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Unique perspectives on female characters in 13th/14th century art and literature

The perception of females throughout visual art and literature is something that has always been, and most likely always will be, criticized heavily. With a large portion of art being influenced by religious text/morals/beliefs and conservative ideals (which was probably attributed to said religious feelings to an extent), it is few and far between that we witness pieces of visual art or secular texts that portray women in a relatively modern light. Two pieces that do this are The Wife of Bath’s Tale (and prologue) within Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the statue Elevation of Mary Magdalene housed within St. John’s Cathedral in Torun, Poland.

The Canterbury Tales was believed to be written by Chaucer across the course of his lifetime but was not organized (or even conceived) until sometime after 1386 and was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1400 (Coghill xvi). The overall story revolves around 30 pilgrims telling tales from their lives on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. For this essay we are going to specifically focus on one section of the text, The Wife of Bath’s Tale (and prologue), and concentrate on how that relates to our central thesis and the other selection.

Speaking of said selection, not much is known about the Elevation of Mary Magdalene that is housed within St. John’s Cathedral in Torun. There is no artist on record, no time of completion and not even a solid description of where it is housed in the cathedral or why it was even constructed. For purposes of this essay, we are going to look at the formation of the sculpture and how that plays into our overall theme.

The thing that is fascinating about The Wife of Bath’s Tale is the structure of the story. The Prologue is twice as long as the actual story and that is very much intentional. It’s written this way because she did not have the clout, as a woman, to tell the tale a specific way without being branded or ignored. Her story within the larger Canterbury Tales structure is a commentary on women in the later medieval period and demonstrate almost a counter culture

There is an essay that was published by The Modern Language Review in 1962 by Kemp Malone that briefly described the history in The Wife of Bath’s Tale and how it was adapted throughout time prior to Chaucer becoming aware of the piece. Malone illustrates that the closest adaptation, written by John Gower in his Confessio Amantis, has the figure closest resembling the wife of bath being transformed into an old hag that can only reclaim her beauty by marrying a young knight. Malone asserts a big difference in how Chaucer adapted the piece:

We find nothing like this in Chaucer’s version. The loathly lady of The Wife of Bath’s Tale has superhuman powers. She shifts her shape at will and she chooses the knight for her husband, and makes him marry her, simply because she wants to. (Malone 481)

The shift in Chaucer is fully addressed in the first sentence of the prologue by the wife herself. She has a view on marriage, and even love to an extent that is progressive and unique for the period. Chaucer writes:

‘If there were no authority on earth
Except experience, mine, for what it’s worth,

And that’s enough for me, all goes to show

That marriage is a misery and a woe

For let me say, if I may make so bold,

My lords, since when I was but twelve years old,

Thanks be to God Eternal evermore,

Five husbands have I had at the church door;

Yes, it’s a fact that I’ve had so many,

All worthy in their way, as good as any. (Chaucer 258)

This opening paragraph has the wife of bath going against the traditional notions. To be married five times in that period would have been unheard of and most likely frowned upon. The reason the wife of bath can get away with it is because of her energy, her, as Malone coined them, superhuman powers, an improperly named joie de la vie to which she addresses life.

The other aspect to that is her logic is incredibly sound and, as she makes note of, bases her story (at least in the prologue) in fact. Look at her first four lines once more. She isn’t claiming to be a herald of a higher calling or to be professing some secretive truth, she is speaking from an authority of experience (noticeably nulling out God in her story – even if she thanks him in rhetoric a few lines later) and that is the basis for the tale she will tale after her prologue. There is nothing else like that in medieval literature.

The notable, obvious, difference between the Elevation of Mary Magdalene and The Canterbury Tales is the visual nature of the sculpture. To put it simply, the sculpture shows rather than tells. That really plays a part in how we are to interpret the piece. It is left open to us, the viewer. The angels are lifting Mary and she is almost pushed for a bit. That type of perspective is hard to convey in a piece of literature and adds a dimension to this piece.

576px-Torun_SS_Johns_Mary_Magdalene

The history of Mary Magdalene is often misrepresented, according to an article published by the British Broadcasting Company. The common example of her as a prostitute is untrue. The article states that “Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament, but not once does it mention that she was a prostitute or a sinner.” (BBC). The article postures that she was most likely lumped into a group of three women sometime in the sixth century when Pope Gregory the Great theorized that the three may resemble one. For the purposes of this analysis let’s look at the statue with the backstory of Mary being a reformed prostitute.

It’s hard to say what the sculpture is depicting. Is it Mary’s ascension into heaven? Is it more of a metaphorical elevation of spirit where Mary has ascended in to some sort of existential being where she is in touch with her human qualities and her religious ideals? Mary is covered in hair, almost entirely, and I think the sculptor could be asserting that Mary is worthy of adoration because of her natural essence which is personified by her hair, or the sculptor could be asserting that the angles are lifting her up because she is so wrapped up in her natural essences that she needs the guidance and love that Christ may bring. I tend to think it is a combination of all of the theories. Throughout her biblical journey Mary gains redeeming qualities and ultimately earns all the visual acclaim she gains in this sculpture. That coupled with her natural essence asserts the fact Christ will love everyone if you devote yourself to him.

How this differs from other works of the period is specifically tied to the character of Mary Magdalene. While she is someone with heavy religious themes associated to her, there is an undeniable sensuality to her that is present in the sculpture. Her sensuality, albeit reformed, shows an ability of Christ to accept the human form and desires that were present post-fall. That really differs from a lot of the other religious adaptations created throughout time.

The angels and Mary play really well together and that ties into the form and space of this piece. The angels lift Mary up and make her into something she may not have been. They literally and figuratively take her to a new plateau. That is important in looking at the work. While the long, flowing Mary is in the center of the shot, the portions at play around her have an apparent texture to them.

Another aspect that is really apparent are the colors. Three colors really intertwine in this piece. There is the burnt red color of Mary’s hair paired with the glaring gold wings of the angels situated upon silver clouds. While I don’t have any specific interpretations I can point to, something that really plays big is the contrast between the three colors. Maybe the contrast of the colors enhances the contrast of the angels and Mary? I think that is the one strong point that can be explored a bit further.

As was introduced earlier, the characters of the Wife of Bath and Mary Magdalene were really the premise for writing this essay. Both are strong women who have experienced turmoil in their lives and managed to curb prevailing opinion in some fashion. Mary Magdalene shed society’s imposed upon statuses and found clarity and self in God. The Wife of Bath prevailed opinion and established herself, or credibility, in her experiences. Both characters are untraditional for the period because of their strong, self-sustaining nature.

There are two big differences between these pieces. The first has to be the religious imagery. While I still maintain that Mary Magdalene, at least in the Elevation of Mary Magdalene sculpture, embodies some sort of innate sensuality that works in unison with the religious aspects of the piece, the fact of the matter is the religious devices in the sculpture are most likely what the artist intends to be at play. That is not the case in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, which is comprised mainly in secular origins despite periodic religious rhetoric.

The other difference between the two pieces is their medium. Visual arts, especially visual arts that may have pre-existing connotations, are always going to be more easily conceived by the public than literature in text because of images they, being the viewer, have seen throughout their lifetime that may correspond or relate to the visual arts piece in question. In that regard, the Elevation of Mary Magdalene may get its message across better than The Wife of Bath’s Tale. But, conversely, I think that would be underselling the bold, bordering on abrupt, nature of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and the subtlety of her Tale – which has an impact of how the story is perceived.

Modern light, like any type of light, really, is subjective. For purposes of this comparison I think both pieces portray women in a relatively modern light for their time period. The sculpture of Mary Magdalene shows a willingness of the church to accept all kinds of humanity and the tale from the Wife of Bath is a display of pseudo-feminism in the 14th century. For their time period they are unrivaled in comparison.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Nevill Coghill. 1951. London: Penguin Books. 2003. Print

 

Coghill, Nevill. Introduction. The Canterbury Tales. By Geoffrey Chaucer. 1951. London: Penguin Books. 2003. XVI. Print

 

Malone, Kemp. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” The Modern Language Review Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp. 481-491. Modern Humanities Research Association. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3720461

 

“Mary Magdalene, the clichés” British Broadcasting Company. N,p. Web. 4/17/14. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/marymagdalene.shtml

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Welcome to the empty recesses of my mind! I'm a recent college graduate realizing a Creative Writing degree was a bad idea. Give me a pity like. Or you could check out the about sections (on the front page and about this author page) on my blog to learn a little more about me. Whatever. https://thebohemianrockstarpresents.wordpress.com/

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