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Discussion - Canterbury Tales > Week 7 - - The Wife of Bath's Tale

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments I'm a bit ahead of my time tonight, but we're having a violent wind event, the power went out a few miles from us, and I want to try to get my posts in before it goes out here.

We come now to perhaps the best known, certainly I think the most notorious character in the Tales: the Wife of Bath. The tale itself, while worth discussion, isn't what makes her so notorious; it's the description of her in the Prologue and, particularly her extraordinary prologue.

I could write pages in opening this discussion, but I'll let you have a chance first. I'll just offer a few little questions/comments.

One: is the Wife of Bath the first Feminist of English Literature? Or is she an anti-feminist, or something other than that?

Two: we have talked about how often modern themes show up in Chaucer, and this is another perfect example. Chaucer knew all about the "cycle of violence" view of domestic violence six centuries before the feminist social scientists discovered it. For those of you familiar with the "cycle of violence," do you see any significant differences between Chaucer's presentation of it and modern sociological descriptions of it?

And three: how does the Wife of Bath, both her own description of her character and the moral of her story, fit with your previous view of the role of women in 14th century England? And do you think Chaucer is offering a fair picture of a women of his time, or is his view a complete fantasy?


message 2: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Lavoie | 33 comments I'll skip question two. But as for the first, I don't think the Wife of Bath is a feminist. It doesn't seem like she wants equality persay, but she just wants to rule. She wants her husband to pretty much hand over everything to her, but he still does all the work. It's about power, not equality.

While the Wife's prologue was interesting, the tale caught my interest more this time than the last time I read it, because I realized, this knight rapes a girl, and then is pretty much praised for it. Granted he is threatened with death if he does not answer a question, but when he does, he is married. At first the woman is an old crone, but when he answers her question correctly, she becomes a beautiful woman.

I felt that this resolution rewarded the knight and it bothered me. I see that he has given his power to a woman and agrees to answer to her, but is his dignity taken away? He has a beautiful wife who is faithful, so I don't think so. Maybe it's just me thinking to hard...


message 3: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Jennifer wrote: "Maybe it's just me thinking to hard...
"


Anything but that. Hard thinking is welcome here, and is really the beset way to mine the classics for all they can offer us.


message 4: by Galicius (new)

Galicius | 44 comments She is the archetypal strong woman, a Medieval Molly Bloom, who accepts and celebrates life and all its vagaries and with all men, a child of Venus, and bold as Mars who loves revelry, squandering, and defiance. A good and valid question, Patrice. A man obviously wrote it but I just love this Alison.


toria (vikz writes) (victoriavikzwrites) | 186 comments Patrice wrote: "I'd like to add another question. Did you believe that a woman wrote this?"

I wasn't really sure about that. But, so far, I feel that this was my favourite story.


message 6: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 16, 2011 02:03AM) (new)

MadgeUK ...I don't think the Wife of Bath is a feminist. It doesn't seem like she wants equality persay, but she just wants to rule.

I agree Jennifer and there have always been wives like her, despite the overall dominance of men just as there have always been husbands who were weaker than their wives or who liked to be dominated (a common sexual proclivity throughout the ages).

Human nature hasn't changed much through the centuries and although the 'cycle of violence' was picked up by feminists of our times, it was likely to have been known about from earliest times, especially as observation of violent behaviour was easier in smaller communities.

In his Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer comments: 'A point to remember is that this discrimination against women is only legal, it is not personal. If a wife is spirited enough, she may do more than hold her own against her husband, as Chaucer's Wife of Bath will gladly relate. Whilst a man may legally beat his wife, she may accuse him in a church court of cruelty, for beating her too much. But no man could take his wife to court for husband beating as no court will sympathise with a man so feeble that he cannot defend himself against his own wife. Similarly, if a man wants to take legal action against his wife for adultery, he has to admit to the shame of being a cuckold.'

Mortimer cites a number of examples where women gained the upper hand in marriage and in business, although he also points out the risk women have in marriage of their health being damaged by frequent beatings, violent sex and annual childbirth:(.

I love Galicius' description of WoB as a Medieval Molly Bloom!


message 7: by Thomas (last edited Feb 16, 2011 02:46PM) (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments I wonder if Chaucer isn't poking fun at himself a little bit here -- there is something slightly anti-intellectual about the tale, and something a little hypocritical as well.

The wife starts off by dismissing "auctoritee", or written authority, saying experience is good enough authority for her. But she goes on to cite scripture extensively, Ptolemy, Greek myth, and even Dante. (And at the end of her tale the Friar tells her to "leave citations of authorities / To schools of learning and to sermonizers...") We know she has traveled all over the world, and despite her initial dismissal of book-learning she is obviously very well educated.

And it doesn't seem incidental that her final "bad" husband is a scholar -- the fourth dies under what seems mysterious circumstances, and the fifth is the one who angers her with his book of wicked women (surely a reference to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, which is exactly the opposite kind of book.) Alisoun's ripping pages out of this book seems symbolic.

And finally, the tale she tells is a problem as well, as Jennifer pointed out. All together I think the Wife is like the Knight and the Prioress -- complicated, and much more than she seems to be on the surface.


message 8: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Patrice wrote: "I thought of that too Thomas. She's a bit of a philosopher, it seems. She talks about "the ideal" ala Plato, then the telos ala Aristotle, then she goes into empiricism. I wasn't sure though, if..."

I can't remember which tale it was, but there was a reference to the Prime Mover, which made me think that he had to have been familiar with Aristotle. And he knew Dante, who knew Aristotle intimately. Hard to think he didn't have access to Plato as well as Aristotle in latin translation.


message 9: by Sasha (new)

Sasha Galicius wrote: "She is the archetypal strong woman, a Medieval Molly Bloom, who accepts and celebrates life and all its vagaries and with all men, a child of Venus, and bold as Mars who loves revelry, squandering,..."
The wife is certainly a strong woman, I can hear her voice and see her clearly, I think she is the most real of all of Chaucer's characters and they are all very life-like.

I am ambivalent about her. She describes herself as an awful scold, but one can't help but think she is actually very good natured.

Her boast of a lovely pudenda was a bit shocking for me, I don't ever think I have ever heard anyone describing their genitals, let alone boasting about them. Sorry, substitute 'anyone' for 'any women' :).


message 10: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 17, 2011 02:10AM) (new)

MadgeUK Her boast of a lovely pudenda was a bit shocking for me, I don't ever think I have ever heard anyone describing their genitals, let alone boasting about them. Sorry, substitute 'anyone' for 'any women' :).

Whereas we are all used to men boasting about theirs:D. I suppose this was just another example of the outspokenness of the times. We may not always realise that the pudenda is being referred to as other words are used to describe it. A 'token', a 'cut' or a 'shape', are all Old English words for it, as of course, is cunt. 'Cut' is an interesting one because 'vagina' is from a Roman term meaning scabbard whereas pudenda is from pudere, meaning shame, which in itself speaks volumes.


message 11: by Bill (last edited Feb 18, 2011 01:57AM) (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments I'm new to this group, I haven't read Chaucer yet, but I wanted to participate so I have only read his general introduction and this tale. The story is brilliant and if they all come close to this, I'm going to love this book.

I know this is presumptuous of me, but I'm going to say that I think Chaucer has a specific aim with this story. Everything else, all the seeming digressions, as instructive as they may be in themselves on different issues, are all there to support the central aim.

Which is marriage advice for young husbands.

I say young husbands, because this advice is of the sort that if an old husband hasn't learned it yet he is either beyond hope (being unable to believe or comprehend it) or has given up hope and doesn't even care anymore. The advice doesn't cover a lot of issues; because most young men are simple--the advice is simple. The story explicitly says what women want--but its really about helping young husbands get what they want.

What better defines a target audience then the nature of the happy ending? The happy ending is quite explicit:

"And when the knight had looked to see,
Lo, she was young and lovely, rich in charms,
In ecstasy he caught her in her arms,
His heart went bathing in a bath of blisses
And melted in a hundred thousand kisses,
And she responded in the fullest measure
With all that could delight or give him pleasure"



Chaucer begins his marriage lesson by creating the nightmare woman for his target audience. First she is as sexually curious, uninhibited, insatiable, capricious, and indiscriminate as many young men are, and as most young men, would like to be. And even at mature age she is the female equivilant of a 'dirty old man'-- which is what most young men expect they'll be when they get old.

Secondly, she is as intelligent, witty, knowledgeable, well traveled, well studied, and experienced, as most young men either think they are, or would like to think they will one day be.

She is the epitome of what many young men are afraid of in a wife, and this fear is the main reason these men try to control their wives and treat them as idiots. All the while expecting their wives to be the lover the happy ending of this story describes.

Trying to control a woman is the same as trying to make her what she is not. Like the knight with his rape, it is forcing her to give you what she has not chosen to give you. And like the rapist knight, any man who has been stuck in this rut owes his happiness to the woman or women who were gracious enough to turn him around and set him on the right quest.

Controlling a woman and expecting a lover is as futile as rape. A woman can only love a man who not only recognizes, but embraces, the fact that she is free to love him or another, at any time, now or in the future.

"The knight thought long and hard, and with a piteous groan
At last he said, with all the care in life,
'My lady and my love, my dearest wife,
I leave the matter to your wise decision.
You make the choice of yourself, for the provision
Of what may be agreeable and rich
In honour to us both, I don't care which;
Whatever pleases you suffices me"



And Chaucer advises, when a man is able to arrive at this, when a woman has a choice (Chaucers word is "Sovereignty") to be a lover (or not) even while being a wife---as the wife of Bath said when she "Secured myself the sovereignty in wedlock", then even the wife of Bath is capable of being a true and faithful lover.

And when he said, "My own and truest wife,
Do as you please for all the rest of life,
But guard your honour and my good estate,"
From that day forward there was no debate,
So help me God I was as kind to him
as any wife from the Denmark to the rim
Of India, and as true. And he to me



message 12: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 18, 2011 02:40AM) (new)

MadgeUK Welcome Bill. An interesting p.o.v. about a marriage manual but I don't think there is any historical evidence to support it. There are several such tales in the English canon and Chaucer seems to be using WoB as a moral satire upon the human sexual appetitite, especially a woman's. For instance, it is very similar to the cycle of tales involving the Arthurian knight Gawain, such as Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, where an ugly woman turns into a beautiful one on the wedding night. From a feminist p.o.v. it is also a male sexual fantasy, one of many told about insatiable female sexual appetites through the ages.

From Wikipedia: 'Some have theorized that the Wife's tale may have been written to ease Chaucer's guilty conscience. It is recorded that in 1380 associates of Chaucer stood surety for an amount equal to half his yearly salary for a charge brought by Cecily Champaign for "de rapto," rape or abduction; the same view has been taken of his Legend of Good Women, which Chaucer himself describes as a penance.'


message 13: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 18, 2011 02:58AM) (new)

MadgeUK A British computer analysis has found the Wife of Bath to be chaste and that Chaucer may not have written the more infamous passages:-

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1...

Here is a reading in Middle English of WoB:-

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xgwt...

BTW the City of Bath is connected historically both with the Roman Baths which are there and with King Arthur who fought the legendary Battle of Badon nearby (although there is also some doubt cast by historians as to whether King Arthur existed at all). Chaucer may have used Bath symbolically since it represents both the Romans and an historic British victory.

http://www.cotswolds.info/places/bath...


message 14: by Bill (last edited Feb 18, 2011 03:02AM) (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments MadgeUK wrote: "Welcome Bill. An interesting p.o.v. about a marriage manual but I don't think there is any historical evidence to support it. There are several such tales in the English canon and Chaucer seems to..."

You could be right of course. I'm not a Chaucer scholar, literary or historical. In all my reading I try to get all I can from the text itself before I google the scholarly stuff.

I'm also not very educated on formal 'feminism', so I'm not sure what you mean by this being a male sexual fantasy from a feminist p.o.v. Are you saying that the wife of Bath is a male sexual fantasy? Her dirty talking is medieval porn?

Oh.i just re-read your comment..its the ugly woman turning pretty on the wedding night that is the male sexual fantasy..right?

I just wanted to add (20 minutes later--don't want to keep posting new posts) that a 'marriage manual' isn't exactly what I'm getting at. A marriage manual would cover a whole range of issues and would be very obvious as such and could hardly take the form of a story like this. I meant it is a story meant to give a specific message, particularly to young men, about how to treat their wives. While important advice, not really enough to comprise a 'manual'.


message 15: by Bill (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments MadgeUK wrote: "A British computer analysis has found the Wife of Bath to be chaste and that Chaucer may not have written the more infamous passages:-

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1...

Here is a r..."


I read this. If I read it correctly, it is saying that evolutionary biology proves this fictional character wasn't as she is depicted?? A rather strange proposition.

But even that article goes on to say the 'most authentic' texts portray her as 'outrageous'.


message 16: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 18, 2011 03:11AM) (new)

MadgeUK Bill wrote: "MadgeUK wrote: "Welcome Bill. An interesting p.o.v. about a marriage manual but I don't think there is any historical evidence to support it. There are several such tales in the English canon and ..."

Women with insatiable sexual appetites, nymphomaniacs, are the subject of male sexual fantasies and so is the idea of an ugly bride turning beautiful, which has connotations of her sexual performance being more beautiful than her appearance. When arranged marriages were the norm amongst the upper classes, many a bridegroom must have hoped for this! :)

No, I don't think CT is medieval porn because such frank descriptions of sexual matters were more acceptable to general society then, as we can see from the wide variety of people on the pilgrimage listening to the tales. I doubt that we would tell these tales to a Nun of our times, for instance!

I used the word manual loosely and see what you are getting at, which is a reasonable analysis.


message 17: by Bill (last edited Feb 18, 2011 03:19AM) (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments MadgeUK wrote: "Women with insatiable sexual appetites, nymphomaniacs, are the subject of male sexual fantasies and so is the idea of an ugly bride turning beautiful, which has connotations of her sexual performance being more beautiful than her appearance. When arranged marriages were the norm amongst the upper classes, many a bridegroom must have hoped for this! :)..."

I think the story, the articulated concerns of the men and the women, are much deeper then to be targeted to the rather small group of men who have a fetish for being cuckolded by a nympho wife, although I can see where a sufficiently repressed medieval fetishist of that type may find the WoB titillating.

My translator introduction (Nevill Coghill), says that upper class arranged marriages were not expected to be about love and that men usually found lovers outside marriage--at least to court and 'serve' if not to consummate sexually. It seems clear to me that this story is trying to show how it is possible for the lover and the wife to be the same person.


message 18: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 18, 2011 07:18AM) (new)

MadgeUK I think the story, the articulated concerns of the men and the women, are much deeper then to be targeted to the rather small group of men who have a fetish for being cuckolded by a nympho wife

Of course the story goes much deeper than this (we haven't begun to touch on biblical allusions) although we mustn't forget that Chaucer was in fact writing for a small group of mainly men - his patron the Duke of Lancaster, King Richard and his courtiers. Stories with an overt sexual content, which we might call porn or fetishist today, have been popular since time immemorial. Tales about cuckolds were very popular in medieval times, particularly, as in the Miller's tale, tales of a young women cuckolding an older husbands. Perhaps people realised that, because divorce was nearly impossible, there were many unhappy marriages. And the idea of women being over-sexed came from the physicians of the time, such as Galen, who taught that women's wombs were 'cold' and needed constant warming by 'hot' male sperm. If women did not regularly copulate their 'seed' might coagulate and suffocate their wombs, thereby damaging their health and fertility. It was therefore widely understood that women needed to have sex regularly. Another doctor (Gaddesden) also gave the advice to single women that to prevent this 'suffocation', they should find a midwife who should lubricate her fingers with oil, then insert them into her vagina and 'move them vigorously about'!! (From Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England.)

Whether or not upper class men had lovers outside of marriage, they were expected to make love to their wives to beget many children, so one would suppose that they preferred some measure of both beauty and reciprocation and hoped that ugliness might be tempered by sexual desire.

It seems clear to me that this story is trying to show how it is possible for the lover and the wife to be the same person.

I am not sure of your meaning here?


message 19: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments The feminist/anti-feminist arguments that surround this tale seem to me to argue two sides of the same coin. In both the prologue and the tale a kind of equilibrium is reached where the woman achieves a level of dominance, which argues for the "feminist" pov; but in both prologue and tale the price for this is that she must endure some kind of violence, and achieve her goals deceitfully (anti-"feminist".)

On a much simpler level, this tale is just about the dynamics of sexual politics. Like any other kind of politics, one has to give a little to get a little, and the cleverest party usually winds up on top.


message 20: by Bill (last edited Feb 18, 2011 02:07PM) (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments MadgeUK wrote: "And the idea of women being over-sexed came from the physicians of the time, such as Galen, who taught that women's wombs were 'cold' and needed constant warming by 'hot' male sperm. If women did not regularly copulate their 'seed' might coagulate and suffocate their wombs, thereby damaging their health and fertility.
Of..."


Your historical references are very interesting. This reminds me of the female hysteria phenomena, and its treatment to induce "hysterical paroxysm", which the linked article says went back to ancient times but which seems to be particularly prevalent in the Victorian era. I suppose these sorts of phenomena may be the result of women not being expected to be an authority on much of anything, even their own sexuality.

However, for sake of discussion, let me pursue my original thesis a bit, fully admitting I could be over emphasizing or flatly wrong; I'm no scholar. But hey...this is what book 'groups' are for..right? Again, I think the text is very rich, as many books which have survived for years are, and so can have a lot of secondary and different aims, such as ribald humor, titillation, etc. for its own sake.

If we assume this story has a moral, then surely the story of the rapist knight and his quest is central to it. Also, I feel a clue, as to the aim of the story, is given in that passage right after she has described her sexual appetite and provided philosophical and scriptural support for it, and the titillated young pardoner expresses his enthusiastic support and desire for marriage, she says this:
You wait, she said, 'my story's not begun.
You'll taste another brew before I've done;
You'll find it isn't quite so nice as beer.
For while the tale is telling you shall hear
Of all the tribulations man and wife
can have"


..and she has further words advising him to listen carefully to her advice..to which he replies

'Madam, I put it to you as a prayer,'
The Pardoner said, 'go on as you began!
Tell us your tale, spare not for any man.
Instruct us younger men in your technique'



Here are some facts and questions regarding the knights quest.

Quest is a direct result of his raping a woman.

What does the rape of a woman mean in the context of this story? Isn't the primary concern of the other men in this story, WoB's husbands, control and management of their unmanageable wife? Thats practically every verse until the end of her prologue.

He is answerable in his quest to not only the Queen, but every woman.

There sat the noble matrons and the heady
Young girls, and widows too, that have the grace
Of wisdom, all assembled in that place


His quest is specifically to find out what women most desire
Doesn't it seem the queen feels that his hatred and violence toward women comes from his not caring what they want--
and that this in turn, may come from his frustration over not understanding what they want most?
Doesn't this lack of understanding and desperation exist in WoB's husbands as well?
And doesn't the Queen seem to be assuming that if this knight cared and understood what women want, then the violence and hatred toward them would stop?

The fulfillment of his quest is learning that women want their husbands to be their lovers--not their warders
'My liege and lady, in general,' said he,
'A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover,
And master him; he must not be above her.
That is your greatest wish'


My Nevill Coghill translation has a foot note next to the word 'sovereignty' which in turn refers the reader to the introduction for greater understanding of the term. I quote from the introduction:
It could be debated whether love could ever have a place in marriage; the typical situation in which as 'courtly lover' found himself was to be plunged in a secret, and illicit, and even an adulterous passion for some seemingly unattainable and pedestalized lady. Before his mistress a lover was prostrate, wounded to death by her beauty, killed by her disdain, obliged to an illimitable constancy, marked out for dangerous service. A smile from her was in theory a gracious reward for twenty years of painful adoration. All Chaucer's heroes regard love when it comes upon them as the most beautiful of absolute disasters, and agony as much desired as bemoaned, ever to be pursued, never to be betrayed. ...This was not in theory the attitude of a husband to his wife. It was for a husband to command, for a wife to obey. The changes that can be rung on these antithesis are to be seen throughout the Canterbury Tales

It seems that what we would call today call 'courting' or 'romance' of a lover, would, in that time, mean the man commits himself to the service of his beloved. I think this should be kept in mind when we read what seems to be to us a desire, imputed to women by Chaucer, to simply boss her man around. This may not be saying so much that wives want to boss men around as that wives want their husbands to treat them as their romantic lovers, and in that era this love expressed itself in drastically catering to them.

The reward for his quest was the knight gained a lover with whom he was able also to blissfully consummate
In ecstasy he caught her in her arms,
His heart went bathing in a bath of blisses
And melted in a hundred thousand kisses,
And she responded in the fullest measure
With all that could delight or give him pleasure


This is what the young pardoner is dreaming of, and it is what the WoB is promising him if he will listen to her.

This is what I mean by Chaucer being concerned with showing how it is possible for a wife to also be a lover.


message 21: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Fascinating discussion, all. Great stuff!

Bill, when you write "However, for sake of discussion, let me pursue my original thesis a bit, fully admitting I could be over emphasizing or flatly wrong; I'm no scholar. But hey...this is what book 'groups' are for..right? "

you're dead on. This is exactly what book groups are for. I'm glad that you didn't get intimidated by a somewhat robust opposition to your view, but hung in there and developed your ideas with passages from the text itself. I love to see that here. While it's sometimes interesting to go out on the Internet and see what "scholars" think about a book, in the end it's important to understand that these books weren't written to be analyzed by scholars, they weren't intended to be nitpicked by professional critics, but they were written for ordinary people like us. While the can be some benefit in seeing what people with more experience reading the texts have seen in them, and in looking into the environment in which they were written, in the end I think it's the ordinary reader looking closely at what the author actually wrote that really matters.

All that said, I do wonder, though, whether Chaucer had so clear an intent to write a manual for young men. I do agree certainly that, as you point out, there is much in the tale that will be of particular interest to young men looking ahead to their first marriages, but whether this was Chaucer's intent, or whether it's a happy consequence of his giving us a portrait of a robust and sexually virulent woman, and an interesting tale (as Patrice points out, very much in the style and general genre of the Decameron), I don't know.


message 22: by Bill (last edited Feb 18, 2011 06:33PM) (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments Everyman wrote: " whether this was Chaucer's intent, or whether it's a happy consequence of his giving us a portrait of a robust and sexually virulent woman, and an interesting tale (as Patrice points out, very much in the style and general genre of the Decameron), I don't know. ..."

I'm not sure how important the question is..as to his intent. I think sometimes the most meaningful things in literature can exist without authors intent. Maybe it was not his main intent, maybe it was a secondary intent.

I can certainly see the WoB's description of her own life as being an end in itself---to titillate--bash women as sexually suspect, or as hard to get along with, etc.

But her self description is a prologue to her story. Wherein there is nothing titillating at all.
If her story isn't a fairy tale with a moral---what is it?
If it is a fairy tale with a moral..what is the moral?
And once we have determined that--what reasons do we have for interpreting the prologue in light of the moral of her story as I have done---or for not doing so?

My thesis follows from that line of questioning. I'm certainly looking forward to different answers then I have for those questions--it would lend a whole new aspect to the story.

Also a different set of questions would be interesting.


message 23: by MadgeUK (new)

MadgeUK She is a weaver of cloth, he of tales. Textiles and texts. She uses wool and he uses words to spin.

Great analogy Patrice!


message 24: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 19, 2011 07:34AM) (new)

MadgeUK I'm glad that you didn't get intimidated by a somewhat robust opposition to your view,

'While the can be some benefit in seeing what people with more experience reading the texts have seen in them, and in looking into the environment in which they were written, in the end I think it's the ordinary reader looking closely at what the author actually wrote that really matters.



I did agree that Bill's p.o.v. was 'interesting', and 'reasonable' even though, after 500 years of study by both scholars and ordinary people, such a theory did not appear to have been mentioned. Apart from the brief Wikipedia entry, I was mostly referring to The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, which I am reading alongside CT and which quotes from many sources. I do not like to ignore what has been written over a period of 500 years and just speculate. That is like thinking that the moon is made of green cheese, even after Neil Armstrong had brought a sample of rock back! Ordinary readers could look all they like at what Chaucer 'actually wrote' but, for instance, they would be unlikely to make much headway without the scholarly translations and interpretations from Middle English.

Book groups are also about learning from others regarding the background to what we are reading - I had not, for instance, thought about the Decameron link pointed out by Patrice, or considered his point about the 'lusty month of May', and I appreciated the Molly Bloom reference by Galicious which was yet another indication that the Western canon is written by giants standing on the shoulders of giants.


message 25: by Bill (last edited Feb 19, 2011 12:57AM) (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments Madge, I did not take offense at all to what you had to say although you disagreed with me in large part. I think disagreement is great. I appreciated what you had to say and expect to learn from your studies of the era since I have done no studying of it.

There is certainly benefit to be had from reading what scholars who have studied these texts have to say as well as what historians of the era have to say. While I took Everyman's post to be encouraging me, I also took his giving due credit to scholars and historians as intentional and personal advice for me as well.


message 26: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 19, 2011 01:06AM) (new)

MadgeUK Thankyou Bill, I realised that. However, my interpretation of Everyman's post was different to your own. I felt it denigrated scholarship and those who used it. If I was wrong then I apologise - I do not wish to cause dissension but I felt stung by his response.

PS: I am puzzled that you are online in what is my UK morning, considering that you live in WA. Are you a nightworker or an insomniac? :).


message 27: by Bill (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments MadgeUK wrote: "I am puzzled that you are online in what is my UK morning, considering that you live in WA. Are you a nightworker or an insomniac? :). ..."

I'm somewhat of an insomniac. I've never slept very much and the older I get the less I sleep.


message 28: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 19, 2011 07:33AM) (new)

MadgeUK Me too! Nice to see you around at this time - I am usually quite lonely here in the morning! Watch out for my frequent edits as I revise my early morning rambles - so don't respond immediately!


message 29: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 19, 2011 08:35AM) (new)

MadgeUK Good point Patrice. But is he not supporting women when he has the Wife say 'By God! If women had written stories/As clerks do, within their oratories,/They would have described more wickedness/Than all the sons of Adam might redress.'?

There are times when I read Chaucer in the vernacular that I think he is like a comedian 'taking off' the rural population. Could this have been part of his original intention? It has been said that the strength of Chaucer's writing lays in his descriptions of ordinary people and those at court must have delighted in these, 'impressions', removed as they were from common folk.

Then again, there is the sad picture painted by Mortimer who asks us to 'picture him in the 1390s, 168-9cm high, with a paunch, and a forked white beard, walking along the street to his house in Aldgate, with a pile of vellum rolls under his arm, as people pass by in their hoods and motley clothes. When he gets there, there is no wife waiting for him. Philippa has died a few years earlier. Instead he goes up to his chamber alone and, as he puts it in an earlier poem 'there dumb as any stone, you sit before another book, til fully dazed is your look, and there you live a hermit life.'

So is he writing the tales for courtiers or is he writing them to populate his own lonely chamber and the chamber of his mind? Whatever the reason, he wrote a bestseller which lasted from his own times to ours.


message 30: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments MadgeUK wrote: "Thankyou Bill, I realised that. However, my interpretation of Everyman's post was different to your own. I felt it denigrated scholarship and those who used it. ."

It was not intended that way. Rather, it was intended to regret those who in viewing a text automatically look first to the opinions of others rather than forming their own opinions first, then going to scholarship to test their views and enrich their understanding of the test.

I am certainly influenced by having taught too many students, including graduate students, who only wanted to be told by the "experts" what they should think about a text and weren't the least interested in investing the personal time and effort to actually read and think about the text for themselves first. That was too much effort; it was much easier just to read what the text meant to other people and assume that that is what it should mean for them.

Serious reading takes effort. I understand that it is easier to just let somebody else tell one what the book means. I think that's a shame, and doesn't do justice to the whole point of reading these books. But I realize that this is just my prejudice, and others don't share it, nor should they have to.


message 31: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 27, 2011 10:33AM) (new)

MadgeUK I have read CT on numerous occasions and am currently helping my grandson with it, having previously assisted my two granddaughters with interpretation and essays. So I don't think I fall into the category of those who only read interpretations, interested though I am in literary criticism of all kinds, which I think have value and which, incidentally, my children's teachers encourage them to seek out. Uninformed speculation is also easy (and equally lazy) and can lead to serious errors of judgement. I do not like to discount the work of many scholars over the centuries, people who have had far more knowledge and time than I and who, moreover, could read the source material for the tales in the original languages. Not one of us here would be reading these tales without their input. I certainly could not interpret the following manuscript from Caxton's first edition of CT without considerable help from previous scholars!:-

http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/chan...

Vive la scholarship say I!


message 32: by MadgeUK (new)

MadgeUK Thankyou very much Patrice and I appreciate the links of others and all the wonderful, insightful contributions you and others make, which enrich both my reading and my life on a daily basis.


message 33: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments MadgeUK wrote: "I have read CT on numerous occasions ..."

I have no doubt of that. But what I miss is hearing your voice about the book; hearing what you have found interesting or valuable or dull or quizzical or unintelligible or warming or nasty or whatever. I appreciate your work as a researcher, but you're an interesting person in your own right with a lifetime of fascinating experiences, and I would love to hear more often what Madge has to say about the book, what her mind has thought about it, what it means or doesn't mean to her. I seldom seem to find that in your posts, and I would like to.


message 34: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments An addendum to my last post:

I was brought up on George Fox's famous (to Quakers) query "You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?"

It was that principle that I was driving at.


message 35: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Perhaps now would be a good time to talk about the possibility that the Wife murdered (or conspired to murder) her fourth husband, who was not such a great guy. Husband No. 4 is described as a libertine, and their relationship seems to have been a contest of sex and jealousy.

While husband No. 4 is in London, Alisoun meets up with Jankyn the clerk (future husband No. 5) in the meadows. They are having a wonderful time, as she explains:

We strolled about the fields, as I was saying,
And got on so well together, he and I,
That I began to think ahead, and tell him
That if I were a widow we could marry.


She then tells Jankyn about her dream in which "he'd come to kill me, lying on my back, And that the entire bed was drenched in blood." To whom the pronoun "he" refers isn't exactly clear -- the context seem to imply it is Jankyn in the dream, but possibly not. It's a strange image, violent with sexual overtones. She tells Jankyn this so he will think her "enchanted." How is this image at all attractive in a romantic sense? I'm not sure what to make of this, but given the nature of their relationship, I could argue that "he" refers in fact to husband No. 4. It could be a motivation for making husband No. 4 disappear.

In any case, she tells us two lines later (after losing her train of thought, supposedly) that husband No. 4 is dead. No explanation is given for his death, but she offers that she wept because it is "customary."

The book of "wicked women" which upsets her so much takes on added meaning in this light.


message 36: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 28, 2011 03:04AM) (new)

MadgeUK Everyman wrote: "MadgeUK wrote: "I have read CT on numerous occasions ..."

I have no doubt of that. But what I miss is hearing your voice about the book; hearing what you have found interesting or valuable or dull..."


I generally find that I have nothing valuable to add to what has either been said centuries before or what has been said here. If we were discussing a modern work, I might think I had something original to say but as it is I mostly feel that it is all deju vu. That too is a problem of being old and experienced:). In compensation, I try to bring some bits of British history (or politics) to light which folks here might not know about but with which I am familiar because of my studies.


message 37: by Everyman (last edited Feb 28, 2011 11:01AM) (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments MadgeUK wrote: "I generally find that I have nothing valuable to add to what has either been said centuries before or what has been said here. If we were discussing a modern work, I might think I had something original to say but as it is I mostly feel that it is all deju vu. "

I hope I can persuade you (and all others here who may think the same thing) otherwise. No one in history has read the book with your same background, experience, and outlook on life. You are the first person ever in history, and will be the last person ever in history, to read the book who has lived your life and thought your thoughts and experienced your experiences. Your reading of the book is an experience unique to you. Nobody ever has or ever can exactly duplicate it. The intersection of your life at a particular moment and a book is something that has never happened before and never will happen again -- every time we read the book, whether it be for the first or the fiftieth time, we are a different person and see the book slightly (or sometimes quite significantly, as perhaps after the birth of a child or a marriage or the death of a parent or loved one) differently.

Even the most educated scholar, even one who has exhaustively studied a single book for decades, has not and cannot read the book with your mind. What they have to say can and often is interesting and helpful, but it can never substitute for what you have to say yourself from your reading based on your life and experiences. They cannot ever see the book in exactly the same way you can. They cannot interpret the details, identify some passages as compelling and some as less so, feel the emotions of the characters, in exactly the same way you do.

That's what I would love to have you (and all others here) share with us.


message 38: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "Perhaps now would be a good time to talk about the possibility that the Wife murdered (or conspired to murder) her fourth husband, who was not such a great guy...."

There is indeed something rather suspicious about a woman, particularly a woman of that era when so many women died in childbirth, having outlasted four husbands. It is usually the other way around, men on their third or fourth wives. I think Chaucer's audience would have been acutely aware of this dichotomy and would have had very much the same suspicion you do =- and perhaps to other husbands as well, though they were for the most part older husbands and perhaps naturally more vulnerable.

Of course, there is also much she could have done to, uh, encourage their passing on to their eternal reward. She would have been the one to have decided what their diets should have been, how vigorous a workout they experienced in the conjugal bed, how much stress they may have encountered in their marital relationship, and so on.

Was sheer accumulation of wealth through the convenient passing on of so many husbands purely propitious, or was it assisted? Great question.


message 39: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 28, 2011 12:12PM) (new)

MadgeUK If a woman had survived childbirth or did not have any children, the likelihood was that she would survive her husband. Men were subject to other dangers - at work, in work related illnesses, in war. Women had to be strong to survive both the rigours of childbirth and just being a busy wife and mother, with all the heavy labour and long hours that entailed. And like livestock they were often chosen for their health - the Wife of Bath could just have been of 'good stock'. It was also common for an older, or old, man to marry a young wife (as we have seen in CT) just because they were good for breeding and could have more children, so they were quite likely to survive more than one husband. And as Everyman says, with each marriage might come more wealth and therefore an easier life.

Wouldn't Chaucer have had the wife hint at poison if it were likely - it would have made a better tale? Or would it have put her in danger of being apprehended by the law?


message 40: by MadgeUK (last edited Feb 28, 2011 01:52PM) (new)

MadgeUK Everyman wrote: "MadgeUK wrote: "I generally find that I have nothing valuable to add to what has either been said centuries before or what has been said here. If we were discussing a modern work, I might think I h...
Everyman wrote: I hope I can persuade you (and all others here who may think the same thing) otherwise"


Unfortunately, I am unable to change my spots in this regard. I have an analytical turn of mine and it is my way to look into things, research them, before I talk/write about them. It was also something that I had to do at work for over 30 years. I am sorry if it doesn't suit but I do the best I can in these discussions, in the way I know best.

Sticking my neck our but not wanting to go off topic: I also do not believe that we are unique in the way that you seem to suggest. We are all the products of our genes, our parents, our environment, our country and our country's history, our school, our college etc etc and to a very large extent we draw upon ideas gleaned from all those sources whenever we offer opinions which we think are our very own. There are times, for instance, when I talk about politics, that I can positively hear my father or some other politician I have known well, speaking 'through' me - not in a spiritualistic way ( I am not at all spiritual!) but because I know deep down that what I am saying has been said, thought or written before. Phrases like 'history repeats itself' and 'there is nothing new under the sun' spring to mind here.

We are all, I believe, part of what Carl Jung called 'the collective unconscious' which is universal. This isn't built up like one's personal unconscious, it predates the individual. He thought it was the repository of all religious, spiritual, and mythological symbols and experiences and that these these 'archetypes' (as the Greeks would have called them) were behind all our religious and mythological concepts, indeed behind our thinking processes in general. This idea seems to gel with me and prevents me from thinking that I am some sort of unique individual with original thoughts, as you suggest. Like our authors, I feel that I too am 'resting on the shoulders of giants' and I like to pay them homage.


message 41: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments MadgeUK wrote: "Wouldn't Chaucer have had the wife hint at poison if it were likely - it would have made a better tale? Or would it have put her in danger of being apprehended by the law? "

After she describes her fabricated dream she says,

And al was fals; I dremed of it right naught,
But as I folwed ay me dames loore,
As wel of this as of othere thynges moore.
But now, sire lat me se what I shal seyn.
A ha! By God I have my tale ageyn.


There is that odd little pause where she claims to have lost her "tale" before she goes directly to her fourth husband lying on his funeral bier. I took that as an indication that she was leaving something out.

Of course there is no way of proving her guilt or innocence, and I could be barking up the wrong tree with this. On the other hand, her guilt doesn't need to be proven in order to cast a shadow on her character. An implication can sometimes be more telling than a open assertion. Whether she is really guilty or not, I think it's a remarkable feat of subtlety.


message 42: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "An implication can sometimes be more telling than a open assertion. Whether she is really guilty or not, I think it's a remarkable feat of subtlety. "

Perhaps the better question is not whether she actually did poison him, but whether Chaucer intended his readers to wonder whether maybe she did. And in the passages you cited, it appears to me that he did indeed offer that hint for us to pick up on, as you did, whether or not she actually did the deed.


message 43: by Bill (new)

Bill (BIll_B) | 250 comments Thomas wrote: "Of course there is no way of proving her guilt or innocence, and I could be barking up the wrong tree with this. On the other hand, her guilt doesn't need to be proven in order to cast a shadow on her character. An implication can sometimes be more telling than a open assertion. Whether she is really guilty or not, I think it's a remarkable feat of subtlety. ..."

The prologue is very ambiguous to me. Is she a bad woman or is she just a strong spirited woman that a medieval man would find hard to manage? However, the fairy tale story she chooses to tell is much less ambiguous. Thats why it seemed to me that if one wants to make definitive sense of the story, the prologue would be interpreted in light of the tale she told..and her character would be interpreted in that light as well.


message 44: by MadgeUK (last edited Mar 01, 2011 08:16AM) (new)

MadgeUK The prologue is very ambiguous to me. Is she a bad woman or is she just a strong spirited woman that a medieval man would find hard to manage?

That any man would find hard to manage:D.

The ambiguity does give credence to the idea that Chaucer may have been hinting at poison.

I wonder if the WoB was seen in a favourable light by the medieval pilgrims? Or indeed by Chaucer's first audience of courtiers? In our sexually liberated times, she has been admired as a strong woman but would they have been more critical of her? If so, the possibility of her poisoning her husbands would be more likely.


message 45: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments MadgeUK wrote: "I wonder if the WoB was seen in a favourable light by the medieval pilgrims? Or indeed by Chaucer's fist audience of courtiers? "

I would speculate that the pilgrims would find her a rather amusing but somewhat daunting character. The courtiers I suspect would see her as purely fabalistic, somewhat like one of the characters in a Greek drams (Medea perhaps?), and laugh at her because the idea that such a woman could actually exist in their day and age would indeed be laughable.


message 46: by MadgeUK (new)

MadgeUK It has been said that the 14C was a 'golden age for women' because of the opportunities presented to them by the Black Death, when the population of Europe was decimated. 'Upon the death of her husband, a woman controlled substantial family property, often for the first time in her life. In London, this usually included the dower, consisting of at least one-third of the marital property which was to provide for the widow for the duration of her life. Widows were also allowed to remain in the homes they had shared with their husbands until they remarried or died; this right was known as free bench. It is these property responsibilities which make widows stand out in the records of the time.' I therefore think that women like WoB were probably well known at all levels of that society and likely to be more feared than laughable. Or even desired:).


message 47: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments MadgeUK wrote: "It has been said that the 14C was a 'golden age for women' because of the opportunities presented to them by the Black Death,..."

Interesting perspective. But it wasn't the Black Death which put women in charge of property; that happened earlier, at the time of the Crusades, when wealthy nobles went off for years to the holy lands to fight and often left their wives in charge of their considerable lands and properties. (Since legally women weren't allowed to own property, the lawyers cleverly worked their way around that with the concept of trusts, which overcame that limitation nicely.)

But there are also two other aspects we need to keep in mind. One was Chivalry, which elevated women (or at least young maidens) almost to the status of goddesses, but at the same time emphasized their helplessness, so that they had to have male protectors to wear their emblems into battle and rescue them from dragons.

The other aspect is the church, which was still (as we seen in Chaucer including so many churchmen and women in his story), while becoming corrupt in many ways, also very powerful. And the Catholic Church has always adhered strongly to the idea of woman as helpmate to man, as subservient, as inferior.

The Wife of Bath shatters both these stereotypes.

She is certainly worthy of being admired by feminists, but at the time the nascent birth of feminism was still several centuries away.


message 48: by MadgeUK (last edited Mar 01, 2011 12:35PM) (new)

MadgeUK Interesting perspective. But it wasn't the Black Death which put women in charge of property

Part of the 'golden age for women' was a woman's ability to acquire property through marriage or inheritance, which improved in the early Middle Ages. Their economic and political position within the family, and consequently within a wider public sphere, also increased. When she became a widow a woman acquired extensive legal rights and was allowed to participate more in the public sphere, especially in the courts hearing complaints, pursuing litigation etc. Once widowed, she was responsible for her own lands until she remarried. Many, like WoB, chose to remain widows, a reasonable choice under the circumstances. (ref Ian Mortimer The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England.) So in a way the WoB was a stereotype.

The deaths of so many men (and they died in greater numbers because they went out and about) created such widows and was rather like the situation which occurred in Europe after the slaughter of WWI, when many women who went into factories and offices during the war, found themselves able to be independent women, without husbands and fiances, after it. When I first went out to work there were many such 'war widows' in junior management positions and the civil service, with pensions and their own little flats etc.


message 49: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Everyman wrote: "

Perhaps the better question is not whether she actually did poison him, but whether Chaucer intended his readers to wonder whether maybe she did. ..."


Absolutely. The subtle details in the prologues add a dimension of color that is entirely dependent on the reader's willingness to wonder. Zeke's question in the other thread has me thinking about why Chaucer is so revered, and I think it is in part his ability to engage the reader's imagination. In an indirect way the reader becomes a participant in the pilgrimage. We find our own tales to tell about the people on the road to Canterbury.

MadgeUK wrote: "It has been said that the 14C was a 'golden age for women' because of the opportunities presented to them by the Black Death, when the population of Europe was decimated. 'Upon the death of her hu..."

Fascinating! I never knew there was a silver lining to the Black Death.


message 50: by [deleted user] (new)

The exchange about women's roles improving in light of (take your pick) the Black Death or the Crusades is fascinating.

In our next book, Moby Dick we will learn about a similar thing happening on Nantucket Island, because so many of the island's men went on the whaling ships, but it won't be part of the narrative.


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