Literature throughout the middle ages was often extremely antifeminist, in large part due to the patriarchal nature of society and the lack of female writers. Women were portrayed as vile temptresses, whose very existence revolved around causing man misery. This style of writing is strongly evidenced in The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Geoffrey Chaucer and the Pearl Poet create characters to strongly reinforce the sentiment. These writers used historical and mythological examples, as well as The Lord’s Lady, and Alyson, the Wife of Bath, to portray women’s’ loathsome nature.
In The Wife of Bath, the fifth husband of Alyson owns a book filled with examples of women of poor character. Unlike Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, they come from all of history, including Socrates, Sampson, and Hercules along with many others, and how their wives and lovers betrayed them. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the examples of incorrigible women are solely biblical.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain first mentions Eve, the original sinner, who, after being tricked by the serpent, went on to poison Adam’s mind also.
She caused man to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, for women to suffer in childbirth, and for man to have to work the ground to produce food (NKJV, Gen. 3). Solomon is next mentioned, the man whom God gifted with riches and great wisdom. Indeed, Solomon did say “I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets (NKJV, Ecc. 7. 26),” but he also praises the good wife, telling man to live “joyfully with the wife whom you love (NKJV, Ecc. 9. 9)”. One of the wisest man Who does not know the tale of Sampson and Delilah? Only the betrayal of Judas is better known.
Delilah caused Sampson to be imprisoned, and his eyes to be poked out after he foolishly trusted her (NKJV, Judges 16). Lastly, there is Bathsheba, who made a man “after God’s own heart” to sin. This last example is extremely questionable, as Bathsheba’s minor sin of being indecently exposed cannot be blamed for the terrible actions David committed (NKJV, 2nd Sam. 11). Certainly there are many examples of morally upright women throughout history and in the Bible, but Chaucer and the Pearl Poet do not seek these out, instead choosing to reinforce the antifeminist sentiment popular at the time.
Two of the three women mentioned in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight attempt to corrupt the noble Gawain. Morgan Le Fey, after hearing of his renown, sends the Green Knight to attempt to put a blemish on Gawain’s stalwart reputation. Despite being sent with such evil intentions, the Green Knight makes it clear he wished only to test Gawain’s morals, rather than having any malicious intent. The Pearl Poet seems to go out of his way to exonerate the Green Knight, while making Morgan Le Fey and The Lord’s Lady out to be extremely ignoble individuals.
The Lords Lady entered Gawain’s chambers every morning, essentially holding him hostage, as it would have been unseemly to be seen undressed in front of a lady. She then began to use his honor and courteousness against him. Honor dictated for a knight to do almost anything a lady asked, and the Lord’s Lady used this fact at every opportunity. She showered Gawain with compliments, fawned over his achievements, and asked him to teach her of love. When he still ever so courteously put off her advances, she scolded him for being cold and stern.
She insisted he kiss her, first upon leaving, then upon seeing her, always working to get closer to him. Her persistence after Gawain had made it clear multiple times that he would not be tempted, reveals a severe lack of a conscious. It is not unnatural to be tempted, and many will even act upon a temptation, but the Lords Lady made a great effort to commit adultery. She has no qualms over the sinful nature of her actions, as morning after morning she doggedly pursued Gawain. Women were represented as temptresses, who will only cause men to sin and lower themselves.
The Lord’s Lady from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an example used to reinforce the antifeminist sentiment popular during the time. Alyson, the Wife of Bath, makes the actions of the Lord’s Lady seem trivial. She proves herself to be extremely temperamental, manipulating, backwards, selfish, lewd, and all around amoral. Alyson began in the prologue of her tale by quoting examples from the Old Testament of men who had multiple wives as her defense for having had five. She states that God made no mention of the number of husbands a woman should have, so why should men make anything of it?
However, later in the text, when others quote scripture, she “gives not a gnat. ” Alyson was willing to use whatever she could to justify her argument, and dismiss the same source when it didn’t suit her. She worked tirelessly to manipulate her husbands for whatever she wanted. She gained all of her three old husbands’ riches, and laughed at how pitifully they struggled to please her. For as she said, “I have the power during all my life over his own body, and not he”. Her fifth husband was “a scoundrel” and the only one who was indifferent to her.
He stood a chance against her, but only for so long. Eventually she gained dominion over him as well, after her stubbornness outlasted his and he gave her leave to do as she pleased. Indeed, as she states in her tale, a woman’s greatest desire is dominion over her husband. While she desired her husband’s money and power, she desired sex even more. She makes it clear that she will work at her husband and “not desist” until he is both “her debtor and her slave”. She will use her “blessed instrument” to give it to her husband both morning and night, “as freely as my maker it sent.
She made her three old husbands work hard to fulfill “their debt,” and all her fifth husband had to do was lie with her for her to forget of all the wrong he had done. Her obsession with the act of sex is nothing less than repugnant. As one might expect, she also condones adultery, prostitution, and even sex before marriage. She even goes as far as to compare a woman to a household item, to be tried out. When her husband committed adultery against her, she made “him fry in his own grease for anger, and for pure jealousy,” however she did the same with the clerk in a field.
Once again Alyson reveals inconsistencies in what she believes is right for her and what is right for others. In the story she tells, a young man who rapes a woman is essentially rewarded for the crime, further reinforcing her skewed sense of right and wrong. She clearly believes she is above them, and that the consequences for her own actions should not apply. She proves to be extremely selfish, not bothering to please her husbands after getting their land and their money. Further, she does not even mourn for her fourth husband, because she has already found someone to fuel her desires.
All in all Alyson, the Wife of Bath, fulfills the role of the vile temptress to perfection. Chaucer created a character malignant and nearly evil in nature, which should strike fear into any man who might ever want to marry. With the creation of such incorrigible female characters with such noble male counterparts, there can leave little doubt about the stance of Chaucer and The Pearl Poet on antifeminism. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, as well as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provide ample amounts of support to the antifeminist stereotype in medieval times.