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WE TEND TO THINK OF FEMINISM having mid-20th-century origins with accelerated growth during MeToo emerging in 2006. However, Marion Turner writes of 600 years before in “The Voice of a Female Golden Age,” BBC History, February 2023.
“The 14th century,” BBC History describes, “was a time of great change in England—not least for women, who enjoyed more autonomy, work opportunities and wealth.”
Here are tidbits gleaned from Marion Turner’s article.
Spokeswoman Alison. Alison, the Wife of Bath, was one of the travellers in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Though “a figment of his own imagination,” as Turner notes, the Wife of Bath becomes an ardent spokeswoman of her era: “The reason why books say such terrible things about women, she declares, is that thus far they have all been written by men—specifically, by impotent old clerics.”
“Five times married,” Turner observes, “this middle-aged woman talks openly about sexual pleasure, friendships and her life’s experiences—and also about domestic abuse, the historical silencing of women, and rape.”
Vital, Wordy—and Funny. Turner notes, “A vital character—and one whom most readers over the centuries have found extremely appealing—the Wife of Bath is given far more time to talk about her own life than are any of Chaucer’s other characters.”
Her Prologue runs 856 lines, nearly 700 more than the next most extensive.
“She is very funny,” Turner writes, “detailing, for instance, how she admired the legs of the pall-bearers at the funeral of her adulterous fourth husband.”
The Original. This, of course, encouraged me to seek out the original (adding to my “Whan that Aprille…”). Following her husband’s bier, Alison thinks of “Jankyn, oure clerk.”
Jankyn was twenty; she, forty: “As help me God, whan that I saugh hym go/ After the beere, me thoughte he hadde a paire/ Of legges and of feet so cleane and fair.”
Alison recalls her own physical virtues: “Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,/ And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardyness.” “I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be.”
Whereas “The Miller’s Tale” is downright licentious, Alison’s is an acknowledgement of vibrant sexuality. By the way, Jankyn becomes husband five.
Then and Now. Turner writes, “Before the Wife of Bath erupted onto the literary scene, there was no space in English literature for ordinary women to speak. Female characters tended to be nuns or queens, princesses or witches, virgins or crones.”
She observes, “Sexually active, middle-aged, working women were not given a voice—just as, until relatively recently, once women turned 40 they disappeared from news desks and Hollywood films alike.”
Conclusion. Turner says, “Though the Wife of Bath is ‘ordinary,’ she is also extraordinary—an excessive, larger-than-life figure, constructed from many literary texts and sources but also shaped by her historical moment.”
And, of course, by the artistry of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Turner concludes, “And the Wife of Bath reflects what was becoming possible in that era for a 40-something, economically independent woman who could assert her rights to be heard. Alison’s voice has fascinated and obsessed readers and writers across time and around the world—and still echoes loudly today.”
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023