Feminism in Canterbury Tales

Throughout the ages, the story of the original sin is used to explain the struggles of women and why they are inferior to man. Eve “took of [the forbidden tree’s] fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:6), and as punishment, God made it so “[her husband] shall rule over her” (3:16). As an important text during the lifetime of the characters who tell the collection of stories that compose the Canterbury Tales, most of the pilgrims were familiar with this scripture and believed that the Bible’s word was law. For that reason, the popular belief of the time was that women were inferior to their male counterparts. However, a couple of characters in the tales challenge this viewpoint and show that women were also capable of making their own choices. As the pilgrims struggle with the issue of where women belong, their view of Eve in the story of original sin is altered as well. From mild indifference to intimate involvement, each pilgrim has a different attachment to the story of the Eve, and their views on women in society are reflected in their connection to the story.

The Monk tells the story of Adam and his fall from God’s grace in his series of tragedies, but Eve is noticeably absent compared to the references to her in the other tales. The monk describes Adam’s expulsion from the garden as “As Adam, til he for mysgovernaunce/ Was dryven out of hys hye prosperitee/ To labour, and to helle, and to meschaunce” (2012-2014). The Monk easily could have made Eve the reason for the original sin, but instead, he tells the tale with Adam as the subject of the tragedy. In doing so, the Monk is either making arguing that it was only when Adam ate the fruit that created the original sin and that the actions of Eve were inconsequential, or that too much blame is placed on womankind in the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Monk could easily be read as an anti-feminist viewpoint in the tales. In one short vignette, he explains how Delilah, the wife of Sampson, was responsible for the downfall of her husband. From Hercules to Holofernes, the Monk continues on with more tragedies that feature women who instigated the defeat of their significant other. As Angela Jane Weisl notes in “‘Quiting’ Eve: Violence Against Women in the Canterbury Tales,” women were doomed to repeat “Eve’s walk down the primrose path to hell, usually bringing men with them in the process,” (115). Yet, the Monk chose not to include Eve in his telling of the Garden of Eden.

Eve’s absence may imply that the Monk does not completely blame her for the original sin. Most of the pilgrims in his company would consider Eve to be the source of the problem, but the Monk reads a bit further into it. He sees that Eve was created from Adam, and therefore, the traits that she has are derived from him. “If Eve is made ‘lyk to himself,’ of Adam’s ‘bely-naked’ flesh, why is she instinctively deceitful, untrustworthy, and carnal?” (35) asks Elaine Tuttle Hansen referring to the Merchant’s Tale in her book Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, and the Monk asks the same question. Eve is of the same matter as Adam, so Adam possesses the same characteristics that encouraged Eve to take a bite from the fruit. Because he focuses the blame of the sin on Adam as opposed to Eve, the Monk represents himself as a character who believes that too much blame is placed on women.

However, the Monk may not be attempting to make a statement about the position of women in society at all. After all, he has spent most of his life either in a cloister surrounded by other men, or hunting out in the fields alone. He does not interact with many women in his field of work, so he probably does not have an opinion on the subject. The absence of Eve in his retelling of the story signifies his complete indifference on the topic. He has not spent enough time with women to create his own judgment on the controversial debate between the other pilgrims; so therefore, his story does not portray a side in the argument. His tale is void of the topic of where women belong in society, and consequently, Eve is missing from his story.

As the Nun’s Priest tells the story of Chanticleer and the Fox, the story of the Garden of Eden explains why men should not do as Chanticleer has done and listen to their wives’ advice. “Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo/ And made Adam fro Paradys to go,” (3257-3258) he tells the other pilgrims. Unlike in the Monk’s tale, the Nun’s Priest chooses to mention Eve, yet he does not refer to her by name, or even as a person. It is just her “conseil” that removes the couple from the garden. And to add to the insult of Eve, only Adam’s joy of the garden is mentioned in the Nun’s Priest telling of the tale (3259). The Nun’s Priest makes the emotions and the physical body of Eve seem inconsequential in comparison to Adam in his retelling. Eve’s scarce portrayal in this tale suggests the Nun’s Priest wants to keep women in their place—and that place is without power. If he states that the advice of a woman is “ful often colde,” (Chaucer 3256), why would he believe that a woman should be able to make any decisions for herself? By ignoring his dream on the advice of his wife, Chanticleer is less alert to see the danger that is the fox and nearly gets himself killed. Because the Nun’s Priest tells a story where one of the morals is that the advice of a woman does not deserve to be considered by a man, and because he mentions Eve only in the most minimal way, his view of women appears to be that they are unworthy of men’s attention.

But at the same time, the Nun’s Priest’s change in opinion seems rather abrupt in comparison to the rest of his very well-planned tale. The other pilgrims include the Wife of Bath whom the reader knows to be very adamant in her view that women should have ‘maistre’ in their marriage, and the Franklin who appears to believe that equality in a relationship is ideal. But most importantly, the reader knows that the Nun’s Priest is travelling with a couple of nuns and a Prioress. The Prioress has more power than the Nun’s Priest and probably did not take the Nun’s Priest’s male-centric message. The Nun’s Priest’s controversial point could have easily sparked an angry tirade from the Wife of Bath, but if she had spoken out, the interchange would have been recorded. Instead, perhaps after hearing the Nun’s Priest’s version of Adam and Eve and his opinions regarding the consul of women, the Prioress gave him a dirty look. In return, the Nun’s Priest had to get himself back on the good side of his superior by adding in this small retraction. That way, the Nun’s Priest would be able to avoid a dispute and remain amiable with his travel companions, not to mention keep his employer happy. This in turn would let him remain eligible to win the contest that the pilgrims had created.

The Wife of Bath–the obvious champion of women in the Canterbury Tales–approves of women doing their husbands “no plesaunce” (Chaucer 408) in order to get what they want, and tells a tale about how what women really want is sovereignty. As Caroline Dinshaw plainly states: “she represents independent feminine will and desire” (114). Unlike some of the other pilgrims, the Wife of Bath clearly believes that women are capable of making their own decisions and are able to be trusted. If she were to tell her own version of the original sin, she would undoubtedly make it seem that Eve made the right decision in eating the forbidden fruit. In her eyes, Eve deserved the knowledge that she gained in eating. However, the version of the story that is told in the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale is not her own, but rather her ex-husband Jankyn.

Jankyn does not share his wife’s beliefs about women’s sovereignty. In fact, he takes joy in reading to the Wife of Bath from his ‘book of wikked wyves.’ The first wife that he teaches her about is the first woman. He tells her that “for [Eve’s] wikkednesse/was al mankind broght to wrecchednesse” (Chaucer 714-715). He even declares that “That womman was the los of al mankind” (Chaucer 720). Jankyn continues on with multiple stories of wives and how they brought pain and suffering upon those around them, and eventually the Wife retaliates. She rips a few pages out of her husband’s precious book, and Jankyn beats her so brutally that she becomes deaf in one ear.

The Wife of Bath reacts angrily to the tale of Eve which her husband tells, which exemplifies her hatred towards the blame that men often place upon the women in her society. She fights against this blame by becoming powerful in her first couple marriages. But when she is married to Jankyn, she is no longer in control, nor does she even equally share the power with her husband. Instead, their relationship is more male-dominated, and Jankyn has the Wife begging him to love her. He shows this control by beating her and distressing her with the stories of wives that emotionally distress her. “Men’s desire is still in control, as her tale shows” (129) concludes Caroline Dinshaw about the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath tells a story that ends happily for the female character in that she gets sovereignty in her relationship, but the life of the Wife of Bath is not quite as ideal. She speaks her mind and lives in a way that gives her power to some extent, but in the past, this alternative way of behaving has led to physical and emotional trauma for her.

And as the Wife fights against the restraints that her society places on women, she brags about her traits that give her power in her relationship. “She boasts, for instance, of her traditionally feminine powers to lie and deceive and manipulate men” (Hansen 32), and these characteristics are not characteristics that are typically considered to be admirable. In fact, Chaucer describes the Wife as the complete opposite of the patient Griselda and reasonable Dorigen–those women in the tales who are generally considered to be ‘good.’ In making these traits the key to her power, the Wife emphasizes the evil that many men see in women. She makes “that womman was the los to al mankind” (Chaucer 720) a more accurate description. The Wife of Bath’s interaction with the story of Eve reveals her to be a woman who desires to be free from the prejudice of men, but who is continually oppressed by men and falls into the trap of becoming the woman who all men fear.

The pilgrims never come to a consensus on where women belong in society. They all come from varied backgrounds with different experiences that have shaped their personal opinions on the topic. The Monk has never had to deal with the issue in his isolated life, while the Wife of Bath deals with the consequences of Eve’s reputation every day. The tale each character tells and their portraits give brief insight on what each character has lived through, but each pilgrim grapples with the issue in a way as different as his or her personality. No one has experienced the same things, so nobody reads the same story exactly the same. Therefore, the pilgrim’s interpretations of Eve vary. Eve’s story may be written very simply in the Bible, but the way that the pilgrims interact with scripture make the straightforward account take on more diverse interpretations.

Works Cited

  1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000. 87-98.
  2. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Print.
  3. Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Los Angelos, CA: University of California Press, 1992. Print.
  4. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.
  5. Weisl, Angela Jane. ”Quiting’ Eve: Violence Against Women in the Canterbury Tales.’ Violence Against Women in Medieval Texts. Ed. Anna Roberts. University of Florida Press, 1998. Print