My Favorite Canterbury Tale: The Sneaky, Feminist Wife

The shock on my students’ faces when I tell them that there is such a thing as self plagiarism always reminds me of The Wife of Bath.  They don’t believe me.  They try to argue with me.  They think I’m kidding.  Inevitably, we find a description of self plagiarism in their writing handbooks, and they are wrong and I am right.  Self plagiarism is turning the same paper in to two different professors.  The Wife of Bath reminds me of this because I did so once with a paper about her.  However, I had permission from both of my professors (the only way this is acceptable), and I tailored each paper to the purposes of the different classes and essay requirements.

The Wife of Bath is my favorite character in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  She is bawdy, outspoken, and entertaining.  Ultimately, she is a trickster.  Of the many traits a trickster possesses, there are four that characterize the trickster: solving universal problems, ignoring social niceties and morals, breaking taboos, and using deception.

She tries to solve a problem by championing the cause of “sovereyntee” for all women.  She talks about how men blame women for everything and speaks for the women who are bound to men who believe women to be inferior.  The Wife specifically speaks to “ye wyse wyves, that can understonde” and encourages them to speak the way she does.  Her speech reverses men’s speech; therefore, the Wife successfully uses men’s language against men.

The Wife breaks cultural and societal norms simply by speaking.  Silent women in medieval times were golden, and the Wife wasn’t silent.  Her Prologue and Tale are some of the most lengthy of The Canterbury Tales.  What The Wife says in her speech is also taboo because she claims that her experience is as good as education and church authority.  She believes that she is as valid a teacher as the clergy because of her experience in having five husbands.  What she says is just as taboo because she speaks about oppression and “wo” in marriage, an institution that men control along with speech and authority.

She also breaks societal norms by marrying five times.  And she welcomes a sixth husband!  She justifies this by claiming she has the youthful fires of lust at age forty.  She also claims that many people in the Bible were married many times.   She completely defies societal convention, a trait that endears her to me, a life-long rule follower who sometimes fantasizes about breaking free.  That’s also why I love Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s statement: “Well behaved women seldom make history.”  She’s also written a book with that title, which I highly recommend.

The Wife of Bath is anything but well behaved.  She is an unruly woman who ruins men’s lives by being outspoken.  She treats men the way they usually treat women and wields power by using sex to deceive and manipulate.  Her sexual control reverses the way men exercise control over women through rape.  The Wife juxtaposes men’s and women’s roles when she limits sexual activity according to her desires.  She has control over these relations, control that men have in the act of rape.

The Wife’s fifth husband, Jankin, reacts by reading to her from The Book of Wykked Wives to teach her.  Because of her past relationships, which he may know about, he must feel threatened.  She is a powerful woman with land and money.  Could you imagine your husband reading to you from The Book of Wykked Wives?  Who wrote this book?  Where’s The Book of Wykked Husbands?  I admire the Wife for fighting a system of marriage that spawned such horribly titled books.

And while we’re on the subject of books, the Wife seems to be pretty learned herself.  She repeatedly refers to the Bible and Greek and Latin sources in her speech.  She also has a grasp of anti-feminist literature and intelligently uses it for her own ends.  She is smart and shows that women are bright and capable, despite male oppression.  Not only is she cunning, but she is learned and well read.

She defies society by being independent and owning land. She has plenty of money to support herself without a husband.  Yet she obtained that position through her husbands, a nearly impossible task.  Unruly, independent, and self-willed women are usually broken by the institution of marriage.  The Wife of Bath overcomes this patriarchal taming by reversing the purpose of marriage.  Once again she reverses men’s trickery against them.  She overcomes the existing constraints by using the powers of femininity in a patriarchal society.

The Wife of Bath appeals to my feminist sensibilities.  She’s a trickster who uses her talents to reverse the medieval roles of men and women.  She could be one of the first feminist characters in literature.  Perhaps Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the first champions of women, as he wrote his tales in the fifteenth century, before Mary Wolstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women first published in 1792.  Feminist history is complicated, and there is no clear way to pinpoint an exact starting date (unless you want to claim that women have been striving for equality since the beginning of time).  The specifics don’t matter, and neither does Geoffrey Chaucer.  It’s his character I’m interested in, and I choose to adore her and portray her as a feminist.

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