“Authorship, Authority, and the Polemics of Rachel Speght and the Wife of Bath”

“Authorship, Authority, and the Polemics of Rachel Speght and the Wife of Bath”

Moon, Hi Kyung

Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 14 No. 2 (2006)


Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Rachel Speght are both women who spoke out against misogyny in the querelle des femmes. Although the former was a fictional creation of a male author and the latter a historical woman, they had this in common: they both understood the power of language and that controlling it could be empowering. In her refutation of a contemporary attack on women by Joseph Swetnam, Speght draws up her line of defense on two fronts: illiteracy and irreligion, which she sees as being mutually connected. She exposes in A Mouzell for Melastomus how Swetnam’s stylistic inadequacies and lack of command over language are symptomatic of his moral, intellectual, and spiritual inferiority. In contrast, by showing her knowledge of the Bible and classical authors, and of rhetoric and an ability to argue logically, she shows herself to be intellectually and morally superior to Swetnam, whom she reduces to being a brute. Through such strategies, she creates an authorial presence that justifies female authorship in a manner that could serve as a model for succeeding generations of women writers in the early modern period.

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