Prioress and Wife of Bath
Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a frozen picture of life in the Middle Ages. Chaucer places his characters on a pilgrimage, a religious journey made to a shrine or holy place. They are traveling on horseback from London to the shrine of martyr Saint Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. Chaucer has very opinionated views of the manners and behaviors of women and expresses it strongly in the Tale. In his collection of Tales, he portrays two extremes in his prospect of women. The Wife of Bath represents the extravagant and lusty woman where as the Prioress represents the admirable and devoted follower of church. Chaucer delineates the two characters contrastingly in their appearances, general manners, education and most evidently in their behavior toward men. Two female characters in Canterbury Tales portray themselves differently to what would be expected of their class and status.
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The Wife of Bath represents “liberal” extreme in regards to female stereotypes of the Middle Ages. Unlike most women being anonymous during the middle Ages, she has a mind of her own and voices herself. Furthermore, she thinks extremely highly of herself and enjoys showing off her Sunday clothes. Because of her obnoxious attitude, Chaucer makes her toothless, fat and large. The Prioress on the other hand, serves as a foil to the Wife of Bath. Chaucer describes her as a “tender-hearted” (154) who cannot bear the sight of pain or physical suffering. “She used to weep if she but saw a mouse caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding” (148-9). Chaucer paints a very delicate and elegant picture of the Prioress. Chaucer describes her table manners as very “graceful, not a drop of anything would fall from her mouth, and she was very polite when talking things at the tale” (131-134). Chaucer's last description of Prioress - the letter “A” around her neck that stood for “Amour vincit omnia” (166) meaning “Lover Conquers all.” The symbol that she wore showed that she is perfect and obviously a representation of what most men of that time wanted but they couldn't have her. Accordingly, the Wife of Bath is daunting, ostentatious, and ugly. She is nothing in comparison to the Prioress who is elegant, well mannered and above all loving.
The Prioress's superiority over the Wife of Bath is shown again in the presence of education. The Wife of Bath has traveled a great deal and seems knowledgeable about things of the world. She brings up many valid points throughout the prologue, but Chaucer voids her opinion because of her social class and looks, when in truth she is actually wise. On the contrary, the Prioress is considered “scholastic” and high class due to her good manners. Her ability to speak French puts her character in a higher class category. Thus, once again the Prioress is considered intelligent. Wife of Bath's action and thinking not only differ from the Prioress, but almost from everyone else in the Middle Ages.
The Wife of Bath is radical especially when it comes to relationship with men. She is characterized as knowing much about love, which is illustrated by her physical description being gap-toothed, which symbolizes “sexual accomplishment.” It's interesting how the Wife of Bath is always striving to have sovereignty and the Prioress was granted sovereignty even though she didn't seek for it intentionally.
The Wife of Bath and the Prioress alike have power over men once again this characterization would scare men. The Prioress, as her name suggests is a “superior being in a monastic community for women” is so important that “three priests were in her company” (168); as this shows her status as the boss, which would be fearful for men at that time. Early in the tale, there is a quotation by the Wife of Bath supporting the idea of men's fear. “I don't deny that I will have my husbands both my debtor and my slave, and as long as I am his wife he shall suffer in the flesh. I will have command over his body during all of his life, not he.” In other words she is saying that she will have total control over herself, her husband, and their household. Wife of Bath has a choice of not giving in to the man, but she decides to let the man have pleasure for his desire not hers. Because from her past experience, she knows how much men enjoy when women are submissive.
Ironically, “She (Prioress) was all sentiment” (154), this is shown through her use of the Jew as the villain of her tale. However, there is no historical evidence of ritual murder of Christian children by Jews, but that would have not mattered to the pilgrims. This tale also reinforces her devotion to the church and this characterization can be seen as a fear to some men as they are unable to obtain her. This is the only time we see that Chaucer is telling us that the Prioress is not as perfect as she might have first seemed. She is basically a fake. A Prioress should take care of people but instead in Canterbury Tales, “she had little dogs,” (150) which was against the rules of the Church. She also loved to show off her dress, which is not something a nun would do.
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Chaucer now contrasts feelings in the Prioress with senses of the Wife of Bath. Prioress embodies fastidious sensibility. The Wife of Bath is the pole of elemental vitality. Prioress is “simple and coy” (123) and she never curses. However, she subtly violates the laws of her order by keeping pets, overdressing and taking on to a pilgrimage. On the other hand, Wife of Bath's aggressiveness demonstrates of her instincts, appetites and will. She makes the institutions of Church: pilgrimage and marriage serve to her temperament. Chaucer developed two basic traits of her; Experience and desire for mastery.
It's interesting to know that how Chaucer manipulates the mode of medieval romance with Prioress physically resembling a romance heroine, and the Wife of Bath is used in a romantic setting in Canterbury Tales. Both ways of using romance are connected with irony. Religious issues bring up another interesting contrast between the Wife of Bath and Prioress. Wife of Bath embodies empirical knowledge of facts; the Prioress embodies blind religious faith.
Chaucer is trying to educate women through these tales, and say that there are times that one should be a feminist and times one should be not. In his compare and contrast, he shows in both women what men fear. Wife of Bath is excessively sex appealing, and the Prioress is generally filled with feelings. As we all know by now, that both of the woman's are not what they seem to be, but they are the opposite of their class and status.
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