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In the male-dominated writing culture of the Middle Ages, can a female voice ever be represented as authoritative and reasonable?

In the male-dominated writing culture of the Middle Ages, can a female voice ever be represented as authoritative and reasonable?

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In this essay, I had explored Chaucer’s presentation of women, through the characters of The Prioress and The Wife of Bath. I have come to the conclusion that, yes, a female voice can be represented as authoritative and reasonable in the male-dominated writing culture of the Middle Ages.
In this essay, I had explored Chaucer’s presentation of women, through the characters of The Prioress and The Wife of Bath. I have come to the conclusion that, yes, a female voice can be represented as authoritative and reasonable in the male-dominated writing culture of the Middle Ages.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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02/22/2014

 
In the male-dominated writing culture of the Middle Ages, can a female voice ever berepresented as authoritative and reasonable?The zeitgeist of the fourteenth century was very much in keeping with the spirit of TimothyBook 1 Chapter 2: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (line12). Corinthians Book 1 Chapter 14 expresses the similar sentiment that women must “keepsilence”, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (line 34). However, in spite of thesecommonly adopted opinions, women were granted a voice in Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales
.This essay shall focus on two of these women: The Wife of Bath and The Prioress. To besure, their voices reach the reader of 
The Canterbury Tales
through the medium of a malenarrator, and, as such, their characters are represented, as opposed to witnessed directly.Indeed, in “The General Prologue”, the Wife and the Prioress are seen from the perspectiveof the Chaucerian narrator who evaluates them. With respect to these women’s actualspeeches and tales, though, the narrator endeavours to establish, with frequent ‘quod shes’,for example, that he is representing the women’s voices faithfully. Before the Prioresscommences her tale, the narrator asserts that what she “seyde” is precisely what the reader “shal heere” (VII, line 552). The Wife is similarly present in the narrator’s depiction of her,and not least on account of the repeated pronouns such as ‘our’, ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘I’. In their own ways, the Wife and the Prioress contravene the aforementioned religious dogmas. For the Wife and the Prioress to be recognised as authoritative and reasonable women, it isnecessary to revise the traditional definitions of authority that emphasise male reason. Nevertheless, both women prove to be influential, and to legitimately be so, in a predominantly male context.1
 
Whether a person can be deemed authoritative is largely determined by how other peoplereceive them. It is thus interesting to note how the male pilgrims respond to the Wife, to thePrioress, and to their tales. The men are certainly respectful towards these women. The Host,for example, speaks “curteisly” (VII, 446) to the Prioress. Indeed, how the Host words hisrequest that the Prioress might “tellen.../ a tale next” (449-50), with subjunctives such as‘would’ and ‘should’, is rather obsequious. It is for the Prioress herself to decide whether shewould deign to tell a tale; the Host “sholde” certainly “nat” “wishte” to “greve” her (448) bycompelling her do so. Likewise, the Wife is addressed with courtesy. The Pardoner is just oneof the male pilgrims who considers the Wife to be worthy of the title ‘dame’, which was a polite term in the fourteenth century. Then, the manner in which the Pardoner introduces hisquestion to the Wife is comparable with the Host’s aforementioned appeal to the Prioress: “Iwolde praye yow, [but only] if youre wyl it were” (III, 184). It is not just on account of thesewomen’s ‘gentler’ sex that the men are gracious towards them. As a raconteur, the Prioresshas a profound effect on her audience. After the Prioress has finished telling her tale of “thismiracle”, the Chaucerian narrator observes that “every man/ As sobre was that wonder was tose” (VII, 691-2). So too does the (mostly male) audience give its attention to the Wife. ThePardoner’s interruption of the Wife’s lengthy prologue demonstrates that he, for one, has been listening attentively. With his considered question, the Pardoner shows that he acceptsthe Wife’s authority, on the subjects of “[w]hat thyng is it that wommen moost desiren” (III,905) and marriage at least. Because the Wife is “a noble prechour in [these matters]” (165),she is equipped to “teche [the] yonge men of [her] praktike” (187).The Wife certainly considers herself to be entitled to preach on these topics. In the Wife’sopinion, experience is what confers authority; accordingly, “[e]xperience.../... is right ynoghfor [her]/ To speke of wo that is in marriage” (III, 1-3). The much married Wife possesses therequisite experience that the clerics, who traditionally moralize on this subject, do not; the2
 
other two women on this pilgrimage are, like the clerics, chaste. The Wife’s tale illustrateswhat she considers to be the secret of a happy marriage: sovereignty on the part of the wife.However, the Wife arguably weakens her position by confessing her manipulative tendenciesand habitual nagging. For example, the Wife withholds sex until she gets her own way: “Tilhe had maad his raunson unto me,/ Thanne wolde I suffre hym do his nycetee” (411-2). Sotoo is the Wife prone to “chidd[ing]” her husbands “spitously” (223). Furthermore, the Wifeinsists that her tale should not be taken too literally. Because the Wife’s “entente nys but for to pleye” (192), the other pilgrims ought not to “taketh... agrief of that [she] seye[s]” (191).Thus, the Wife does not follow the Host’s direction that the tales told on this pilgrimageshould be of good “sentence” as well as of “solace” (I, 798). However, the Wife’s pronouncement here applies only to her tale, not to her long introductory speech. Despite theWife’s less than savoury characteristics and prioritisation of ‘pleye’ in her tale, the men seemto be willing to defer to her authority and heed her advice.Just as the Wife redefines the notion of authority so that experience is more pertinent thansex, so too does she suggest that feeling is more significant than logic. In matters of love atleast, the Wife claims that she “evere folwede [the dictates of her] appetit” (III, 623). ThePrioress similarly emphasises feeling and instinct over reason. The Prioress herself isdescribed as “pitous” (I, 143) and “tendre herte[d]” (150); her tale, as an affecting narrative,is designed to appeal to sentiment and emotion – that is, to affect rather than convince.Through her portrait of the young boy, the Prioress demonstrates how religious faith does notdemand full doctrinal understanding. Indeed, the boy’s devotion to Mary is instinctive. Eventhough the boy knows neither what the Latin words of 
 Alma redemptoris
“seye” (VII, 523)nor why “this song [is] in usage” (527), it draws “hym ner and ner” (520). The Prioress’sauthoritativeness is arguably diminished by several of her tale’s aspects. It has beencommented upon that the Prioress’s characters lack psychological depth. In this tale, there are3

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