In specifically two tales of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer expresses his opinionated views of the manners and behaviors of women during the 1300’s. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer portrays an extravagant and lusty woman, where as the Prioress is well mannered with a lady like demeanor. Chaucer’s descriptions of the two characters clearly depict the Prioress and a better woman than the Wife of Bath according to 14th Century standards pertaining to appearance and general manners, education, and their deportment towards men. The manners and appearances Chaucer gives to each of the characters to bring them alive vary drastically. Women at this time did not posses the integrity, potency, and self-confidence to live, travel, and think independently. In the prologue Chaucer says that the Wife of Bath had ?thrice been to Jerusalem / .
. . to Rome and also to Boulogne / St James of Compstella and Cologne? (15) which shows the reader that she is not the average subservient female of Medieval society. Also, Chaucer includes that ?she’d had five husbands, all at the church door? (15) which indeed illustrates that she is not the archetypical 14th century woman due to the fact that divorce in the era of Chaucer took on a whole different meaning than in today’s society where it is a regular occurrence.
The Wife of Bath represents the liberal extreme in regards to female stereotypes of the Middle Ages. She contrasts with the typical medieval woman because she is equip with confidence that Chaucer exposes when saying that she audaciously showed of her best kerchiefs on Sundays. Her radiating self-confidence intimidates men and women alike. On the other hand, the prioress as speaking ?daintily? and naming her as ?madam?.
Her ?manners were well taught withal? and she was ?pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining / To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace? (6). Clearly the ambitions of the Prioress were divergent to those of the Wife of Bath. Surely the Prioress would strongly disprove of divorce nor the idea of numerous partners. The Wife of Bath would have looked seen the Prioress as spineless given that the Prioress ?used to weep if she but saw a mouse / Caught in a trap? (7). The Wife of Bath presumably set the trap for the mouse to begin with.
Chaucer delicately, hand paints a tenuous woman Prioress while vigorously painting a robust Wife of Bath. Another aspect that separates these two diverse women is their varied educations. If these two women were to enter a bout of scholarly or book smart education, the Prioress would without a doubt outshine the Wife of Bath. However, if the two were evaluated along the lines of worldly or street smarts so to speak, the well-traveled Wife would come out on type. The Prioress encompasses the ability to speak the noble language of French, which in medieval society, places her in a superior class than the Wife of Bath, while the Wife of Bath’s nature of education acquires no social status.
If anything, her conflicting, liberal and feministic ideals drive society away. But, even though the Prioress attended the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe, ?French in the Paris style she did not know? (6). This small but significant detail shows that the Prioress, although well studied, is not with it on the actual happenings of the world. In spite of this nonetheless, being conversant with worldly issues do not gain you elevated social status.
While The Wife of Bath did not gain popularity with her wisdom of scholarly issues, she does seem to exhume a good deal of popularity from the male society because of her attitude towards men. Following with the trend of delineation from society’s ideals, the Wife of Bath sets her own standards for relationships with men. Chaucer provides no information pertaining to male relations and the Prioress leading the reader to believe no such thing even exists. Conversely, throughout the Wife of Bath’s extended prologue she goes on and on about virginity and sexual relations. She seems to find all possible loopholes in God’s word that ratify her sexual conduct.
She intrepidly states, ?Had God commanded maidenhood to all / Marriage would be condemned beyond recall? (260), heretically causing God to contradict himself. Above all, when she says, ?It is not everyone who hears the call; / On whom God wills He lets His power fall? (260), she is basically expressing that being the ideal Christian is not an imperative goal in her life. Also in her prologue, she cannot resist the opportunity to boast of her sexual experiences. She had five innocent husbands and numerous affairs, thus breaking five innocent hearts. As the Prioress has been described as tenderhearted, this posses an obvious contrast.
The Wife of Bath separates numerous husbands into two categories: a group of men that were rich but unable to fulfill her sexual demands and a group that were sexually vigorous but hard to control. The fact that she would even think, much less openly, along such sexual terms, sets her apart from society a tremendous amount. The Prioress, with her devout beliefs, is married to the Lord. Additionally, sexual demand will never have its roots in the virtuous Prioress’ mind or life. She has taken the sacred vow of chastity and thinks of men and women alike and in no way sexually. Certainly the religiously centered culture of the Middle Ages favored a dutiful Christian rather than a primitive prostitute of sorts.
The Medieval Society, in which both the Prioress and the Wife of Bath dwell, favors the characteristics of the decorous Prioress as opposed to the offensive behaviors of the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath, even in today’s society, would be viewed as somewhat debauched. Therefore, one can only imagine how she is viewed in a time where the Catholic Church had an upper hand in influence of civilization. Chaucer’s descriptions pertaining to general mannerisms and appearance, education, and especially their interactions with men, bluntly points out the ideal 14th century women.