In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, an eclectic mix of people gathers together at Tabard Inn to begin a pilgrimage to Canterbury. In the General Prologue, the readers are introduced to each of these characters. Among the pilgrims are the provocative Wife of Bath and the meek Pardoner. These two characters both demonstrate sexuality, in very different ways. Chaucer uses the Wife and the Pardoner to examine sexuality in the medieval period.
The Middle Ages were a time of expanding and experimenting sexually for the people. Religious figures who had taken vows of celibacy had children, sometimes with more than one woman. Even some popes of the time had illicit affairs. However, adultery was often condoned, especially in knights, because the Chivalry Code expected of them certain “actions”:
An act of infidelity was no disgrace, always provided that one preserved the form of polite society…Any knight who contented himself with wedding a virgin before himself having grown practiced in adultery and carried off several trophies of the chase was unworthy of his spurs. Adultery was a social diversion for the upper classes. A knight had to have a lady whom he worshiped…Church and state tolerated the adulterous relationship…It was the thing to choose a celestial patroness…(1)
At the same time, women were repressed in their sexual feelings and were subject to their husband’s demands. If an unmarried woman had sexual relations, she would be dishonored, thrown into exile or even killed. Horrible experiments sought often to find ways of getting rid of any pleasure women would experience during intercourse.
People in the Middle Ages had two distinct views on sexuality at that time: The realists believed that sexual intercourse was sinful and could only be forgiven when in the context of a marriage where both spouses were completely faithful to each other. The nominalists knew that no matter how much abstinence and damnation for sin was preached, there was a certain amount of gray area, and they very much took into account the biblical quote “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”
Chaucer observed the disputes these opposing views created, and shaped the controversy into colorful characters.
In the very first lines of The General Prologue, Chaucer is already demonstrating how his work can be read in two ways: nominalistically and realistically. The nominalist, Chaucer’s pilgrim narrator, sees the lines meant to interpret one way, while the realist, Chaucer the poet, interprets the lines another way.
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licuor,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne,
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye
That sleepen al the night with open ye-
So priketh him Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…
The nominalistic pilgrim sees these lines as representing a new birth (April), baptism and cleansing (water showers), and the breath of Zephyrus as an allusion to the biblical story of Adam and Eve (when God breathed life into Adam). The pilgrim therefore, is taking this journey to cleanse and revitalize his soul and become more spiritual. However, the realist poet sees these lines extremely differently. Instead of the lines alluding to a biblical story, the lines allude to the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, where Zephyr, the god of the West Wind, took Psyche to the house of Cupid. Cupid was in love with Psyche who was eventually made immortal so that she and Cupid could be together. This gives the lines a more sexual connotation. The water gives birth, and represents a male’s sperm, and the breath is the representation of being out of breath after making love.(3) Nature is the male “pricking”, while the ram is the woman into half of nature’s course has run. This gives the pilgrimage an entirely different purpose suggesting that some of the pilgrims possibly have other motivations in this journey. It is the realist view that this paper will use for interpretation.
When readers first meet the Wife of Bath, they are told she comes from “biside Bath” (447), which demonstrates her need for others to think highly of her. She knows that everyone knows the city of Bath, and she believes that if they think she is from there, she will be considered higher in the societal chain than she actually is. The Wife is also partially deaf in both ears, and an extremely fine sewer. The readers should also note that “Hir hosen weren of fin scarlet reed…” (448) and “Bold was hir face and fair and reed of hewe.” (460) Red is the color of blood and passion, and it is interesting that it is her favorite color as well as the color of her face. Other characters in The General Prologue exhibit “reddish” features. The miller has a wart on his nose, which red hair grows out of, and the Summoner has “a fir-reed cherubinnes face…” (626) This may give insight into the miller’s “growing” evilness and the Summoner’s struggle between evil and good. (The fire-red hue contrasts sharply with his cherubic face.)
The Wife has already had five husbands and has had several affairs. It is a possibility that she could be deaf from being abused by her husbands or lovers (especially if her husbands found out about the lovers). She has also been on other pilgrimages. This might mean that she met one, maybe more, of her husbands on a pilgrimage and is looking for the next. The realist interpretation of the first lines would apply here: Her reasons for the pilgrimage then would be sexual.
The Wife of Bath is a confident, experienced woman (she is also well-traveled- a very rare quality in women those days because of the independence it required), who seems to have the upper hand in her relationships with men. She is very unlike other women in that time in that she is liberal about education and sexual matters. The Wife of Bath is the modern equivalent of a feminist. Chaucer created the Wife to portray the image of a woman behaving as a man, and reversing the roles of gender in her relationships.
The lusty Wife of Bath is the antithesis of the Prioress, Madam Eglantine. In the General Prologue, Chaucer uses a metaphor to show the moral cleanliness of the Prioress: “At mete wel ytaught was she withalle: / She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, / Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce deepe; / Wel coude she carye a morsel, and wel keepe/ That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.” (127-131) Chaucer uses the metaphor of table manners to show the Prioress’s abstinence. She was taught well, and she never faltered in her purity. (No morsels feel