Comparing women in “Wife of Bath” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” to two Aristotle pieces.
Women are bitches – in the colloquial and literal sense – according to Aristotle, at least. The points Aristotle makes in “Historia Animalium” and “Phyllis et Arisotole” mirrors the representations of the characters in Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” and the anonymous work “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SGGK). Women, while they are softer, more tamable and submissive, often are more shameless and false, according to Aristotle. What makes these medieval pieces of literature so brilliant is that they do not concede to conceived societal notions of the time and create characters of ideal. The women in these works are representations of the human; noting less, nothing more.
Deceitful is not a good word to use to describe the nature of the Wife of Bath. While the connotations that come with being a bride five times are not very endearing, her amicable nature and candid comments make her relatable to a modern audience. But does that beg the question how did the 15th century audience see her? Yes.
Chaucer writes; “He seith to be wedded is no synne:/ “Bet is to be wedded than to brynne”” (Chaucer, 51-52). As we discussed in class, the acceptable way to grieve after the loss of a husband – for 15th century society – was to be the old lady in the attic for the rest of your life. Being the Wife of Bath, marrying husband after husband, was not an appropriate option in that society. The aforementioned quote, when paired with the Aristotle pieces, raises the first considerable flag that Chaucer is commenting on the nature of the female beast. Is the Wife of Bath being more mindful of injury? Is she being more watchful of her own station in this life? All of these are points Chaucer is making.
Quarrelsome, for whatever the reasons may be, is also one of the characteristics of the Wife of Bath, no matter how much she says she isn’t. Chaucer writes; “I nyl nat envye no virginitee./ Lat hem be breed of pured whete seed,/ And lat us wyves hoten barley breed” (Chaucer, 142-144). Perception factors greatly into reading the passage above. The Wife of Bath openly says she has no open quarrel with those who choose the chase lifestyle. But, sitting before all these people telling stories, isn’t she defending her choices by choosing to tell the story? And, acting in defense by choosing to tell the story – rather than sit silent and listen to the other travelers (and adopt a more societally observed role), does that mean she is actively engaging in a quarrel? I think Chaucer believes so. I think, by nature of the way the Wife of Bath is speaking, she is deliberately upfront with her lifestyle.
The direct commentary begins (and some may say ends) with the Wife of Bath’s “You Say” monologue, which addresses the direct link Chaucer is making between 15th century society and Aristotle’s works, pointing out the restrictions society places against the natural instincts of human nature. Chaucer writes; “Thou seyst that som folk desiren us for richesse,/… Thus goth al to the devel, by thy Tale!” (Chaucer, 257-262). The repetition of some form of “Thou Seyst” compounds upon itself so severely that the audience cannot help but align themselves with the Wife of Bath because we are so focused on the perceived negatives she is pointing out. In the 40 lines following the previous passage some form of “Thou Seyst” is used a minimum of 10 times.
The last point Chaucer makes in the Wife of Bath Prologue resides in the tete a tete between the Wife of Bath and husband number five, Johnny. Chaucer writes; “But ate laste, with muchel care and wo,/ … To han the governance of hous and lond” (Chaucer, 811-814). While many could make a case that the Wife of Bath is actively trying to deceive the fifth husband for harming her, it seems more readably plausible that Chaucer may be making a cuttlefish reference. The Wife of Bath does not care about Johnny. When things got bad, when there was physical discomfort between the two of them, the Wife of Bath bailed. She made no attempt to resolve the issues between her and Johnny. Did she really even care about him? Did her lack of empathy when times were dire separate her from other women (which, if we have learned throughout the prologue, was her main point)? What we know is she acted in haste. She threw his book in the fire and was unafraid to strike him upon being stricken. The Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s Pardalis, an impetuous woman with the courage to react when provoked. She isn’t super human or really even revolutionary. She is just an alpha-woman. A leader of her pack establishing a line in the sand for predators to be aware of not crossing.
It’s probably wise to note the actual tale the Wife of Bath ended up telling – a fairy-tale version used to strengthen all the points she made in her prologue. If you compare the lengths of the two sections, the prologue is twice the size of the tale – which suggests the prologue is more important, simply because she had more to say. But that begs the question, why tell the story? Why not just make the prologue the story?
The simple answer is because people would not have listened. If we look at female culture through an Aristotle lens we will view her testimony as irrelevant. If she doesn’t use the precursor of “Experience, though noon auctoritee/ were in this world, were right ynogh to me/ to speak of wo that is in marriage” (Chaucer, 1-3).
While the tale of the Wife of Bath is everything direct and unrelenting about male and female relationships, the exchanges between Sir Gawain and Lady Bertilak highlight the subtleties of those relationships; the shameless nature of deceit and the contentious falsehoods.
Deceit takes many forms. In SGGK Lady Bertilak takes on the bidding of her husband Lord Bertilak, a.k.a the Green Knight. While the entire scenario is quite the direct reference to Phyllis et Aristotle, the first thing to focus on is how Lady Bertilak enters Sir Gawain’s chamber; “Her breast was exposed, and her shoulders bare./ She enters the chamber and shuts the door after her,/ throws open a window and calls to the knight/ rebuking him at once with merry words in play” (SGGK, 1741-1744). She enters the room because she wants something. Whether that want is something sexual or something specific to the plot – by simply entering the chamber she exhibited a shameless act to commit a falsehood which is quite simply another direct reference to the other Aristotle work.
Contention exhibits itself in the passages between Lady Bertilak and Sir Gawain. The text reads; “She pressed him insistently, and he declines her request,/ Swearing quickly on his word that he would never touch it,/ And she was grieved that he refused it” (SGGK, 1824-1826). The phrase “pressed him insistently” jumps off the page. The reader develops a sense of Lady Bertilak persistently pestering Sir Gawain to take her affections, which would symbolize her taking away his purity, nobility and basic chivalry. The first phrase when paired with “she was grieved” adds that sense of contention to her character, or at least perceived contention – which could be more of a guided manipulation of Sir Gawain by Lady Bertilak. She is doing this to him to get him to do what she wants.
Lies, or falsehoods, are something Lady Bertilak uses to her favor throughout Fitt 3. The text says; ““That remark,” said the lady, “is the worse you could have made,/ But I am answered indeed, and painfully, I feel./ Kiss me now lovingly, and I will hasten from here,/ I must spend my life grieving, as a woman deeply in love” (SGGK, 1792-1795). As we later find out, Lady Bertilak is wife to the Green Knight so we know the words she says to Sir Gawain are complete bollocks. They are untrue. Even if we look at it without taking into account the ending, we are presented with a woman who is cheating on her direct husband, Lord Bertilak. Can we trust anything she says? Are any of the words she says to him valid? Is the author posing the question do all women act out of natural interest or do they genuinely care about the societal structure? I think so. I think, if we take into account what Gawain says to the Green Knight about what the Lady says to him, we can establish that fact.
The nature of woman, as perceived by the author, is most adeptly written in the previously noted conversation between Gawain and the Green Knight. The text reads, “And commend me to your gracious one, your lovely wife,/ … Since I too have been tricked/ Then I should pardon find” (SGGK, 2411-2428). Gawain has the astute revelation about fools acting insanely by being brought to grief due to womanly wiles. In this passage Gawain is essentially standing before the Green Knight and is unleashing the weight of his soul. He feels betrayed. Anytime a person quotes a bible verse they have to be feeling some very intense emotions, right?
Even without the Lady Britilak being present during that part of the conversation we appropriately understand the effect of male/female relationships during the time period because of the way Gawain reacts. He freaks out. His faith in courtly love has been shaken which leads us to question the entire scheme of courtly love and how the author believes women perceive it.
To echo how we begun this journey, women are bitches: they are jealous, querulous, and more contentious than a man would be. Women were subservient creatures – nothing more than a female dog – in all four pieces of literature. They were meant to procreate and pleasure the male. They had no perceived societal significance as it relates to industry or politics and it was thought they were there to manage the day to day business of the household. So why is it, upon further inspection, that these two female characters seem so ingeniously evil in the way they manipulate the situations they are placed in? It’s because they are human.
For the entirety of this essay we’ve talked about the duplicity of these two women and how they depart from the traditional mode mentioned in the previous paragraph. They are not angels of the home but are they really devils of the darkness? Don’t they lay in some sort of middle ground? The Wife of Bath, while she may have been perceived as bawdy or of ill-repute, she was a woman who lost five husbands. How do you expect a person who has lost five people dear to them to behave? And Lady Britilak, if this story was told from the point of view of the Green Knight, would we see her differently? Would she be a loyal, loving wife instead of a cruel, contemptuous tease?
The two women in the medieval pieces are representations created by the writers in an effort to demonstrate an idea of a moving trend in women even if the current society isn’t quite there yet. They see the fairer sex becoming more active and becoming self-sufficient and that is illustrated by the characters they created.