Female Characters in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Primarily, there are two women characters introduced in the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: the Prioress and the Wife of Bath. Critics have often categorized both of them as “misfits” – women unfit for the role they represent. This is obvious, considering the fact that the General Prologue belongs to the genre of medieval estate satire, that essentially attempts to point out and satirize the follies and abuses of position that occur in the Three Estates. Chaucer’s satire, however, is tinged with irony and humour that portrays the women characters in a much broader and complex perspective, far beyond the scope of traditional estate satire.
The first woman to be introduced is the Prioress. Despite occupying a social position within the clergy, she transcends her social boundaries by mimicking the social behavior of the aristocracy. Chaucer is deeply aware that Madam Eglantine is not a paragon of a nun. Her smile is coy, her French is refined and courtly, she has the most elegant table manners, she wears a golden brooch with the words “Amor vincit omnia” or “Love conquers all.” Even the spiritual qualities of the Prioress are shown in the courtly vein. Although “well she sang a service”, the focus is on her intonation, not on the spiritual aspect of the service. Being “charitably solicitous” is at last a proper quality for a nun, but definitely not when it shows in taking better care of small dogs than of poor children. Pet animals were forbidden in the Church, and thus again the Prioress is shown as the courtly ideal.
It is highly probable that the Prioress was an aristocratic daughter whose parents did not have enough money for her dowry. In such a case in the 14th century, the convent was the only solution to leave the daughter secured. But many of the aristocratic women kept their courtly ideals even in a convent, and there was a wide gray area within the rules of the Church because of the cult of the Virgin Mary which was in many aspects similar to the courtly tradition, and used the same symbolism. Therefore, the Prioress is an ambiguous character, yet a perfectly acceptable one for her time. The General Prologue shows the Prioress as a human being, counterpart to the silent Second Nun.
The Wife of Bath, Alice’s physical appearance matches the medieval stereotype of a lustful woman. She has had five husbands, not to mention other companions of her youth, and she is quite prepared for a sixth. This is not her first experience of a pilgrimage. She had been three times to Jerusalem and had ridden past many strange streams, had been to the shrine of St. James of Compostella, in Galicia, and to Tome, Bologna, and Cologne. Profiting from her marriages as well as her business as an unmatched cloth maker, she is financially successful and independent. With a red face matched with her red stocking, a large gap between her two front teeth, a heavy well-dyed Sunday kerchief, a big wimple, and a hat as broad as a shield, her new well-spurred shoes, and her straight-tied hose – the Wife is lust incarnate.
A commentator has remarked that the Wife is not a character; she is a whole literature – the idea of a medieval femme fatale, whom the estate literature so scathingly satirizes. She embodies all the vices that a medieval ‘virtuous’ wife must not have. From the male angle, the Wife of Bath is a grotesque exemplar of most of the female vices : nagging, scolding, deceiving, grumbling, spending, gossiping, lying and betraying. She is vain, egotistic, hypocritical, possessive and licentious. However, Chaucer’s portrayal of the Wife of Bath is just not a sadomasochistic exercise to vilify Alice and to sanctify traditional male-chauvinistic attitude towards women. It rather delves deeper to subvert and question the authenticity of such an attitude. Despite her crudity and vulgarity, Alice is also a matriarchal figure who has declared war on mankind. She embodies the eternal female in revolt against a male-ordered and male-centered civilization. The point is that the Wife of Bath is in revolt against the medieval sexual ideals and attitudes. In the time of Chaucer, an absolute ban was placed on all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse between married persons, carried out with the object of procreating. The Wife satirizes these sex-obsessed and guilt-ridden attitudes of medievel Christianity, although her piousness is usually a parody of false clerical argument.
In the fourteenth century, women were completely subject to male authority. Marriage was a business through which a man furthered his finances or his opportunities. Chaucer created his Prioress straight from his own world. Chaucer does censure Madame Eglantine for her vanities and for her disregard of the bishop's injunctions, but the blame is extremely mild. The poet makes the lady charming, although her graceful femininity is sometimes too strong for the strictly religious. Through the portrayal of her, Chaucer strongly hints at the sordid reality of medieval ladies from impoverished families, who entered convents simply because there was literally nothing else for them to do in the hard, non-fairytale world of practical matters. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a “feminist” of her own making. In the absence of any feminist rhetoric, she uses the traditional patriarchal ideas and expressions, and yet she bends them to suit her own purpose. No doubt, Chaucer is ironical in his portrayal of the characters of the Prioress and the Wife of Bath. But at the same time he allows us to look critically at medieval social institutions that did never allow women to live life in their own terms, where freedom and equality for women was a far cry, buried under hundreds of years of posthumous history.