NAME______________________________________________________________________________ The Wife of Bath’s Feminism Activity Senior Honors The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Like Chaucer himself, the Wife of Bath is well read. The Wife of Bath’s defense of her five marriages and her pursuit of a sixth rests upon her ability to acknowledge the statements made by the church fathers on marriage and virginity and offer her own interpretation of them. Below are several passages from the writings of St. Paul and St. Jerome, two men whose opinions about women the Wife specifically alludes to in her Prologue. In the space below each example, find the passage in the Wife’s Prologue where she makes references to these ideas about marriage and virginity and write it in the space provided. How does the Wife’s opinion differ from that of the teachings of the church fathers? On what issues does she agree? 1. Should people remarry? “The turtle, the chastest of birds, always dwelling in lofty places, is a type of the Saviour. Let us read the works of naturalists and we shall find that it is the nature of the turtle- dove, if it lose its mate, not to take another; and we shall understand that second marriage is repudiated even by dumb birds.” -- St. Jerome: From “On the Song of Songs” from the Treatise Against Jovinian The Wife of Bath Responds: 2. Is marriage a necessary evil? “But I say to the Unmarried and to widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I [unmarried]. But if they have not continency [ability to refrain from sex], let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." -- On Marriage and Virginity from the Treatise Against Jovinian by St. Jerome The Wife of Bath Responds: 3. Should one marry or remain single? “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” -- Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians The Wife of Bath Responds: 4. What if everyone were a virgin? “But you will say: "If everybody were a virgin, what would become of the human race"? Like shall here beget like. If everyone were a widow, or continent in marriage, how will mortal men be propagated?... Be not afraid that all will become virgins: virginity is a hard matter, and therefore rare, because it is hard: "Many are called, few chosen." Many begin, few persevere. And so the reward is great for those who have persevered.” -- On Marriage and Virginity from the Treatise Against Jovinian by St. Jerome The Wife of Bath Responds: 5. Who should have the most power in a marriage: the wife or the husband? “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.” -- Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians The Wife of Bath Responds: Summarize the Wife's argument on marriage, using the following questions as a guide. • How does she refute the view that marriage is less virtuous than celibacy? • What is the basis for her claim that wives should have authority over their husbands in marriage? • How does she argue against her third husband's antifeminist accusations? • How does this compare with the tactics she uses against her fifth husband, Jankyn? • How does her frank attitude and love of life add to - or detract from - the force of her argument? Summary: The Wife of Bath's Tale The "Wife of Bath's Tale," which, unexpectedly, is not one of the bawdy stories for which Chaucer is famous but is instead an Arthurian romance based on a plot device familiar in fairy tales like "The Frog Prince"—the transformation of an ugly mate. After you have read the Wife's tale, consider first what might have led Chaucer to give her this story to tell. Know that throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer generally gives his pilgrims tales that fit their character. Thus the Knight, who is the noblest member of the group, recites a chivalric romance, while the Miller, who is one of the commoners, tells a bawdy tale. In other cases, Chaucer creates a dramatic motivation for his pilgrims' choice of tales, as when the Friar's insulting tale of a summoner prompts the Summoner to tell an insulting tale about a friar. Answer the following questions about the Wife of Bath's Tale: • To what extent does the Wife's tale seem appropriate to her character as it has been depicted? • Does the tale reveal new or unexpected aspects of her character? Does it illuminate any of the very different relationships that she has experienced in marriage? • The moral of the story seems to confirm her argument in the "Prologue," that wives should have authority over their husbands, but the proof of the moral seems to come through magic. Are we to take the story at face value, or is it, in the truest sense, a "fairy tale"? How does this reflect on the Wife's character and opinions? • Does Chaucer in this way represent the Wife as seeing herself as the "loathly lady" waiting for some loving husband to unlock the beauty inside her? You may notice that the hag of the story seems to sound like the Wife of Bath when she lectures her unwilling husband on "gentilesse", the innate worthiness attributed to those of noble birth. Explore the hag's argument at this point: that true "gentilesse" is a quality of character, not a result of noble birth. Answer the following questions: • To what extent does this argument confirm the moral order of medieval life, which placed spiritual values above worldly ones? • To what extent does it undermine the medieval belief in natural hierarchy, which saw a feudal pattern governing all things? • Note that the hag's argument cannot change her loathly appearance. That occurs when her husband refuses the choice between inner truth and outer beauty by giving the governance in their marriage to her. In doing so, does he reject the concept of a natural hierarchy, which gives men authority over women, and place his faith instead in a spiritual order? Or does he "say the magic words" in the fairy tale tradition?
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