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Women in the canterbury tales

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has been thought to serve as a moral guidebook for the 1300’s and years after. He exhibits in each story what is right and wrong and how one should live through the blunders of both men and women. However, the underlying message within the sub context of the tales is a jaded look at women and how they are the cause of the demise of men. While most readers have said a woman’s role in The Canterbury Tales was to break free from a man’s dominance in a secretive inconspicuous manner, and maintain faithful and steadfast devotion and affection for a man and his decisions. A close and careful reading shows that instead women’s strength and need to break free from man’s dominance can eventually lead to the demise of the man’s role in society.

Michael Calbrese wrote in “Chaucer’s Dorigen and Boccacio’s Female Voices”, “that man represents sensuality and error, while woman embodies reason, self-mastery, and the wisdom that inspires virtue and order. Women remind men of their better selves, and even, at times, make chaste brothers and friends out of sexual pursuers” (Grady, 272). That being said, however, more of The Canterbury Tales actually points to how women are more destructive on men than helpful. More specifically, I assert that in the “Knight’s Tale” it can be demonstrated that women are corruptive.

“The Knight’s Tale” appears to be a tale of chivalry and upstanding moral behavior to the average reader. However, the theme of the evil nature of women lingers below the presented storyline. In the story, Emily plays the part of the beautiful woman who captivates the hearts of two unsuspecting men and leads to the death of one. Those two men are cousins Arcite and Palamon, both knights who eventually duel for Emily’s hand in matrimony. Arcite and Palamon begin the tale as the best of friends and then roommates in a jail cell that is to be shared for eternity because of crimes the two committed together. But with one look at Emily, the Palamon and Arcite start bickering impulsively and almost come to blows over a woman neither will ever be able to have, or so it seems. So, essentially one could argue that had Arcite and Palamon had never seen Emily, their relationship never would have been severed and the two would have upheld the promise they made to one another to forever remain friends.

Chaucer’s knack for irony revels itself when King Theseus releases Arcite from his life sentence but disallowed from ever coming back to Athens. Theseus claimed that if Arcite ever returned to Thebes. This upsets Arcite are great deal because he is doomed to never see Emily again. His broken heart causes him sickness as he’s weakened by love and as readers we witness him slowly wither away. Once Arcite devises a plan to return to Thebes successfully, the potential of seeing Emily begins encouraging Arcite to get better.

In the meantime, Palamon remains in captivity, rendered helpless due to his lifelong punishment in prison. He knows that he will never be able to talk to Emily and certainly not marry her because of his plight yet he. All he can do is watch her from a distance and admire her beauty, for Palamon though what little experiences he has with Emily are still worth living for. Despite being locked in jail, Arcite believes that Palamon is better off than he is, though, as he says: “O dere cosin Palamon, quod he, Thyn is the victorie of this aventure Ful blisfully in prison maistow dure; In prison? Certes nay, but in paradys! Wel hath fortuen y-turned thee the dys, That hast the sighte of hir, and I th’adsence. … But I, that am exyled and bareyne Of alle grace, and in so greet despeir, That ther nis erthe, water, fyr, ne eir, Ne creature, that of hem maked is, That may me helpe or doon confort in this: Wel oughte I sterve in wanhope and distresse; Farwel my lyf, my lust, and my gladnesse!” (58 - 60) Being unable to see Emily has caused him such anguish that he weeps constantly and contemplates killing himself so he won’t have to feel this daily pain that appears to have no end. Arcite and Palamon’s distress occurs all because of a woman, that maintains no actual interest in either man nor realizes they even exist.

Emily is not a typical female character her for her time we soon realize. She is sweet and very conscientious of the world around her. In an outlandish twist for a woman of The Canterbury Tales, she worships Diana and is content alone and doesn’t ever want to be married much like that of her goddess’ wishes. Despite Emily’s disinterest, Palamon and Arcite battle twice for Emily’s love, this eventually leads to Arcite’s death. Even though Palamon, wins her by default, she still dismisses his love. He then commits himself to Emily faithfully for several years before she agrees to marry him, even though she still does not love him. This conclusion demonstrates that no one wins in “The Knight’s Tale,” but it is the two men who fight over the woman who lose the most.

The general argument made by author Jill Mann in her work, Feminizing Chaucer: The Feminized Hero, “the question “Are women good or bad?” is relentlessly turned back onto the sex that asks it and is transformed into “What makes a good man?”  I believe that although this may be true, more can be said about how the idea of the women is directly correlated to the man she is associated with. In conclusion, it might seem that despite whether the female has a passive or active attitude her actions will always be turned back onto the male at hand, therefore reinstating the belief that women are what creates or destroys a man.

The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is possibly the most notable depiction of a man’s ruin due to the persuasion of a woman. This tale revolves around a rooster, Chauntercleer, that oddly enough can be seen as a symbolic representation of all men. He has seven wives but his favorite was Pertelote, and it is this female hen that brings about a great deal of trouble for Chauntercleer. One night Chauntercleer awakens suddenly from a terrible dream. Seeking comfort from Pertelot, he tells her about the dream which involves a wild, rampant dog with beady eyes coming after Chauntercleer with the intent to kill him. Rather than console Chauntercleer, she challenges his masculinity and states that no man of hers should be frightened of a dream. Offended by Pertelot’s reaction, Chauntercleer reminds her about the numerous times in history dreams have predicted the future and how non-believers suffered the consciences of not taking the appropriate precautions. Despite his reminder though, he dismisses his concerns and says that Pertelot is probably right and so he goes off about his day not reflecting more about his dream. At this point, the nun’s priest takes an aside from the story to tell the reader his own opinion on women but says that it is the belief of many men and not his own in an attempt to perhaps cover himself. In this aside he says: “Wommennes counseils been ful ofte colde; Wommannes counseil broughte us first to wo, And made Adam fro paradys to go, Theras he was ful mery, and wel at ese. But for I noot to whom it mighte displese If I counseil of wommen wolde blame, Passe over, for I seyde it in my game. Rede auctours, wher they trete of swich matere, And what they seyn of wommen ye may here. Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne; I can noon harm of no womman divyne.” (438-442)

The aside being included from a reader’s perspective could be construed as maybe Chaucer the author’s own viewpoint on the situation. Since the nun’s priest takes it upon himself to tell of the downfalls of men that have been brought about by women it reiterates the belief that can be gathered by the reader by spelling it out verbatim. Although as readers it is unnecessary for the nun’s priest to have spelled it out so simply because he then shows yet another example of how this occurs, this signifies that this point is one that Chaucer wanted to be sure we gathered sufficiently. Had this not been a belief he had held, would he have spelled it out so plainly?

Chauntecleer later is indeed attacked by a wolf and carried away to the woods to his certain doom before slipping away, proving the point that women are the downfall of men. If he had listened to himself and his own ideas instead of Pertelote, Chauntecleer would have been more cautious and would not have had the near-death encounter he did. Essentially the moral of the nun’s priest tale can be parsed down to the idea that men should not listen to the beliefs of women because this will in due course lead to their death.

As a final point, the prologue to the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” illustrates yet another type of woman of the era, this time in the effect of the story teller. The Wife of Bath demonstrates qualities that women of her time typically did not exude; she is a tough individual with a mind of her own and she refuses to allow society to dictate her actions. She intimidates her societal peers due to the strength she possesses. To undermine her strength however, Chaucer includes physical characteristics of the Wife of Bath that make her less than appealing; he crafts her physique so that she is toothless and ugly. She has also had five husbands over the span of a few short years and countless affairs, thus demonstrating that she breaks innocent men’s hearts. At one point of the prologue, the Wife of Bath comments on marriage and women from a man’s point of view: “Thou lykenest wommanes love to helle, To bareyne lond, ther water may not dwelle. Thou lyknest is also to wilde fyr: The more it brenneth, the more it hath desyr To consume everyt thing that brent wol be. Thous seyst right as wormes shende a tree, Right so a wyf destroyeth hir housebonde; This knowe they that been to wyves bonde.” (5583-5602).

The Wife of Bath’s constant blurring of gender roles seems to create a threat against many of the very masculine aspects of late medieval culture. Glenn Burger states in an article, “the Wife’s apparently successful and entrepreneurial role in wool Englishing and the growing centrality of people of her type in defining the English mainstream; and the ways that such newly emergent groups appropriated the identificatory strategies and patterns of discursive author of previous groups, such as the celibate clerisy and the aristocracy, in order to define their identities” (193). In my view, Burger is right, because as a reader you get to experience the reaction of the male characters to her prologue. While she is boasting about her success and issuing her oration on her way of life, she gets cut off by the monk who tells her direction she is not of the authority to discuss such matters. If the Wife of Bath’s character was not meant to be seen as a threat, this interjection would be likely to have never happened. It can be believed that Chaucer intentionally included a strong female character in the tales to make a statement against self sufficient females.

The monk’s interruption could convey Chaucer as a writer’s own insecurities and beliefs that the strong female individuals could eventually lead to the destruction of men because they could become marginalized by powerful women. Since the Wife of Bath goes through so many husbands as a device to uphold her own stability we do see where this belief could derive from. That being said, we as readers know that Chaucer and many of the other pilgrims find ways to dismiss her strength because of her use of husbandry. The Wife of Bath brings up many a valid point throughout the prologue but Chaucer voids her opinion because of her social class and looks, when in truth she is very wise. It is as if her intelligence is overshadowed by the fact that she has had five husbands and considered something of a whore.

These three narrations that contain women who are thought of as having an evil-like quality, that always tempt and take from men, are not the sole example of how women aid to the downfall of men; almost every one of the tales told can been seen as commenting on this principle. They are depicted as untrustworthy, selfish and very vain throughout the collection of tales. Chaucer obviously has very opinionated views of the marriage and the opposite sex and expresses it very strongly in The Canterbury Tales. Simply put, would Chaucer have included these details in his tales if they were ones that did not coincide with his own personal belief system? Scholars will continue to debate over Chaucer’s use of gender in The Canterbury Tales because no one individual will ever be able to state what Chaucer’s true intent was, as reader’s and scholars we can simply postulate.


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