He became a diplomat and administrator, despite coming from a humble background -
one of his most important and demanding jobs in the 1370s-80s was as a senior
customs official, with responsibility for the trade in wool, hides and skins at the Port of
not born of noble status, he was closely
associated with the court. He was personally
known to, and rewarded by, Edward III (married
Phillipa Roet - sister of the daughter-in law of
Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV. In 1389-91 he
was in charge of the upkeep of royal residences.
Possible that something of
Chaucer’s professional versatility
suggests the new social mobility
(and job opportunities) in which
people were beginning to move
out of the class you were born
into. The upwardly mobile outlook
of a woman like Alysoun might
also reflect these changes.
Carnival celebrates life while Lent (which follows, and therefore belongs more to decorous age
than hot youth) encourages reflection, repentance, austerity.
In Mikhail Bakhtin’s twentieth century
formulation of the carnivalesque, the world
is turned upside down as in a carnival or a
medieval Feast of Fools. Social hierarchy is
temporarily overthrown, often amid riotous
laughter, revelry, and indulgence in food,
drink and sex. The carnivalesque response
to sober moralism is not pointed argument
but outrageous vitality.
Thus the Wife less often argues with the solemn, misogynistic authorities - St Jerome and his
colleagues - than out-talks them. Her husbands are similarly dealt with by bolts of well-directed
energy. If an argument terminally offends her, she tears out the guilty page.
Carnival acts as an 'other' lent - it recognizes sensuality and disorder, but does not so much endorse
it. Audience can transcend some of the moral dilemmas that she raises e.g. the rape in the tale. In
this context the pilgrim’s enjoyment of their leisurely literary ramble as a social event, an openair
forum for bawdy tales and secular romances, is not necessarily alien to the ultimate spiritual goal of
pilgrimage. Vices are exposed with virtue in fancy dress: Chaucer’s pilgrims include both the drunken Miller and the devout Parson. Masks are also
traditionally part of carnival, so possibly the hag’s transformation in the Tale can be seen as shedding
a kind of magically transforming Carnival disguise.
‘Marriage Tales’ within Chaucer’s great narrative
sequence was first popularized by G.L. Kittredge
in 1912. - The Wife of Bath is the first of the
thematic group that he identified
Begins her sermonised tale on
marriage and the 'wos' in it, and
debates on ‘sovereynetee’ in marriage
with a sermon, and continues it with
her Tale of the morally reconditioned
More recent critics tend to be cautious about accepting this
grouping as Kittredge defined it, both because the Tales in
question have many concerns besides marriage, (e.g. power,
corruption, Biblical teachings etc.) and because a number of
other Tales ostensibly outside Kittredge’s group also
contribute to the theme.
As the General Prologue shows, writing recommending the subordination of women in marriage was
widely available in the middle ages.
Le Ménagier De Paris (The Goodman of Paris) is a French medieval guidebook from 1393
on a woman's proper behaviour in marriage and running a household. It includes sexual advice,
recipes, and gardening tips. Written in the (fictional) voice of an elderly husband addressing his
younger wife, the text offers a rare insight into late medieval ideas of gender,household, and
marriage. The book's
central theme is wifely obedience.
Women could still however be seen in equal terms
The Testament of Love (c.1385), by Chaucer’s contemporary
Thomas Usk, describes it as a process in which two people
who originally were somewhat ‘disacordaunt, hygher that one
and lower that other’ achieve the same level.
The Prioress, delicate, wellmannered, sensitive - rather finicky, perhaps, is an obvious
counterpoint of Alysoun.
Emilye in The Knight’s Tale must,
like Alysoun, choose between
two passionate suitors, but she
has much less freedom than the
Wif: fate, the gods and politics all
make life more complicated than
it is in Bath.
Alysoun has more in common
with Proserpyna, the fairy-queen
who, at the climax of The
Merchant’s Tale, out-argues her
misogynist husband Pluto. She
goes on to supply ‘fresshe May’
with an outrageous but successful
excuse as to why she appears to
be having sex up a pear-tree with
her old husband’s young squire.
May herself does resemble,
arguably, a much earlier version of
Alysoun: selfseeking, devious,
bawdy, a veritable force of nature.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue may be
a compendium of anti-feminist
books, especially St Jerome’s
Adversus Jovinianum, but the Wife
skilfully adapts, distorts or
challenges such sources at every
turn. Her notion of discussion is a
sort of rough sporting contest, with
lots of verbal shouldering and
jostling, and woe to the vanquished:
‘Cacche whoso may, who rennet
best let see’ (l 76). She delights in
emphasis, often plain repetition,
using it in the spirit in which a roller
repeatedly traverses the same patch
Alternatively, to celebrate the Wife’s boisterous skills as advocate of the woman’s cause is to read unhistorically - to
ignore the implications of maltreating Jerome and his modern disciple Jankyn. D.W. Robertson’s (A Preface to
Chaucer, 1962). Robertson believes that the Wife is presented as a ‘carnal monster’. Chaucer’s audience, Robertson
claims, would have recognised her distortions of scripture, in detail and with disgust. They would have noticed her
use of the example of Solomon and his wives ignores the statement in 3 Kings 11 that ‘the women turned away his
heart’ from God. Alysoun’s famous deafness is metaphorical as well as literal. It should be linked to Psalms 113:14:
‘although she has ears, she hears no’ true doctrine.
The Peasant Revolt 1381
uprising against oppressive church authority, particularly he power and wealth of the monasteries