Chaucer, Gower, and What Medieval Women Want
By Peter Chiykowski
Verso: An Undergraduate Journal of Literary Criticism (2010)
Abstract: Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, friends and colleagues, both chose to retell the same story at roughly the same time in their story collections, The Canterbury Tales and the Confessio Amantis. We can imagine a bet or a friendly competition os some sort between the two writers over who could make the most ingenious transformation of a traditional folktale, the Loathly Lady story – although sadly no account survives to prove they wrote the stories in competition with each other. The story they chose for their source is of a young knight who is sent to find out “what women want” as punishment for some transgression, and who ends up marrying an ugly old hag to discover the answer. That answer is, of course, “sovereigntee” or to do what they please. In Gower’s version, the hag then gives the knight the traditional fairy-tale choice, whether he would have her beautiful by day and ugly by night, or vice versa. Chaucer, however, mixes things up a little, and the choice becomes a much more loaded one: whether the knight would have his wife be beautiful and unfaithful, or ugly and chaste.
Peter Chiykowski’s essay clearly shows the gendered concerns underlying these choices: both the choices the knights within the story make, and the choices the two authors make in constructing their tales. Using the Bakhtinian theory of dialogism and mutli-voicedness, Ciykowski argues that Chaucer’s version opens up many more possibilities for women and women’s voices than Gower’s version does.
Introduction Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale and John Gower’s Tale of Florent both draw on the tradition of Celtic loathly lady tales, though each express subtly different narrative conclusions. The Wife’s Tale includes new avenues for feminine discourse by embellishing the roles of female characters. In contrast to its monologic counterpart in Gower, the Wife’s Tale contains moments of both masculine and feminine discourse. Ultimately this dialogism changes both the knight’s and the reader’s awareness of medieval gender discourse as the story progresses. In contrast to the Wife’s knight, Florent is tested but essentially unchanged by his experience with the hag, and the overarching virtue of the tale is masculine obedience, not feminine sovereignty. Though there is plenty of debate over whether the final arrangement between the Wife’s knight and the hag is feminist or anti-feminist, “hard” or “soft,” when compared to its analogue in the Confessio Amantis, the Tale makes undeniable advances toward a proto-feminist marriage ideal. Chaucer distinguishes his dialogic Tale from Gower’s exemplary Tale of Florent by demonstrating a change in the knight’s understanding of gender dynamics.