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Women in Medieval Literature

A traditional view in medieval Europe held that women were devils in disguise.  It was Eve who listened to the serpent and brought about the expulsion from paradise, and the writings of St. Paul have been used to justify some very misogynist attitudes.  Thus it is interesting to examine representations of women in various literary pieces from the Middle Ages.  Do these women conform to the traditional subservient role, or are they placed in positions of power, and if so, what is the nature and source of that power?  To best explore this question, two female characters—Lady Bercilak from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—will be examined.

Women in Medieval Literature

In contrast to the supernatural powers of the women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we have one of the most famous women in all of medieval literature: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.  The general prologue to the tales provides an accurate description of the woman:

A good-wyf was ther, of biside Bathe…
Bold was hir face, and fair and reed of hewe.
She was a worthy womman al hir lyve.
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde five…
In felawschip wel coulde she laughe and carpe (lines 457/460-2/476)

The Wife of Bath is also described as gap-toothed, meaning that she is a “traveling” woman in both the literal and sexual sense.

Modern scholars have taken great exception to the Wife of Bath.  She typically invites this rare degree of suspended disbelief; many readers accept her as real.  However, “she is the least original of Chaucer’s characters, an antifeminist cliché whose antecedents are found in classical and scriptural texts thousands of years old”.  Another writer calls the Wife of Bath a feminine monstrosity who is the product of the masculine imagination against which she ineffectively and only superficially rebels.  This same scholar describes the Wife of Bath as “powerless and silent,” and “unreal”.

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