations or social status. A woman at this time was a maiden, spouse or widow. Her role was to bear children and take care of the household. Chaucer’s famous character, Alisoun, in The Canterbury Tales is a straightforward, bold woman who was considered one of the only “free female” characters at the time. She knew how to act to make her husband less powerful and obedient. She had complete control over him. Even though at this time it was rare for a woman to have complete control over her husband’s life, Allison had ownership over her husband’s life. She gave her fifth husband everything she owned. She did this because she married him for love and not for money like she did with her previous husbands. A perfect husband for her is “goode, and riche, and olde”. In the Prologue to the Wife of Bath, the Wife expressed her views about the morals of women. She spoke about how these women do not want authority but want the opportunity to make a decision.
During this time, it was men who usually had control over the money and complete authority over the property and belongings. In The Wife of Bath, the Wife contradicted the people who believed that a person should only marry once and she gave examples of people from the bible like Abraham and Jacob since they both remarried. “Well I know Abraham was a holy man, and Jacob as well, as far as I know, and each of them had more than two wives. And many other holy men did as well. When have you seen that in any time great God forbade marriage explicitly? Tell me, I Pray you”. In this quote, the Wife spoke about why society should not look down on her or other females for remarrying multiple times throughout their lives. This tale of the Wife of Bath dealt with the social belief of how women in the 14th century were inferior. The tale tried to defend women’s authority by showing the Wife living a life of independence and power over men. Her morals and behaviors were against that of what a woman should act and think. She was not conservative like the other women in her time. The Wife of Bath did not behave in the accepted manner of the women in the 14th century. It can be seen in the tale that the Wife was the one in control of certain aspects of her husband’s life in all her marriages. However, it can be seen in the Prologue and the Tale that the Wife sought equality in her relationship with her husbands not dominance. An example of this can be seen in the Prologue where she says, ‘God help me so, I was to him as kinde/ As any wyf from Denmark unto Inde,/ And also trewe, and so was he to me.’ In the Tale, the old woman tells her husband: ‘I prey to God that I mot sterven wood,/ But I to yow be also good and trewe/ As evere was wyf, sin that the world was newe.’ In these quotes, the Wife seemed to want sovereignty but not complete power. She explained that if women are given some measure of control in marriage, they would not become domineering. It is equality they are looking for. The Wife believed that if a wife was trustworthy and had freedom, she would remain loyal to her husband.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer portrays the Wife of Bath as a complicated character. She seemed to have control over men unlike the women of the fourteenth century. The Wife of Bath wanted equality with men. She believed that this equal balance of power was necessary in the 14th century society.
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