In Geoffrey Chacer's The Canterbury Tales we are introduced to 29 people who are going on a pilgrimage to St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Each person is represented to fit a unique type of behavior as shown by people during the medieval ages. My attention was drawn to the Wife of Bath through which Chaucer notes the gender inequalities. Predominantly, women could either choose to marry and become of childbearing wife or go into a religious order. Women were seen as property. Women during this period of time, had limited choices when it came to societal roles. The Wife of Bath exonerates the accepted roles of society, reflecting women's attempt to gain control during the medieval period.
The General Prologue presents an interesting description of The Wife of Bath. Her character is noted to be strong and bold and we learn she is slightly deaf. The Wife of Bath was married and widowed five times and has had numerous companions. The Wife of Bath is a skilled cloth maker and a devoted Christian pilgrim who has made trips to several shrines.
Through her unique introduction in The General Prologue we learn much of her physical attributes. The Wife of Bath is gapped tooth.
"Gat-toothed was she, soothly for to saye.
Upon an amblere esily she sat" (p.91, ll. 470-471)
This physical feature is attributed to lust and passion. The fact that she could ride a horse easily also could take on sexual connotations (Maclaine 32). The horse she "rides" so well could actually be her husband.
Early in the Wife of Bath Prologue, The Wife of Bath declares that experience is more important to her than knowledge.
"Experience, though noon auctoritee,
Were in this world, is right ynough for me" (p.117, ll. 1-2)
She is confident about her knowledge of love, virginity and marriage (after all she has been married five times). Just as men use the bible to justify women's oppression, so did the Wife of Bath. She states that double standards for women are deeply rooted in society. The Wife of Bath addressed and dispels the justification for multiple marriages through biblical figures and stories.
"I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,
And eech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also" (p.118, ll. 61-64)
The Wife of Bath relied on the bible to justify her unaccepted views, but when the bible did not favor her views she simply disregarded it.
The Wife of Bath is a widow and therefore it is assumed that she would dress rather conservatively. This is not the case for the Wife of Bath. Her clothing is quite flamboyant with scarlet red leggings, soft new shoes, broad hat, and spurs on her feet. She is obviously not dressed in a typical manner or style of other women in her time (Hallissy 42).
She disapproved of her husbands attempts to inflict control upon her. She desires freedom and she wants financial information to be disclosed to her and she wants her independent freedom. The Wife of Bath believes that all women want is to gain control over their husbands. The fact that she is a skilled seamstress and weaver demonstrates that she is financially independent. This in itself establishes that her character is not a typical medieval woman. Through weaving, she is self reliant and really does not need a financial support by a man. She is a woman that maintained control of her life and the life of her men (Hallissy 42).
The Wife of Bath also gains control through sex.
"In wifhood wol I use myn instrument
As Freely as my Makere hath it sent.
Myn housbonde shal it han both eve and morwe,
Whan that him list come forth and paye hit dette.
An housbonde wol nat lette,
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral" (p.120, ll.155-161)
The views as described in this passage signifies that marriage is not for love, rather for sex. She gains dominance by refraining and demanding sex. The issue of sex comes up during the prologue when she asks the purpose of refraining from using one's sex organs if they serve a reproduction function as well as provide pleasure. Ironically the Wife of Bath has not used her sex organs for both of these functions