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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a collection of stories that are recited by different pilgrims who are on their way to St. Thomas's tomb in Canterbury. On their way they decide to hold a contest that would judge the best tale out of the ones recited by the different characters. The tales help the characters pass the time and entertain themselves. The different characters are from different walks of life and have very different personalities. Set in the middle ages, this novel gives us an insight into the beliefs and customs of the time including disrespect towards the women. The women have lower status than the men in all regards. They are taught to be obedient to their husbands and fathers. To keep men happy is their main aim. (Castle Learning). Women have little power to exercise their free will; hence, they are forced to use their sexuality to fulfill their desires.
One of the stories in The Canterbury Tales demonstrates the suspicion of a husband toward his wife.
"The carpenter had married a new wife,
Not long before, and loved her more than life,
She is a girl eighteen years of age,
Jealous he is and kept her in the cage". (89)
The husband, a carpenter is always afraid that his beautiful and young wife would cheat on him and he will be cuckolded, so he domineers over her. There is also a huge age difference between them which requires him to be more cautious about his wife's activities. Thus his young wife has no freedom. It is accepted that women have to be controlled if the honor of the family wanted is precious and needs to be preserved. Women are considered naturally promiscuous; they are almost always viewed with suspicion.
"There's many a virtuous wife, all said and done,
Ever a thousand good for one that's bad." (87)
This means that the Miller, the narrator of the tale, believes that there are many virtuous and pure women who are loyal to their husband in comparison to the few wives who are impure and unfaithful. If a woman was disobedient to her husband by exercising her own free-will, she was considered impure as a woman's worth was judged by the men with power in society. If a woman cheats on her husband she is sinful and is the one who has "a lecherous eye" (90).
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To escape the control of the carpenter Alison gets involved with a young student lodger, Nicholas. When Nicholas "[makes] a pass At [Alison], in a mood of play" (91) she asks him to "take [his] paws [away]" (91). When Nicholas too is objectifying her and considering her a sex object, she asks him to stay away from her. But when "[he] pleads his cause And [speaks] so fair in proffering what he could" (100), in return "[she] promises him she would" (100) get involved with him. Though Alison knows that he is not very sincere in all he is saying, she vows to love him. She wants a man who is scholarly and someone who can understand her emotionally. That is why Alison does not get involved with a parish clerk called Absalon who also objectifies her. Absalon "offers her money" (93) to impress Alison. And because Absalon does not understand her feelings and tries to buy her off she does not think very kindly of him and instead gets involved with Nicholas. And thus, she has to use her sexuality to get what she wants.
"The Physician's Tale" also shows how utilization of sexuality is inevitable to survive in a male dominated society. His tale is about a beautiful virtuous maiden who has to be killed by her father to save her from the clutches of a lust-driven judge. She has "modesty of bearing and of dress and showed in speech a modesty no less." (233). Her obedience and modesty made her an ideal medieval woman. She is killed by her father to save her honor from the lust driven judge. When the knight, her father, heard that he would have to give up his daughter to the judge because of the conspiracy that he has hatched, he gives his daughter "the ways that [existed] before [her], death or shame". (237). The maiden, Virginia, did not have the free will decide her fate other than the options of death or shame. She chose to die rather than face disgrace to her character by the lecherous judge. Her beauty was blamed for her death.
"Alas her beauty cost her all too dear!
Just as I always say, it's pretty clear
The handsome gifts that fate and nature lend us
Are very often those that least befriends us
Those gifts that I is mentioning just now
Do us more harm than good." (240)
Though the poor girl is killed due to the treachery of the judge it was still considered the fault
of her own gifts that she has to be killed. The people pitied the girl but did not blame the judge in any way. This displayed the mindset of the people during the medieval period. She has to die because she didn't to use her sexuality in a society ruled solely by men. This exhibits that women could not survive without using their sexuality.
The Wife of Bath is the only female pilgrim whose tale we read. She is a character with a strong feminist perspective. She has been married five times already, growing richer every time. Unlike Virginia, the maiden in The Physicians Tale, she is a woman who strongly believes in using her sexuality to fulfill her desires.
"Have god commanded maidenhood to all
Marriage would certainly be condemned beyond recall."
She believes that neither is virginity very important and nor is it a proof of purity. If god has wanted all women to be virgins, god would have been against marriage. She also speculated that if there were no more marriages, and virginity wasn't lost, there would be no more virgins as there would be no more children.
"Tell me to what conclusion or in aid
Of what are generative organs made?
And for what profit are those creatures wrought?
Trust me; they cannot have been made for naught." (261)
The Wife of Bath believes that generative organs are meant to be used showing that she is very supportive of sex. She believes in using sexuality and does not consider it a sin. She has power over her husband when it comes to sex:
"But bed time above all is their misfortune;
That is the place to scold and to importune
And baulk their fun. I would never abide
In bed with them if hands began to slide
Till they have promised ransom, paid a fee,
And then I let them do their nicety."(269)
She uses sex to get jewels and fulfill her other desires. This is the only resource she has that her husbands really need from her, so she makes full use of it. She would have no power over them if she would not consider sex a powerful tool to acquire her wants. She has no power over her husbands. And because society is controlled by men, this is the only choice she had to satisfy her own needs. This is how she has acquired wealth from all her husbands. She also uses emotions to manipulate her husbands. When her fifth husband once smacks her because she commits an act of disobedience, she becomes deaf. After the accident, they "have a mort of trouble and heavy weather" (280) but then their relationship returns to normal after her sovereignty is secured.
"Secured myself the sovereignty in wedlock
And when he said, "my own and truest wife,
Do as you please for all the rest of life,
But guard your honor and my estate,"
From that day forward there is no debate." (280)
The Wife of Bath gets equality with her husband by using her emotions and sex as a tool. She also acquires the various valuables and the control and power over her husband.
A woman has no free-will if she hopes to be seen as pure and virtuous. If she has her free-will, she would be considered impure. This is unacceptable in society as she can only get her free-will if she was disobedient to the men in her family. The woman's integrity and purity is judged by men in a male dominated society. To exercise their free will, the wife of bath and Alison have to use their sexuality and are hence considered impure. But honorable women like Virginia cannot preserve their purity without having to die for it. So women have no choice but to use their sexuality to manipulate men to get their wants fulfilled.
Hull, Marvin. "Castle Learning Centre: Medieval Women"
2001-2008. Castles Unlimited. February 28th, 2008.
Gerson, Jean. "Oeuvres complétes."
2000. McMaster University. February 29th, 2008.