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Download PDF. The Prologue begins like a sermon and then takes on the terms of misogyny and misogamy as the Wife describes her first three marriages, demonstrating her success in manipulating the marriage system to her own advantage as a means to consolidate money and power. When the Wife speaks of her fourth and fifth husbands, however, the Prologue becomes more personal, like a modern autobiography, exploring the role of love in marriage and its relationship to gender hierarchy and domestic violence.
Instead, medieval marriage was represented in complex and contradictory ways that combined, for example, an insistence on marital sexuality with a definition of marriage that did not require sex and a demand for both mutual love between the spouses and the rulership of husbands over wives.
Perhaps because of the complexity of ideas about marriage in the period, the topic was broadly central to late medieval literature, and a topic through which medieval culture debated topics as diverse as the roles of gender, sexuality, social hierarchy, and the relationship of lay and clerical authority. In what ways do modern political concerns shape our private experiences of marriage? What are examples of social change in the modern world that have been accomplished by reworking existing conventions rather than by radical change? Although the Wife of Bath challenges masculine and clerical authority, she does not challenge a conventional association of marriage with sexuality in the late medieval period.
Unlike many contemporary societies, which often place marriage and family values at the center of religious practice, in the Middle Ages marriage was associated with sexual activity and, thus, was considered less spiritual than celibacy, which was required for the clergy. Medieval sermons and theologians often cited St. Paul First Corinthians 7, which recommended continence and linked abstinence from sex to a greater reward in heaven.
In his analysis of this same biblical passage, St. Jerome identified marriage as the lesser of two evils, superior only to fornication Jerome In this view, the limited virtue of marriage lay in its ability to protect the spouses from sex outside of marriage.
How do her readings compare to St. To your own reading of the biblical text? Medieval sermons were critical of widows who chose to remarry, especially those who had already had children, suggesting that they were motivated primarily by sexual appetite. How does the Wife use her status as a widow to gain power? Women were frequently identified by marital status in contrast to men, who were often defined by their jobs. Why do you think the Wife is depicted without children? The denigration of marriage was tied to the low valuation of sex in medieval clerical teaching.
Following St. Despite its bad reputation, sex was considered an obligation in marriage if requested by either the husband or the wife in an effort to avoid fornication. Medieval preachers interpreted this to mean that because there were acceptable reasons to have sex in marriage, being married required constantly resisting the enjoyment of sex.
Basing his analysis in the biblical example of Mary and Joseph, St. This vision of marriage as a sacrament based in love dignified marriage as a spiritual practice Lipton Medieval church courts upheld this sacramental definition of marriage as the consent between two parties as expressed in the exchange of marriage vows McSheffrey, Helmholz. Defining marriage in this way meant that the approval of families and presence of clergy was not legally necessary, although families could and did pressure women in their choice of partners Sheehan The idea that marriage was defined by mutual love was juxtaposed in medieval sermons with a seemingly opposite view that husbands should rule over their wives Galloway, Sheehan These paradoxical views were often expressed at the same time in sermons and in handbooks that instructed priests on how to perform confession.
The section on lust juxtaposes the importance of mutual love between spouses with the need for a wife to obey her husband. But God made womman of the ryb of Adam, for womman sholde be felawe unto man. First, in obedience. In this passage, marriage combines two seemly incompatible virtues: mutuality in love and the rule of husband over wife? This idea that wives should be controlled by their husbands was integral to medieval legal practice. In medieval courts, wives were represented by their husbands and by their fathers before marriage.
All land and goods owned by a wife, including property inherited during her marriage, was legally controlled by her husband. This meant that widows could potentially be financially and legally independent from men in ways not possible for married women or women still living under paternal control.
A widely circulated example of this kind of writing is by Theophrastus who is named as a source for the Book of Wikked Wives that Jankyn re to the Wife in her prologue Theophrastus, Blamires; WBP Building on the association of marriage with undesirable sexuality, anti-matrimonial writing depicts wives as sexually voracious, unfaithful, vain, acquisitive, and unforgivably talkative.
Refuting a possible practical reason for marriage, this text asserts that wives are inferior managers of the household compared to male servants. The Wife begins her Prologue by claiming that her authority to speak on marriage is justified by her experience an authority not available to the celibate clergy rather than on her ability to interpret the Bible, a practice she attributes to men WPB In this passage, the Wife not only threatens masculine prerogative, she also challenges clerical authority on marriage both by her experience and her command of the tools and strategies of marriage sermons.
The Wife shows that the same passages from St. Paul supports marriage. She also challenges the view that sexual pleasure is problematic. In this passage, the Wife depicts her husband as serving her pleasure, rather than seeing the marital debt as a mutual obligation deed to protect against fornication. Here, she celebrates marital sexuality and asserts her mastery of her husband, inverting the convention of husbands ruling their wives.
Questioning the superiority of celibacy over marriage is one of several ways that the Wife challenges the superiority of clerical over lay authority. The Wife is acquisitive, admitting proudly to marrying for money and exhorting land from her husbands before she is willing to sleep with them WBP She reports that she cannot keep secrets.
The Wife boasts that she rules over her first three husbands, inverting the conventional hierarchy of husband over wife. At first Jankyn seems to have the upper hand in their marriage as he subjects her to readings from his misogynist book featuring villainous wives from history. Her logic in this passage is similar to the one that shapes curriculum in many English departments with classes by female authors: the idea that the gender of authors plays a fundamental role in the stories they tell.
This passage has been central to the assertion, famously made by George Lyman Kittredge as early asthat the Wife of Bath seeks to rule over her husbands. The Wife of Bath gives up sovereignty right after she get it, and the Prologue ends with an image of marital harmony and partnership. Can we take this ideal of marital love seriously? How does the juxtaposition of love and hierarchy in medieval marriage sermons help us think about the ending? Is it possible to love in a relationship that has not always been mutual? Brundage, James A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Blamires, Alcuin, ed.
Woman Defamed and Woman Defended. Burger, Glenn. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Delaney, Sheila. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, Finke, Laurie.
Edited by Peter G. Galloway, Andrew. Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, Helmholz, Richard. Marriage Litigation in Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Lipton, Emma. McSheffrey, Shannon, ed. Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London.
Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Payer, Pierre J. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Sheehan, Micheal M. Edited by James K. Smith, Warren S. Edited by Robert P. New York: Oxford University Press, Edited by V. Kolve and Glending Olson. New York: W. Norton and Co. Tools Although the Wife of Bath challenges masculine and clerical authority, she does not challenge a conventional association of marriage with sexuality in the late medieval period.
Text The Wife begins her Prologue by claiming that her authority to speak on marriage is justified by her experience an authority not available to the celibate clergy rather than on her ability to interpret the Bible, a practice she attributes to men WPB Transformation To what extent should we understand the ending of the Prologue as a fantasy of the Wife?
Can fantasy play a role in social change? If we consider the Prologue as a model for social change, can we see the temporary rule of the Wife over her husband in the end as a first step to mutuality in patriarchal society? How can the Prologue help us think about how to respond to stereotypes in general?
Do you think the text validates experiential or textual authority? To what extent does the text embrace a stable model of gender, and to what extent does it show gender to be a potentially changeable social construct? The Wife celebrates marriage and links it to sexual pleasure, to love, and to her sense of selfhood. To what extent do you feel she shares familiar values? What perspective can the tale offer us on our own society?
On modern ideas about marriage? On our ongoing political debates about the definition of marriage?
How does each vision of marriage fit the social values of the teller?Married women Bath
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The Wife of Bath: How Being Married Five Times Gives Wisdom