Table of Contents
2) Dominant Medieval Discourses on Gender
3) Gender and Marriage in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”
3.1) The Wife of Baths Prologue and Tale
3.2) The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale
3.3) The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale
3.4) The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
5) List of Literature
“That he is a poet concerned with gender issues is obvious: almost every narrative in the Canterbury Tales deals with how the sexes relate to one another or envision one another” (Laskaya 1995: 11). Of course Laskaya talks about Geoffrey Chaucer and his famous work “The Canterbury Tales” from the 14th century, which is an unfinished collection of tales told by a group of pilgrims. Even though Laskaya accounts “The Canterbury Tales” as rich in gender issues, this work concentrates on four specific prologues and tales, the so called “Marriage Group”. The work in hand is supposed to discuss gender-specific aspects and gender-relations in the context of medieval society using the example of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”.
It is hard to determine what 14th century Europeans believed about gender and marriage, because it can only be derived from written remains like religious texts and law, but also from literary texts like in this case (cf. ibid.: 15). Moreover, it has to be considered whether these remains reflect historical reality or just subjective appreciations and attitudes. The first scholar who had a focus on gender issues in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” was George Kittredge who raised the “Marriage Debate” and also the idea of a “Marriage Group” in the tales in 1912 (cf. Thompson 1999: 228). Ever since, there were several additional researches on this topic, but there are still certain aspects which are unclear and without plain evidence.
The work in hand is supposed to give the reader a rough review and impression of how Chaucer incorporated the topic of gender and gender-relations in his work, therefore it only discusses the most striking aspects. Furthermore, it shall deliver an attempt to answer the question of what Chaucer’s own attitude towards gender and gender-relations looked like and what he wanted to display by the choice of his characters.
First of all, the dominant medieval discourses on gender get introduced in order to equip the reader with knowledge about medieval concepts of ideal masculinity and femininity according to society and culture. Afterwards, the four prologues and tales from the “Marriage Group” get introduced and analyzed with regard to gender-specific aspects. It will also be checked whether the perceptions coincide with the prominent medieval discourses or not. At the end, it will be taken stock of the results in view of Chaucer’s intention and attitude towards gender and marriage.
Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are part of the most famous medieval writings and therefore it is quite interesting to analyze to what extent Chaucer reflects the dominant medieval concepts of gender. The characters in the “Marriage Group” appear as very distinctive and clear-cut, so that an analysis of gender and their relations in the tales becomes insightful and valuable.
2) Dominant Medieval Discourses on Gender
In the late Middle Ages there were about four main different literary discourses on ideal male behavior (cf. Laskaya 1995: 15). Firstly there was the heroic, or epic, discourse on masculinity which praised men who embodied the stereotype of successful warriors or rulers (cf. ibid.). They had to be strong both physically and mentally, they needed to bear up against their opponents and they had to do attempts to conquest by whatever means (cf. ibid.). Two central features of the heroic discourse were also self-assertion in competition and the demonstration of courage and as appropriate loyalty (cf. ibid.). First of all the heroic man was loyal to his leader, king, or his father’s legacy, after that to his comrades and at last to his family (cf. ibid.). This type was mainly represented by members of the aristocratic class or political and military institutions (cf. ibid.). Women were seen by them as “nurturers of male endeavors”, “seductive temptresses”, “temporary obstructions”, or “lesser objects of conquest” (ibid.: 17). They were not seen as individual persons, but as prey to be hunted or ar objects to be possessed (cf. ibid.: 26f.).
The next type of discourse concerned the Christian man whose way of living was based on the life of Christ and who had - in comparison to the heroic man – a non-competitive attitude towards the world and praised non-violence as well as renunciation (cf. ibid.: 16). This type of man didn’t aim at the achievement of earthly fame, but of heavenly reward (cf. ibid.). Furthermore, this discourse stressed service to others and men should place the spiritual over the physical, so men were to renounce sexuality (cf. ibid.). Men should instead worship only God and only the desire of intimacy with women was seen as a sign of moral weakness (cf. ibid.: 18). According to Christianity, women shouldn’t be lauded for the beauty of their outer appearance, but for the beauty of their souls (cf. ibid.).
The third prominent type of medieval discourses on masculinity was the one on courtly love which focused mainly on a “lover-knight” who suffered holistically – physically and psychologically – because of a woman (cf. ibid.: 16). This type was mainly represented by the upper classes and its main values were loyalty, honor, bravery, and mercy (cf. ibid.). Basically this type had the same attributes as the types mentioned before, but the “lover-knight” did everything in order to prove how great his love was for the one woman (cf. ibid.). The representatives of courtly love did everything in meticulous manners which marked them as aristocrats and civilized men (cf. ibid.: 17). Women were placed above men and were seen as a source of inspiration, the worthy cause of hardship, and women made decisions which governed men’s lives, so women were placed at the center of male’s lives (cf. ibid.). Women became distant objects for adoration by men and men were depicted as bondsmen to their beauty (cf. ibid.: 27).
The last famous medieval discourse on masculinity was the one on the intellectual man, whose representatives placed the virtue of knowledge above everything else (cf. ibid.: 18). The main goal was to achieve control over the world by knowledge and education, so men had to educate themselves constantly (cf. ibid.). Their attitude towards women was comparable to the Church’s position, so they thought that women had a negative influence on men because they would keep them from education because of their carnal lust (cf. ibid.).
Laskaya summarizes her perceptions very clearly as follows:
The appropriateness or “order” of male rule extended from the power of Popes and kings who ruled over large masses of people to the landlords who ruled over peasants, from priests who ruled over parishes to husbands who governed wives and children. That men were told, by the culture, to rule over their respective subordinates is clear. The crucial question facing men, then, was never whether to rule, but how to rule” (cf. ibid.: 20).
Besides the literary discourses on masculinity, the medieval society was dominated by masculinity and combats about land, women and might (cf. ibid.). Wealth was a central feature of masculinity, even though the Church praised the people in need, but culture and society valued rich men who could easily feed their families and display their wealth (cf. ibid.: 28). So in general, the ideal medieval man was able to protect his family in every kind of way and maintained the family’s authority in society by displaying wealth, strength and a Christian way of living.
The knowledge about femininity in the Middle Ages rests upon remains from law, religion, and literature and it basically represents only the male view on medieval women, not their view on themselves (cf. ibid.: 32). The dominant medieval discourse on femininity depicted women as physical objects, as bodies – so a woman’s live was basically determined by sexuality (cf. ibid.: 33). In addition to that, there were two main views on women. On the one hand, women were praised for their physical beauty and virginity, on the other hand, they were suspected to be lascivious and seductive (cf. ibid.). Women were seen as much more controlled by their bodies than man, so sexual lust seems to be an attribute that was restricted only to women, but in a negative sense.