The Canterbury Tales

In 14th century England, women were subordinate to men not only by the institutionalized lack of possibilities in their lives but also by their sexually oppressive Christian faith. Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” and The Southern Passion are amongst the first texts to break from this norm by presenting women’s sexuality in a positive light In both texts sex is vindicated; The Southern Passion condemns the widespread slander of women who have sex and the Wife embodies this condemnation by employing her society’s rules for her personal sexual gain.

The Southern Passion’s decrial of the double standard regarding sex, which allows men to slander women for having sex at all while they themselves constantly pursue sex, conveys that men should cease this slander and implies that the sex lives of the vast majority of women should not be faulted. Attacking men who slander all women because a few of them have sex is the primary message of the text: “they’ll criticize every woman including good ones and claim they all behave like that” [1]. Yet the text also takes its argument a step further by absolving the women who have sex of blame to a large degree, instead implicating “the importuning of some lecher” [1]. Indeed “if a woman is discovered to have gone astray […] she will be blame at least a thousand times more than a man” [1], implying that the tolerance for going astray should be greater. This lack of tolerance can of course be attributed to the Catholic Church's standards of purity for women.  In addition, women who have sex are presented as perfectly natural since “among […] all sorts of animals, the female keeps herself quietly to herself […] except when her season duly comes around” [1]; a comparison which establishes a woman's sexual behavior as perfectly natural. Though the criticism of slanderous men may be the central focus of The Southern Passion, the underlying message is that since “there is no love as loyal as that of a morally committed woman” [1], women should be left to make their own decisions about sex in the same vein, though not to the same extent, as men. This underlying message is reflected in the healthy sex life of the Wife of Bath.

In “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” the Wife employs the institution of marriage to both satisfy herself sexually whilst also maintaining the social respect that a husband, and only a husband, could grant a woman in 14th century Europe. After the Wife’s first few husbands, all wealthy old men, die she becomes very rich, “their land and wealth they had […] conferred” [1]. Her following marriages are therefore no longer for financial gain but rather so that she can have sex without becoming a social pariah (like the women described above); at the time, sex for a woman was only acceptable if practiced exclusively with her husband. The Wife values sex highly, claiming that “the flower of my best years I find it suits to spend on the acts of marriage and its fruits” [1]. Indeed all of the Wife’s manipulation of her husbands and efforts to gain sovereignty in her marital relationships are just ways of ensuring that she can have sex on her own terms, an idea that sounds more akin to modern feminism than to the Medieval Ages. When the Wife finally obtains sovereignty in her fifth marriage, with the apple of her eye Jenkins - endowed with great legs, she is “as kind […] as any wife from India to Denmark, and also true, and so he was to me” [1]. The Wife of Bath therefore embodies the sort of woman upheld in The Southern Passion. She partakes in sex responsibly through faithful marriages during which she is loyal, actively withholds or grants sex to her husbands, and thereby avoids men’s slander, proof that she has not “gone astray” [1].

Both “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” and The Southern Passion advocate the freedom of women’s sexuality. Indeedthe Wife of Bath is an embodiment of the message of The Southern Passion, using the institution of marriage to have a healthy and faithful sex life as well as to avoid men’s slander. By presenting modern viewpoints on sex, the narratives of both texts conflict dramatically with the ideology of their times and set the stage for the broader battle over women’s equality as a whole.


The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Ninth Edition) (Vol. 1)
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