In his collection of tales, he portrayed two extremes in his prospect of women. The Wife of Bath represented the extravagant and lusty woman where as the Prioress represented the admirable and devoted followers of church. (Chaucer, 8) Chaucer delineated the two characters contrastingly in their appearances, general manners, education and most evidently in their behavior toward men. Yet, in the midst of disparities, both tales left its readers with an unsolved enigma.
The Wife of Bath represents the “liberal” extreme in regards to female stereotypes of the Middle Ages.(chuckiii, 4) 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 whenever the opportunity arises. She intimidates men and women alike due to the power she possesses. Because of her obnoxious attitude Chaucer makes her toothless, fat and large. Doubtlessly, she is very ugly, almost to the point of “not-presentable.” The Prioress, on the other hand, serves as a foil to the Wife of Bath.
Chaucer describes her as “tenderhearted” who can not bear the sight of pain or physical suffering. She will cry at the thought of a dog dying. It could represent that she has a frail soul with low tolerance for pain and suffering.(fordham, 16) The latter description carries over into the modern stereotypes about women as skittish and afraid members of society who need to be cared for. (Fordham, 16) Chaucer paints a very delicate and elegant picture of the Prioress. Her manners of eating are far from the brutish festivals of the time. Chaucer describes her table manners as very graceful, not a drop of anything would fall from her mouth, and she was very polite when taking thing at the table.
Chaucer’s last description of Prioress – the letter “A” around her neck that stood for “Amor vincit omnia” meaning “Love conquers all.” The brooch symbolizes love with which her rosaries are adorned is a common accessory for religious devotion which carries the courtly love anthem: love conquers all. (info, 15) The symbol that she wears delineates that she is perfect. Accordingly, the Wife of Bath is daunting, ostentatious and ultimately ugly.
She is nothing in comparison to the Prioress who is elegant, pious, 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 a valid point throughout the prologue but Chaucer voids her opinion because of her social class and looks when in truth she is actually wise. The Wife of Bath has understanding for the world and knows very well what’s going on. However, during the Middle Ages, only scholarly or academic knowledge is recognized.(shef, 14) What the Wife of Bath understands and pursues may not be commendable.
On the contrarily, the Prioress is considered “scholastic” and high class due to her well-manners. Her ability to speak the noble language –French puts her character in a higher class as well.(prioress, 10) Thus, the Prioress is considered erudite and intelligent. Basically, the Wife of Bath is kind of a foil to the women during the Middle Ages. Her actions and thinking not only differ from the Prioress but almost from everyone else!!! 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 defect-being gap-toothed symbolizing “sexual accomplishment”. The Wife of Bath cannot resist telling her companions about all of her sexual experiences.
She also had five husbands and countless affairs, thus breaking innocent men’s hearts. Her husbands fell into two categories. The first category of husbands was rich but also old and unable to fulfill her “sexual” demands. The other husbands were sexually vigorous, but harder to control. None of her five marriage was successful because the Wife of Bath was constantly seeking to have power and control over them.
For instance, her fifth but not the last (it was said that she on her way of marrying the sixth before she told her tale) marriage was unhappy because her husband who is half of her age beats her. To anger him, she tore three pages from his book. After this he beats her again. She pretended to be dead and he felt so guilty that he threw his whole book in the fire.
This gave her the upper hand for the rest of his life. What a contrast between the Wife of Bath and the Prioress. First, the violent and deceitful act of tearing books then malingering will never be done by the Prioress. Remember, the Prioress is pious, well-mannered, educated, “powerful” and above all, is LOVING. Second, this issue of marriage and “sexual demand” will never have its roots in the Prioress’s life.
She has taken the vow of chastity. The Prioress is pure in heart and thinks of men and women alike. She does not think sexually about anyone. (I guessed even if she did, it was only a thought, no actions ever accompanied her thoughts.) It’s interesting how the Wife of Bath was 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. It is rare that women are given such high stature during the Medieval period. (medjugorje, 17) The Prioress as her name suggests “a superioress in a monastic community for women” is so important that three priests were in her company; she essentially was their boss. (Catholic, 9) The hag whom the Wife of Bath identifies with, initially was granted sovereignty and power over man. This is proven when the hag offers her husband the choice: he can have her old and ugly and faithful or young, beautiful, and possible unchaste.
He tells her to choose; he grants her the sovereignty. As mentioned above, the Wife of Bath desires what most women want and that is power over men. Chaucer portrays the Wife of Bath as a feminist. Early in the tale, there is a quotation said by the Wife of Bath supporting the idea that she is feministic.
“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 his life, not he.” In other words, she is saying that she will have total control over herself, her husband, and their household and very specifically, not just the husband. However, there are also situations where she seems to submit to her husband. “Nevertheless, since I know your pleasure I will satisfy your physical pleasure.” This was said by the Wife of Bath and supports the non-feministic view. It is considered non-feministic because the woman is giving in to the man’s desire which goes against feministic beliefs.
The 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 knew how much men enjoy it when women are submissive. This quotation obviously goes against feministic beliefs, leaving an unanswered contradiction about the Wife of Bath. The character of the Prioress in the same light, certainly keeps one guessing. Is her tale the product of the simple mind, or of one poisoned by anti-Semitism?(theater, 11) The Prioress supposedly is pious, well-mannered, educated, powerful, and all loving.
Ironically, her prologue and tale contain strong elements of anti-Semitism. 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 not have mattered to the pilgrims.(fordham, 3) Anti-Semitism, directed at a people thought to have both rejected and murdered Christ, was distressingly deep-seated. (icg, 2) This bigotry unfortunately was rampant at the time, and both the sentiments and their being expressed in the context of a religious story would not have seemed strange to Chaucer’s pilgrimage.(theather, 11) Nevertheless, on a less depressing note, her tale can tell us something of the medieval attitude towards simple piety and miracles, which also was quite prevalent.(icg,2) Personally, I think this is a story about a Christian miracle; I don’t think it is about he Jews at all. Besides, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290.(huntington, 7) The Jew only functions as a vehicle to point up the miracle. Yet, whether this tale is the product of the simple mind or anti-Semitism still remains an enigma.
This is here the only time when the Wife of Bath and the Prioress relate to each other. The Wife of Bath is seeming feministic yet there are also some situations in which she do as the men wish. The Prioress keeps one wondering. Most of the ecclesiastical characters in the Canterbury Tales are clearly either truly pious or, more often, blatantly avaricious and hypocritical.(chuckiii, 5) The Prioress seems to be a perfect lady or is she?? Chaucer portrays the tale of Wife of Bath as hypocritical but between the lines there is some helpful advice for many women in the world today.
Chaucer, maybe is trying to educate women through her tale that there are times one should be a feminist and times one should not. If a woman would be a feminist all her life, she probably wouldn’t get anywhere in her life or with any man. If a woman were not to have a feministic character anytime of her life, she would be overwhelmed by most men, of work or whatever the case may be.(icg,) However, with the tale of the Prioress, I don’t think Chaucer intended to get any message across. This portion of the Canterbury Tales seems like a beautiful sonnet. He seems to describe as if he was in love with her.
When Chaucer describes other characters, he does not go into such great details of their actions.(vahid, 1) But with the Prioress, it seems like one can picture and see the her eating her elegantly. (line 52). Chaucer may have lusted after a woman of the church is that he left us with the description of her brooch. This is what he wants us to see when we think of the prioress; a devotion to love.(vahid, 1) In conclusion, it is not only in the narration that women are thought of as having an depraved mind, that they always tempt and take from men, but in almost of the stories.
They are depicted of deceitful, egotistic and vain throughout the collection of tales. Through the tales of the Wife of Bath and the Prioress, Chaucer represented the two extremes in his view of women. Wife of Bath represented the radical extreme where as the Prioress represented the woman as glorious and commendable. These two characters constantly served as the foil against each other in appearances, general manners, education and most evidently in their behavior toward men.
However, they stand in one common ground in which their tales left the readers in a quandary.!!