As history records show, feminism and Middle Ages are not quite compatible; despite the fact that the idea of women’s liberation was started way back in the Ancient Greece (DuBois, 2007), the Dark Ages set the evolution of a feminist movement back to the era of chauvinism and male dominance.
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Despite men being predominantly satisfied with the given state of affairs at that time, humanist ideas were spawned by Chaucer ‘s The Canterbury tales in the era when women had little to no authority in the society, therefore, posing a number of marriage and relationship related ethical questions to the male part of the audience and encouraging women to pursue their independence in marriage, which The Clerk’s tale and the dream of the fifth wife in The wife of Bath’s prologue show in the most graphic way.
The fact that the fifth wife was willingly inclining the man that would later on become her fifth husband to murder her fourth one, whom she accused of beating her and having her will completely trodden under his feet, can also be interpreted as not only the demand for women to be free in their marriage, as well as free to choose their future husband, but also the need for a woman to be equal to her husband.
On the one hand, such interpretation seems impossible in the light of the oppression that women were under in the Middle Ages. Indeed, with the chauvinist ideas setting the course for social tendencies, as well as the principles for relationships between a man and a woman, the mere mentioning of equality would be absurd.
Nevertheless, the plea – or, perhaps, even a demand – for being treated fair can be easily read into every single phrase uttered by the fifth wife, not to mention the dream story that she crafted: “You say that just as worms destroy a tree, / Just so a wife destroys her own husband; / Men know this who are bound in marriage band” (Chaucer, n. d., lines 382–384).
In this regard, Clerk’s tale by Chaucer should also be mentioned. Also dealing with the subject of a woman’s role in marriage, it might be seen as a major retreat in Chaucer’s feminist endeavors, since the main storyline revolves around a woman being so devoted to her husband that she sacrifices her children and her happiness to serve him: “O Lord, I am willing / To do your will” (Chaucer, n. d.).
However, Chaucer still manages to state his opinion regarding equality in marriage: “But bow your neck beneath that blessed yoke / Of sovereignty and not of hard service, / The which men call espousal or wedlock” (Chaucer, n. d.).
Griselda, therefore, is a symbol of a wife, who admits her husband to be her master. While being aligned with the contemporary Christian principles of marriage, from a humanist perspective, the given concept is absurd, since in marriage, both a wife and a husband must be provided with equal rights; any other type of relationships can be classified as not marriage, but slavery.
In spite of the chauvinist tendencies of the Medieval society, as well as the lack of equality in relationship between a man and a woman in the Middle Ages, Chaucer managed to make a statement concerning the need to provide women with freedoms in their personal life.
While not stating the fact that women are equal to men directly, Chaucer conveys the given principle in his Canterbury tales in a very clear manner, making an especially explicit statement in describing the dream of the fifth wife and The Clerk’s tale. The tales that could easily be interpreted as a joke by Chaucer’s contemporaries, they planted the seeds for feminist principles to evolve from.
Chaucer, G. (n. d.). The clerk’s tale. Web.
Chaucer, G. (n. d.) The wife of Bath’s prologue. Retrieved from http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/wifebprt.htm
DuBois, E. C. (2007) Plato as a proto-feminist. Web.