Through Man’s Eyes: A Study of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Clerk, and Prioress and their Attempt to Correct the Faults Inherent in Men

This essay will focus on how the female characters in the tales of the Wife of Bath and the Clerk, and in the prologue of the Prioress, show various ways women are present and created for man’s betterment. They all show how man has created them to shed light on the imperfections inherent in man, and thereby strive to correct such imperfections, all solely for the benefit of masculine authority. Geoffrey Chaucer was a man, no doubt, writing in a time where women seemingly had not as much power, or authority, or liberty as they might today. Elaine Hansen states that Chaucer may bear “empathy with real women and/or understanding of feminine power” (27). Chaucer may have originally intended giving women power in his tales, so he created such rich characters with their own authority, as is evidenced by the Wife of Bath. His masculinity seeps through females still. The Wife is headstrong and will not give in to the idea that she could only marry once: “Of bigamye, or of octogamye; / Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?” (Wife of Bath 33-34). Her last husband is much younger than she, a conflict that presents itself as allowing the Wife to bear some semblance of control in the marriage. But she is not in as much control as she may have presumed, keeping in mind her previous marriages; this reveals itself when her ultimate husband strikes her as easily as he might have any other woman. This is not without purpose; her tale of the “lusty bacheler” and his elf-queen describes how women with power, magical even, are still subjugated to their spouses by their own volition.

Where this story tells of women with power being dominated, the story of the Clerk, on the other hand, also gives the archetype of female submission, but instead offers the character of Grisilde, a very simple and plain girl, whose background allows her no status of worth or value with which she may defend herself, instead eschewing female power and giving her entire will and livelihood to her husband. It is interesting that it is the Clerk, knowledged and experienced, who tells such a story of submissive women. Therefore, consider that, despite the characters’ involvement in their stories, it is Chaucer who holds these ideals. Where many of Chaucer’s characters call on their own authority in the text, I will call my own from Chaucer’s General Prologue: Chaucer claims of the clerk that “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche” (Clerk 308). If we apply this same characteristic to Chaucer, Chaucer did not learn to give women true authority and power, and neither did he teach that women have these attributes in his stories. Chaucer uses these to show how women had no power at all, or, if they did, it was only for the moral and ethical betterment of man. As for the Prioress, I will delve into her character in how Chaucer was able to dominate such a lofty woman. Just like the elf-queen, the Prioress desires power, power in controlling her “litel clergeoun” and his undying devotion to his female saint.

Concerning the Wife of Bath’s “control” over masculinity, while the Wife’s previous husbands were unable to dominate her, her final husband was able to display some sort of willpower over her, whether by means of his obdurate reading of the crude book or striking her deaf. Reading story after story about saucy women, Jankyn knew more of these women than in Scripture: “‘He knew of hem mo legendes and lyves / Than been of goode wyves in the Bible’” (Wife of Bath 686-687). Nevertheless, after physical abuse, he was quick to expiate his error, and she was quick to comply—with some stipulations (Wife of Bath 807-816). It is fitting, then, that in her story a powerful enchantress was dominated, in the end, by a brash young knight, whose only claim to fame was his birthright. He was nightmarishly egotistical, and yet, through no merit of his own, he was able to conquer the elf-queen, a woman who bears far greater power than he may ever know. This sort of story takes place in the fantastical realm in “th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour, / Of which that Britons speken greet honour, / Al was this land fulfild of fayerye” (Wife of Bath 857-859). Michael Calabrese claims that the “reformation of man in the Wife of Bath’s Tale” is “magically induced” (82). Even in a land full of magic and mystery, where anyone can have power over another, the women have to be subjugated in one way or another, in order that they might preserve the gentillesse of knighthood. Because the Wife of Bath acts as a mere agent of Chaucer’s masculinity, we must learn to deconstruct the characters, look past them, and see that the author is and always was Chaucer. His ideals are ever present within, and so the females merely act as agents comprising masculine authority. Here the Wife of Bath is the means through which Chaucer’s masculinity is buttressed and, in some cases, reaffirmed. In his book The Disenchanted Self, H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., argues that “men give [women] license and permission to make what they can of the image for their own purposes” (72). The Wife may seem to gain authority, but when we look at her tale, we find that she only carried authority up to the point where it tore ultimate authority from man. That is, the elf-queen gave the knight more than what he wanted. The wife, in the same vessel, was an instrument to correct her final husband, who realized his error in striking his wife and vowed never to do such an abhorrent thing again: “‘Dere suster Alisoun, / As help me God, I shall thee nevere smyte” (Wife of Bath 804-805). Thus Alison did not escape the constraints of masculinity; instead, her husband learned how to be a better man because of her, because Chaucer desired him to become such. Though Hansen assumes that the Wife’s “denouement implies that the Wife herself lacks confidence in the female’s powers of speech” (Hansen 33), the Wife’s own words are exactly what Chaucer uses to construct the better model of man. It is only when his life and sanity are spared—one by the Arthurian queen, and the other by the elf-queen—that he gives his fullest attention and respect. He listens to Arthur’s queen, who instructs him “I grante thee lyf, if thou canst tellen me / What thing is it that wommen most desyren” (Wife of Bath 904-905). This instruction is not for women, but men. Dismiss the notion that Chaucer tried to think inside a women’s head. He does not care what women desire because, as we read later in the tale, men get what they desire in the end: a perfectly beautiful and powerful woman who stays completely loyal to him. (This notion of perfect loyalty will also be discussed later in the Clerk’s tale.) Chaucer, being male, places the knight in the seat of authority all along. Though initially disgusted by his new wife’s appearance (after all, what base and shallow man wouldn’t be?), the knight surrenders his own authority only so that his wife may have some temporary power; she then relinquishes her power altogether by becoming what he desires most: “For by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe, / This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good” (Wife of Bath 1240-1241); she will die mad unless she is completely true to him. The quest the knight is out to find then is not what women desire, but what man desires. Through his character is comparable to today’s “frat boy” mentality, his only claim to gentillesse is by birth with no striving of his own. The fact alone that he raped someone does not help his cause either, but it is exactly that which put him in his predicament, and actually helped him in the quest to gain true gentillesse. Chaucer gives him what men, especially those in love-longinge, want, doing so through the Wife of Bath. Man, therefore, desires control over woman, and only gives them temporary control so that they (men) might better understand how to better control their wives. For where “[w]ommen desiren…for to been in maistrie hym above” (III.1038-1040), they end up giving their entire self-worth to be dominated by men. Interestingly, Holly A. Crocker claims that “the subject of marriage suggests that men inevitably must form marital unions with women, but that they must also accept the dissolution of masculine agency that such bonds entail” (190), though the knight does allow himself to yield to the elf-queen—momentarily, because the true gain is that the knight has been instructed in the ways of gentillesse. Also ponder the idea that the knight knew that if he dismissed his own desires, maybe his newfound wife might comply, seeing this as her opportunity for domination—is that not was women desire? Was it not she who gave him this answer? If the knight had known the outcome of his submission, he may have simply given her his answer so that she may give him all he desires. His only knowledge gained from this is that he knows what answer women what, so he gives it as such because he is too fragile to speak his mind by now. He knows he is susceptible to her powers, so, like any other man, he submits himself when he has no other choice. We can claim this is just authorial intrusion by saying Chaucer wanted the knight to answer so. In accordance with Leicester’s claims, women act only as reactors to the agents of marriage (Leicester 67). If this is the case, there is no instance in the Wife of Bath’s tale, or even in the Clerk’s, where women act first, except, perhaps, in the case of Guinevere. But she is the wife of Arthur, having almost immediate power over all men. Rather, in the Wife’s story, woman reacts through the elf-queen, an all-powerful magician only to be brought down by the basest of knights. Chaucer is incapable of giving women full control because he is truly unable to put himself in any other position other than when men come out on top. And this is especially true in the Clerk’s tale, where Grisilde acts as the paragon of womanhood—so it would seem.

The Clerk attempts to offer us a tale he once heard, but why does he choose a tale about such a cruel marquis and his undyingly faithful wife? We may reason that Chaucer made no mistake in assigning this tale to the Clerk; after all, it is this character who loves to learn and loves to teach. Upon reflection, the tale may be taken as an attack on the Clerk’s scholarly status, but it is fundamentally the work of the masculine idea, to be interpreted as the result of what men desire in women. We must not put Chaucer through the minds of women only; here, as the Clerk, Chaucer fits right in in the mindset of masculinity. Grisilde is the patient but far too innocent wife of an Italian marquis. For no reason other than jealously, he subjects her through tormenting tribulations, and she bears it all. The Clerk, in all his intelligence and wisdom, gives this story as one of the best he has heard; it is his ticket into the Canterbury tales, so to speak. As a clerk, he must have heard many stories, some far more ideal and titillating than others, but he decided to offer this as his contribution into the canon. In one aspect, the story is similar to the Wife of Bath’s in that the idea of loyalty is ever present. However, instead of loyalty demanded from the husband, the loyalty here is demanded of poor Grisilde, and she unyieldingly gives it. Patterson, through Elaine Hansen’s chapter, propounds that the Wife of Bath is “‘a creature of male imagination’” (44)—and so too must Grisilde be. She is the other side of the Wife of Bath; that is, she is wholly, firstly, and purely loyal to her first—and only—husband. Grisilde is a simple wife, exactly what the marquis sought: “‘I have doon this dede / For no malice ne for no crueltee, / But for t’assaye in thee thy wommanhede’” (Clerk 1073-1075). He claims authority when he claims he put these adversities on her not out of cruelty, but to uphold and strengthen her womanhood. He will strengthen her through his tests so that she can be a truer wife for him. Where in the marquis is in control from the very beginning, the knight learns his control later on, but these two win their dream of dominance anyway. The idea of dominance, then, is nothing of the product of femininity, and solely the idea of masculinity in these tales. Crocker argues that the Clerk “establishes his self-control through his ability to make a type of feminine identity that remains inaccessible except through literary representation” (180). Grisilde is not a real woman because she can never be real. She is created in and taken from the fictional world to showcase what men may desire in women. Chaucer chose to convey this story through an authorial position—that of clerk, of knowledge—to balance what “destructive” womanhood the Wife of Bath may have yearned to uphold. Crocker argues that Grisilde’s passivity is actually her strength, being very much unlike the Wife of Bath or the elf-queen in that she chooses to submit from the very beginning. She is the agent of her innocence, and it is this tool that explains that the woman with agency chooses to please her husband first and foremost. The Clerk here establishes and reasserts his masculinity (and maybe that of Chaucer’s as well) by emitting what the most ideal woman may be. Cocker explains:

While [the Clerk’s] claim that there are no more Griseldas in the world puts such feminine identity outside the boundaries of common masculine experience, he creates for himself the position of privileged masculinity empowered by its access to and control over and ideal of feminine submission, the rarity of which suggests its power. (Crocker 180)

The Merchant later tries to denounce the Clerk’s assumption of control over women, but the Clerk’s voice is the one that should be admired. Yes, the Merchant claims that “wedded men live in sorwe and care” (Merchant 1228), but this only affirms that Chaucer seems to wish to look past his characters and into their tales, offering for many what may be the paragon of womanhood—under male control. Perhaps also the Clerk may have wanted to assert his own masculinity because of the Host’s attack: “‘Ye ryde as coy and stille as dooth a mayde / Were newe espoused, sittinge at the bord” (Clerk 2-3). To remedy this, Mary C. Flannery claims that the “Host’s comments suggest that an overly strong sense of shame is preventing the Clerk from speaking in the way that a man ought to speak” (Flannery 341). The Clerk, like Chaucer the pilgrim, has been silent for some time. So this was his opportunity to present his masculinity in full blast. But even where male narrators purport the proper ideal of womanhood, so too do women speak of the upholding of men, or rather boys, as in the case in the Prioress’ tale.

The Wife of Bath and Clerk have been dealt with primarily to juxtapose Chaucer with his own ideals in terms of how women should be, so much so that they are present to rectify and purify masculinity. Where Chaucer embeds imagination and magic into the Wife of Bath’s tale through the elf-queen, so too is the magical realm present in the Prioress’ tale. It is through this “fantasy” that the “litel clergeoun” was able to assist his mother in finding his murderers. Man was completed through magical renewal in the Wife of Bath’s tale; the “Prioress too calls for renewal, for the shutting out of the abject, the Jew, through pure emotion,” as Michael Calabrese purports that the Prioress is the epitome of primness:

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,

Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.

Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe

That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.

In curteisye was set ful muchel hir lest.

Hir over-lippe wyped she so clene,

That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene

Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte. (128-135)

She is full of so much “uptightness” that it is rather shocking, in fact, that her tale strays far from her propriety. It is important to note that, despite her disposition, the Prioress was chosen by Chaucer to deliver a rather atrocious story of violence and magic because these may be her desires. He explicitly states that he is quoting her and not himself: “O Lord, oure Lord, thy name how merveillous / Is in this large worlde y-sprad—quod she—” (248). Though in her inmost wishes lurk violence and the renewal of mankind through the worship of the Virgin Queen. This little boy is supremely devoted to his one true love: the Virgin Mary. So Chaucer, through the Prioress, shows that even at a young age, boys are at their best when they recite their Alma redemptoris and remain loyal to their heavenly mother. Even in death the clergeoun continues to sing to aid his mother in finding him: “Ther he with throte y-corven lay upright, / He Alma redemptoris gan to singe / So loude that al the place gan to ringe” (Prioress 611-613). It is his faithfulness to his earthly and heavenly mothers that allowed him a proper burial, and that the Jews, with their hearts full of Satan’s wasp nest (Prioress 558-559), were “with wilde horse…drawe, / And after that…heng…by the lawe” (Prioress 633-634). While the Wife of Bath acts as the eyes of Chaucer for the domination of woman, and the Clerk can simply be the explicit personification of Chaucer, it is of paramount importance to read the Prioress’ tale through her eyes, for she herself desires loyalty from Christian men, in their youth, to their Christian Mother. Chaucer may be aroused by the Prioress, knowing her inner most thoughts, desires, and sexual appetites. Leicester asks “What’s woman’s desire? cannot be something knowable, reducible to a concept that would make it predictable. It can only be an experience, the experience of whatever turns her on” (Leicester 213). Through her religious cravings, the Prioress was dissected by Chaucer, he outlying her mannerisms, she showing Chaucer how to obtain her heart. Chaucer created the Prioress to worship the man, man devoted to the Virgin Queen, and Chaucer will in effect worship these prim servants the Lord, that he may conquer them.

Such interpretation above in these three tales gives us an idea of what Chaucer may have been alluding to in creating female characters. Because Chaucer was a man, he is perfectly unable to create the ultimate version of the female, thoughts and all. But perhaps that was not his only intent. Through these stories he has shown us what the ideals of man are through both men and women. Through the Wife of Bath, Chaucer created a headstrong woman that, in the end, subjected herself to her younger husband. Still, she utilizes these “errors” that have made her stronger, believing herself to be a woman of authority. Oberembt states:

The rebellion against patriarchal authority and the abusive treatment of particular men which the Wife of Bath expresses are really but the projections of her revolutionist attitude, the most striking attitude but the most symptomatic of her essential character. (Oberembt 289-290)

It may also be that Chaucer really was attempting to create a woman distinct from his own era. She could merely the subject of her own afflictions by her birth time and place alone; Leicester says: Chaucer “presents her as a free individual, a person who misunderstands and misuses her horoscope by ignoring her own freedom in playing the hand the stars have dealt her” (67). Her tale, nevertheless, affirms that Chaucer expresses that the only power women obtain are from men: the ever powerful elf-queen submits to her husband’s wishes and creates for him the ideal woman. This is Chaucer’s ideal woman.

But Chaucer has many ideal women, it would seem; she resided not only in the elf-queen, that titillating mistress of magic and might, but also in the simple and pleasant Grisilde of the Clerk’s tale. This innocent by loyal woman is the perfect companion to the elf-queen, offering her husband her fullest devotion from the very beginning. Of course, the marquis believes she is not without error, and he attempts to rarefy her through trying crucibles, as already aforementioned, that were not out of cruelty but to maintain loyalty in marriage.

And loyalty is not for the women alone, but for men as well, as was seen through the Prioress. The knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale may have given a smidgen of devotion, but only when he was cornered. The boy in the Prioress’s tale was devoted from the beginning. Dominance for her is not that women remain loyal to their husbands, but rather men remain loyal to their religion, and, maybe, they might be better fit for being husbands. After all, is not Chaucer out to correct the faults of man in his tales?

Dismissive Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer was a male author—that much is obvious. He was a male poet creating through a male mind, and, most likely, for a dominantly male audience. Through his Wife of Bath’s Tale, he attempts to construct a female in the sense that it only extends masculinity, which proves that he is neither a pro-feminist nor non-anti-feminist. Elaine Tuttle Hansen argues that Chaucer represents the Wife through male mentality and tendency, and rightfully so, revealing to us a Chaucer wholly incapable of depicting a fully pure and lucid representation of a woman. Perhaps Chaucer’s intent wasn’t to create a fully fleshed woman, but to display, through femaleness, the faults of maleness and perfect them in creating a fully fleshed out man.

I will look past the Wife of Bath in her prologue, and rather look into her tale, showing how the Elf Queen is a male-created male extension. Chaucer here doesn’t give us a woman; a complete man is what he offers us.

Where Hansen assumes that the Wife’s “denouement implies that the Wife herself lacks confidence in the female’s powers of speech” (33), consider instead that, we dismiss the assumption that Chaucer tried “to think himself inside a woman’s head” (55), assuming that Chaucer never gave women power in the first place. He doesn’t only create a “lusty bacheler” with an egregious “frat boy” nature (so to speak), but he also propounds that this knight is in control all along—only because he is male. Guinevere, out of Arthurian intervention, gives this knight a chance to live, commanding him a charge reminiscent to Gawain in Gawain and the Green Knight. But this knight’s quest isn’t to find what is desired most by women, as it may seem, but what men want women to desire most: command and control:

Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above. (III.1038-1040)

Women desire to have sovereignty

As well over their husband as their love,

And for to be in mastery [of] him above.

This idea of dominance questions the very idea of a truly feminine character in control of her husband. While I do not argue that dominance isn’t the correct answer, I don’t say it’s the best. Naturally, I think out of a male mentality, but if Chaucer tried to convey himself as being unbiased in creating the Wife and her Elf Queen, he falls short by assuming that dominance will elevate the position of the Elf Queen. Thinking women are in control over their husbands, Chaucer is not, as Hansen argues, “mellow and great…because he” does not transcend “the personal, the biased, the situated and above all the gendered position” (54). The Queen fails; after all, who would desire to marry a knight whose only claim to gentillesse is through birth, by no means any gain of his own? The Queen, as the portrayal of the Wife’s tale, is immensely able to obtain any man she desires, but instead chooses faithfulness over freedom. This is clearly a male story written with male intent to show how best right the wrongs inherent in men, whether through enchantment or marriages. In male stories, females are clearly the victims of male onslaught, as the Wife herself recounts this similitude vis-à-vis the painted lion to the painted—or rather written—female.

That Chaucer extends the knight’s character to portray him through the Elf Queen shows, in Hansen’s words, that he falls short of “the ability to imagine and represent the point of view of the Other” (54). The knight, dull and vapid unless speaking to the Elf Queen (somewhat, at least), was in a position of vulnerability to the Queen, who could have easily manipulated him as she pleased. But the Queen shows herself to complete this man, giving her brute husband his banal desires, offering to manipulate her guise:

For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe—

This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.

I prey to God that I moote sterven wood,

But I to yow be also good and trewe… (III.1240-1243)

She instructs him in the ways of gentillesse, that he may be fruitful through her, becoming a fitter knyghte. The Elf Queen submits her power of choice to the knight her power of choice, clearly showing she is unable to conquer his disposition, though she attempts to find error in his idea of gentillesse:

Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,

Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay

To do the gentil dedes that he kan;

Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.

Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,

Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.

For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,

For which we clayme to been of heigh parage,

Yet may they nat biquethe for no thyng

To noon of us hir vertuous lyvyng,

That made hem gentil men ycalled be,

And bad us folwen hem in swich degree.

The knight receives what he most desires—fairness and faithfulness—only because he gave the Queen what she wanted. The powerful Queen has been undermined by a base knight, though the Wife—nay, Chaucer, finds resolution in this story. The Wife is neither nonexistent nor the simple creation of male mind; she is the extension of Chaucer’s maleness, completing the full man.