Today most feminists commonly depict the Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as the ideal model for the feminist literary figure. However, contrary to that belief, I feel that both the Wife of Bath and Chaucer himself are just a well-disguised example of the antifeminist views of the fourteen century. To some modern day feminist critics, like Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer was protofeminist, a writer ahead of his time, who used the medium of literature to speak out against the injustices the opposite gender suffered.
Nevertheless, I feel that Chaucer was fundamentally a writer and a product of the misogynistic times in which he lived. The feminist reading of Chaucer seeks to prove (through the means of historical information; satirical study; and stereotyping of the other pilgrims) that the Wife of Bath represents not Chaucer’s act of feminism, but his apparent reconstruction of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s “La Vieille” in The Romance of the Rose. His parody of the “Old Woman’s” speech exemplifies the same content, which are her life and the wiles of women. Beidler 18) One has to wonder why then did Chaucer use the “La Vieilla” as a model for his Wife of Bath if it was not to make fun of women. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses a style of writing that tends to make fun of and point out the inner controversy of each pilgrim. Why would he be satirical with everyone else, yet sincere with her? Why would he cast almost all the other women poorly, but then ask us to believe (as the modern feminist critic does) that the Wife is his voice for feminism?
As for the Wife of Bath, we need to decide whether we are going to view her as a character developed by a man living in a misogynistic age or as a personality all her own completely separate from her creator. I argue that you cannot separate the two. The author is responsible for his creation. I believe, as does Arlyn Diamond, that Chaucer, like most men of his time, did not express the contempt for women’s inadequacies as we might think, but the fear of their power. (62) When Chaucer takes Jean’s old woman and turns her into a three-dimensional figure with a trade, we begin to see her as a real person.
Her strength of personality enables her to be autonomous in a society and allows her to live as an independent woman. (Diamond 69) However, when we talk about someone like this, we view a fictional character as if she might be real. To Chaucer and the men of his time, intelligence, energy and drive attached to a female became a threat. It is not possible to know exactly how Chaucer viewed women. There are two specific instances in Chaucer’s life that deal with women and not in a positive way.
The first, his marriage to Philippa, was thought by George Williams, in A New View of Chaucer, to be a favor to his friend John of Guant. William feels that she was the lover of John and Chaucer never really experienced love in his relationships with women. (46) The other would be the alleged rape of Cecily Chaumpaigne. Christopher Cannon makes a strong argument for the case in his article “Raptus” which reveals, for the first time, a newly discovered life-record of Chaucer concerning this raptus.
Prior to this discovery the only document available was the deed of release, which mentioned “de raptu meo” but this phrase had varying connotations- “forced coitus or abduction” (75). This measure of doubt freed Chaucer in many scholars’ minds and as Cannon writes, “they have repeatedly tried to protect Chaucer’s reputation from any association with so repugnant a crime as rape” (92). However, Cannon came across the second document, the life-record, which included the missing phrase “de raptu meo. Cannon believes that because of Chaucer’s dealings with the court, he was able to have this phrase removed from the record. In all other life-records of the time that phrase meant “forced coitus” and not “abduction”. I mentioned this rape here, because of Cannon’s convincing argument and if true, it gives us some idea of how Chaucer might have conceived woman. Therefore, I believe, as does Diamond, that he transmutes her potential for genuine female strength into a mixture of fantasies and attributes which constitute an “aggressive female”.