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A Medieval Madwoman in the Attic: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales

The Wife of Bath 2A Medieval Madwoman in the Attic: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales

By Nazan Yildiz

Paper given at the 5th Global Conference (2012)

Abstract: The literature produced in the male-dominated society in the 19th century England assigned women two certain roles: the angel in the house- pure, dispassionate and submissive — and the monster or madwoman — uncontrollable, passionate, and violent in nature. From the male point of view, madwomen were rebellious women who rejected their submissive roles. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination; restricted by the male-dominated literature circle, women writers of the nineteenth century shaped their heroines in line with the current stereotypes.

Yet, the rebellious madwoman in their works represented their rage and struggle to be released from the attic where they have been trapped for years by the pen of the male. Unlike the angel in the house, this madwoman has a story of her own and searches for her self rather than what she is supposed to be, just like another madwoman in the Middle Ages: the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Autonomous and uncontrollable, the Wife of Bath has the power to step out the attic provided for her by the author, writes her own story and asks for a say in her own life. Thereby, she turns into a female freak who wants to attempt the pen to put an end to her life of silence. Not bowing to male authority, she flirts with men and boasts about her five husbands. Moulded by her intelligence and experience, her prologue is taken as a revolutionary document for the age it was written. Her fascinating story teaches a knight, one of the most respectable male figures of the time, a universal lesson about the ideal marriage and women’s expectations from men. Therefore, this paper aims to portray a medieval madwoman who claims her self through her own story in the 14th century medieval England in which the female self was defined, as wives, widows, mothers and maidens, by a world controlled by men.

As Anne Finch underlines in her poem “The Introduction”, a woman attempting the pen is usually taken as an intruder, furthermore; she is associated with madness since to read and to write are accepted as the acts peculiar to men. From Aristotle to Shakespeare, indeed, numerous writers implied in their works that the writer is “like a lesser God”; therefore, the man, as being the author, “a “man of letter” is simultaneously, like his divine counterpart, a father, a master or ruler, and an owner [. . .]”. As a reaction to the male literary history, the women writers of the nineteenth century, such as Emily and Charlotte Brontë, rewrote the female stereotypes, the angel in the house and the monster or madwoman, and used the latter to reflect their rage and struggle to liberate themselves from the walls of the male-dominated literary circle. Just like their medieval counterpart, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Alisoun, these mad women having stories of their own claim their selves in their works unlike their foil, the angel in the house.

Click here to read this article from inter-disciplinary.net

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