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Gentry and Gentility: Unraveling Social Hypocrisy in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, social commentary of the Middle Ages is unearthed through the tales of a company of pilgrims. Two tales, one from the Wife of Bath, and one from The Clerk, attempt to define the role of the wife both in relation to her husband and in relation to domesticity and society. On one end of the spectrum, the Wife of Bath asserts her freedom to choose her path in life and marry whomever she likes, while The Clerk attempts to quash these ideas by presenting women the way men of the clergy have always seen them--subservient and obedient no matter the cost. This essay argues that the exact order of the tales, as recorded by Chaucer the Poet, as well as twisting of thematic rhetoric such as “gentilesse” and “genterye” by The Clerk, point squarely to a path of female empowerment. When finally women, and by correlation, those of lower social class, can see that nobility is not always synonymous with virtuosity or piety, they will be able to see their social class as mobile as the Wife of Bath sees her status; they will see the glass ceiling as constructed by men such as The Clerk is easily shattered.

             Chaucer, in the General Prologue and Knight’s Tale, gives the reader the impression that strong voices come from strong males with equally strong positions in society. When the reader finally reads The Wife of Bath’s Tale, it is almost jarring to hear her well-founded argument on experience and authority. The Wife begins by relating her experience with five husbands to the reader:
            “Men may devyne and glosen up and doun, / But wel I woot expres, withoute lye, / God bad us for to wexe and multiply: / That gentil text can I wel understonde. / eek wel I woot he syde, myn housbonde / Shoulde lete fader and moder, and take to mel / But of no nombre mencioun made he, / of bigamye or og octogamye. / Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileinye?” (Prologue, 26-34).

She, unlike The Clerk, who will later use his position and authority without experience to define women and marriage, is using her life experience to defy man’s social law. One interesting note on this passage is the use of the word “gentil.” In this context, it is referring to The Bible or a sacred text of the time and denoting it as “noble.” The Wife is careful not to attack The Bible itself, but rather the ludicrous divination men of the cloth have squeezed from it pertaining to the role of the woman. “Wher can ye seye, in any manere age, / That hye God defended mariage / By expres word? I pray you, telleth me. / Or where comanded he virginitee?” (Prologue, 59-62). She continues, saying any right that is not explicitly denied in holy texts must be deferred as an implicit right for all. For to deny this right to women would in essence deny her existence and participation within society of this era.

            In The Wife’s tale, we are introduced to a fair knight, who, in a reversal of expectations, is being told the expectations of the marriage by the woman of the relationship. The Wife explains, “For thogh that I be foul and old and pore, / I nolde for al the metel ne for ore / That under erthe is grave or lyth above / But if they wyf I were, and eek thy love” (Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1063-1066). This quote is actually more of a defense against what a misogynistic knight might say about her appearance, but it shows that she will not be confined into a role in society. When the knight experienced “wo” at the words of The Wife, he is now forced to receive The Wife’s interpretation on nobility and morality as she has experienced it:

            “But for ye speken of swich gentilesse / As is descended out of old richesse - / That therfore sholden ye be gentil men - / Swich arrogance is not worth an hen. / Loke who that is most vertuous always / Privee and apert and most entendeth ay / to do the gentil dedes that he can, / and tak him fo the grettest gentil man / Crist wol we clayme of him oure gentillesse, / Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse…Yet may they nat biquethe, for no thing/ To noon of us hir virtuous living / That made hem gentil men y-called be” (Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1109-1123).

Here we see that The Wife’s interpretation of nobility is neither a king nor a prince; The Wife believes that “gentil dedes,” when displayed both publicly and witnessed privately, are better evidence of nobility than one’s bloodline. She realizes that kings have twisted nobility to mean, perhaps, a flat statement on one’s political power without regard to actual character. “Gentilesse,” then, is the quality of what was thought to be good birth and proper behavior. What The Wife is imparting to the listener is that high ancestry is not necessarily the key to noble character, nor should nobility exclude those of low birth. “Eldres” and “richesse,” in an ideal society, would not be factors in one’s ultimate gentility (Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1130-32).

            After The Wife has imparted her experience to the knight, she gives him an interesting choice:

            “Now ther ye seye that I am foul and old… / Chese now, oon of thise thinges tweye: / To han me foul and old til that I deye / and be to yow a trewe humble wyf, / And nevere yow displese in al my lyf / Or elles ye wol han me yong and fair, / and take youre aventure of the repair” (Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1213-1224).

Here we see the Wife of Bath has complete control of her situation, even though it appears she offers the knight a choice. For soon the knight turns the decision back around to her, fulfilling her test of the knight, and turning the tables on power and decision-making within the contexts of medieval marriage. True to tale form, the knight, by submitting to her will, or respecting it, wins both youth and fidelity. In this tale we see the idea not of a man dominating a woman in a marriage, and a woman finding solace in other men, but the idea of a woman being able to choose her happiness. A new ideal of concord out of discord is presented with the words of the Wife of Bath.

            We know, however, that this tale exists within the context of a larger set of tales. Thus, reacting to this interpretation of women, after a few tales, The Clerk is given the floor. He tells of Walter and Grisilde, and the lack of trust Walter has for women. Grisilde differs from The Wife of Bath for many reasons. For one, she allows Walter to coerce her into giving vows, which he will use to test her later in the tale. He says, before the grand marriage, “But thise demandes axe I first, / That sith it shal be doon in hastif wyse, / wol ye assente, or elles yow avyse?” (The Clerk’s Tale, 348-350) He is altering the power dynamic of their relationship so that later, when he desires something, he can count on her to assent instead of deliberate about his desires. This is almost the opposite of how the Wife of Bath would construct assent out of dissent.

            One key factor to remember in this analysis is that The Wife of Bath had control of the floor and had control over her voice. Some readers may overlook that when Grisilde speaks, the words are being put in her mouth by The Clerk. So, even when she has a voice, she never has a real voice. Readers must question Grisilde’s explicit compliance: “Heer I swere that nevere willingly / In werk ne thoght I nil yow disobeye, / For to be deed, though me were looth to deye” (The Clerk’s Tale, 362-4). In our cultural context, we as readers might wonder how she could give away her absolute freedom for her husband. We might reason that it is all she knows and is happy without knowing she could have choices. But this is exactly what The Clerk wants to persuade his fellow men (and women) into thinking. For certainly truly noble men would eventually stand up for freedom, even if it meant sacrificing absolute control over marriage, and if he, an interpreter of great and mysterious texts, can be in their good graces and use rhetoric against them, he will have succeeded.

            The Clerk does just that by slighting his audience. He reminds Grisilde of how much he has done for her:

            “Grisilde, that day / That I yow took out of your povre array / And putte yow in estaat of heigh noblesse, / Ye have nat that forgeten, as I gesse… / Maketh yow nat foryetful for to be / that I yow took in povre estaat ful lowe” (The Clerk’s Tale, 466-473)

He redefines the word nobility for his audience as someone dressed in fine clothing. He makes the case for the estate as the definition of success, as well. After introducing his fears, he submits his test, planning to seize Grisilde’s child for somewhat unknown reasons:

            “I moot don with they doghter for the beste, / Nat as I wolde, but as my peple leste. / And yet, god wot, this is ful looth to me. / But natheless withoute your witing / I wil nat doon… / That ye to me assente as in this thing. / Show me your pacience in youre werking / That ye me highte and swore in your village / That day that maked was oure mariage” (The Clerk’s Tale, 489-497).

He clearly wants Grisilde to comply without any questioning. He is recalling her to their wedding day and the vows that she made to him, perhaps in haste. “When she had herd all this, she noght ameved / Neither in word or chere or countenance” (The Clerk’s Tale, 498-99). She gave only her obedience. She explains her mission, to “werketh after [Walter’s] wille.” So she complies, even in the face of losing one so dear to her soul, all because she thinks she has locked herself into her fate.

            Coming after the Wife of Bath’s tale, the reader has to be taking this with a grain of salt! Grisilde, in some logical loophole, could be likened to a hero by not speaking out against the kidnapping of her daughter, but is that really the case? It seems more like blind compliance, blind in the sense that her will has essentially been abused and debased into his will. Doesn’t The Clerk, however, make it appear that this is what women want? The Clerk’s motivations are now unveiled: to convince his fellow men that they have been correct in their misogynistic beliefs all along, that one woman cannot change the status quo.

            When the reader can make the distinction between the voices of the tale, the teller of the tale, and Chaucer the Poet vs. Chaucer the Author, suddenly motives become clear, and the harrowing state of social class and mobility is revealed. When interpreted in this context, it unmasks the 14th century as dark and rigid. Chaucer meant to give a voice to women and the disenfranchised, and then see which man would take it away again. It is indeed the clergyman who is trusted to interpret the good and “gentil” holy texts who wants to reclaim his power as interpreter. His authority without experience with women is revealed in his tale. Whereas in The Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer deliberately founds her story with experience. The idea of The Wife of Bath as the misogynist’s worst nightmare is realized by the end of these texts -- she is the one who single-handedly reverses expectations and challenges traditional texts. Thus, the poor clerk is left not to argue against her true experiences, but to present an altogether false experience of another woman -- a woman who sees nothing but her role to please her husband. It is, however, too late; while it would take many years to achieve equality through literacy and education for women and the poor, Chaucer perhaps sees a glimmer of change and hope coming out of the Middle Ages. After reading this, we know that Chaucer was far ahead of his time.



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  1. Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

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