For most people, feminism began in the 1960s. Others recall photographs of women in the early 20th century marching through the streets of London and demanding the right to vote. But few would think of a fictional character from the 14th century. And yet the Wife of Bath, star of Chaucer's greatest work, was a new voice in the struggle for female self-assertion.
The Canterbury Tales was written in the 1380s by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is often regarded as the "father of English Literature" and most consider his Tales to be among the finest works in the English language. In this work, he describes a journey he undertook from London to Kent with a group of fellow pilgrims. These pilgrims represent 14th century England in microcosm, with all classes featured, from noble knight to oafish miller, from Oxford scholar to drunken monk. Each agrees to tell a story to pass the time and Chaucer explains what happened. He describes each pilgrim, how they squabbled and fell out, and of course records the stories they told. The Wife of Bath is unquestionably the most famous of these pilgrims.
Terry Jones, former member of Monty Python and a passionate scholar of medieval history, argues in his book Medieval Lives that women of the period were more self-assertive and independent than they are usually given credit for. This may be true. Nevertheless, young women were thought of as property by their families – something to be traded on the marriage market. Find a rich man for your daughter and you could improve your social status. It should also be remembered that England was, at the time, part of a supra-national church which taught that women were responsible for the Fall. After all, it was Eve who ate the forbidden fruit. Men were in charge. And the consequences of this were dire. Women had a lower life expectancy (the opposite is true today). They were also paid less for doing the same job. A woman could not divorce, own property (unless widowed), inherit land if she had a brother, or marry without her parent's consent.
The writer G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the pilgrims are far more interesting than the tales they tell. And this is especially true of the Wife of Bath, the only character whose prologue is longer than her story.
The Wife of Bath's real name is Alison. She is forty, reasonably wealthy, has been married five times and is eager for a sixth: "welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal". Her prologue opens with her claiming to be an authority on marriage. This authority, she says, is based on experience. Initially she married rich old men for their money. Once they had died, she sought younger men, whom she married for their bodies and looks. She then describes the way she teased and dominated her husbands – withholding sex, for example, or accusing them of things she knew they hadn't done.
In Chaucer's day, travelling actors would portray or personify one of the deadly sins on stage. And this usually involved the actor turning to the audience and confessing. This, say feminist critics, is essentially what the Wife of Bath is doing. So you have a male author creating a female character who confesses to the vices women were thought to possess: she is lecherous, manipulative, shallow, untrustworthy and, above all, domineering. In other words, she has been created to justify patriarchy: 'yes', Chaucer is saying, 'women are like that and need to be controlled.' Feminists who dislike the character add that, far from challenging a male system, she lives comfortably within it.
But the Wife of Bath is greater than the stock figure of a morality play. If Chaucer intended her to be nothing more than a stereotype, why did he make her speech so natural and real? This is not the bland, ritualized language of a morality play but the light, breezy talk of a confident, amusing lady. She is also gutsy and defiant. Take this passage, for example, (in the following extract, "heere" means 'consider', "trowe" means believe, and "leveful" means lawful):
Lo, heere the wise king, daun Salomon;
I trowe he hadde wyves mo than one.
As would God it leveful were unto me
To be refreshed half so oft as he!
Critics argue that Chaucer is supporting the contemporary view that women were too shallow and stupid to understand scripture. But these lines could be interpreted differently. The Wife of Bath is complaining about male laws that dictate to women how they may use their bodies. And her anger at the way men dictate to women can be found once again in these lines, where she speaks of virginity:
Men may conseille a woman to be one
But conseilling is no commandment.
"Conseille" means advise, and Alison is talking about the way the patriarchal Christian culture encourages virginity. She also adds (quite wittily), "...if there were no seed ysowe/Virginitee, than wherof shole it grow?". In other words, where would all these pure Christian virgins come from if no one had sex?
One of the major criticisms feminists level at male writers, especially those long dead, is that they tend to depict women either as helpless victims or as sexless angels – or both. Dickens, for example, is especially guilty of this. C. S. Lewis wrote of his disgust at Dickens' "simpering dolls intended for our sympathy." Or take a character like Tess, from Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles – a victim of men from beginning to end (first of her idiotic father, then of the rapist Alec and ultimately of the men who hang her). But Alison is a woman in control. She is deceitful, but that is only because men hold all the power and force her to be this way. And rather than a "simpering doll," she is a woman who knows her body and enjoys her sex life:
In wifehood I will use myn instrument
As freely as my Maker hath it sent
And the other pilgrims, most of them men, do not patronise or disregard her views. On the contrary, they seem to admire her. The Pardonner, for example, says:
Telle forth your tale, spareth for no man,
And teach us yonge men of your practice.
The Pardoner is himself about to marry and recognizes her as a woman of wisdom and experience.
The Wife of Bath is one of the most fascinating and distinctive voices in English Literature. Indeed, the great literary critic Harold Bloom considers her one of the few characters worthy of comparison with those of Shakespeare. She is also a wonderful early example of female self-assertion – one that no doubt inspired women of the time.