Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

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Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer often uses his characters’ satirically uproarious accounts of human nature in order to lampoon many of the social convictions of his time. Some of the most unambiguous manifestations of this social criticism occur in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In the tale, Chaucer takes on a number of issues, perhaps the most memorable being that of perceived gender roles and stereotypes. However, while “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is notorious for its confrontation of traditional perceptions of gender, it is equally progressive in the questions it raises concerning social status and its subsequent meanings.

While these concerns may seem secondary to the role of gender in the tale, they take a central position as the Knight is forced to fulfill his promise to the old woman by taking her as his partner in matrimony. When the old woman confronts the Knight on their wedding night about the reason for his subdued demeanor, he responds, telling her, “Thou art so loothly, and so oold also,/ And therto of so lough a kynde,/ That litel wonder is thogh I walwe and wynde”. The old woman responds to the Knight’s apprehension in a protracted discourse, placing remarkable emphasis on his assertion that she is “of so lough a kynde,” while hardly pausing to deliberate his grievances concerning her age and appearance. Through her response, it is apparent that the Knight’s anxiety regarding her social position unsettles her much more than his concerns about her physical presence. Ultimately, the Knight’s wife focuses on the humble conditions of her birth and her ability to exhibit nobility in spite of her low social position in order to demonstrate a strong conviction that noblesse and gentillesse are qualities attained not through social position, but rather through the actions of an individual. Through this conviction, the old woman forces a reexamination of nobility in her society. In her denunciation of the socially hierarchical assignment of nobility, the old woman focuses primarily on two groups. These are the highborn, who are not worthy to be called noble and the lowborn, who are worthy to be called noble as a result of their actions. Chaucer uses the old woman’s speech to the Knight in order to dispel the popular notion that noblesse and gentillesse are traits acquired through high birth, asserting in effect, that anyone has the power to raise their social position through their actions. Through this assertion, Chaucer criticizes his culture by condemning a social hierarchy that assesses worth through individual position rather than through individual merit.

The old woman begins her invective against the assumptions of nobility in the existing social hierarchy by calling on the Knight to examine his definitions of gentillesse and noblesse. As she begins responding to the Knight’s concerns, she tells him that his notions of nobility reflect “swich gentillesse/As is descended out of old richesse”, immediately making a distinction between nobility as it is granted by a hierarchical society and as it actually exists in everyday human experience. She goes on to say that the gentillesse that results from of a feeling of obligation in the high class illustrates arrogance that “is nat worth an hen”. In this passage, the old woman begins to lay the foundation for her argument that gentillesse must be truly felt and not simply serendipitously inherited by the individual.

The old woman continues, urging the Knight to scrutinize the incidence of nobility in their society as she demands, “Looke who that is moost virtuous always,/ Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay/ To do the gentil dedes that he kan;/ Taak hym for the grettest gentil man”. With this statement, the old woman affirms that gentillesse cannot be quantified by social position, but rather must be demonstrated by the virtue of individual actions. She accentuates her point when she affirms that “…he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis” later in her oration.

After she has elucidated that gentillesse must be shown and not simply assumed, she goes on to further distinguish those who actually are virtuous from those who are presupposed to be virtuous. Through her statements, it becomes apparent that she associates much of the virtue of which she speaks with the poor. In a statement supporting this, she says “Whoso that halt hym payd of his poverte,/ I holde hym riche, al hadde he nat a sherte./ He that coveiteth is a povre wight,/ For he wolde han that is nat in his might;/ But he that noght hath, ne coveiteth have,/ Is riche, although ye holde hym but a knave”. Here, the old woman defines rich and poor, not in terms of affluence, but rather in terms of the integrity of which they are capable. She relates this to her own personal situation as she says, “Al were it that myne auncestres were rude,/ Yet may the hye God, and so hope I,/ Grant me grace to lyven virtuously”. With this statement, the old woman also demonstrates that there are heavy religious overtones in her perception of social position and virtue. She substantiates this, again revealing an affinity for the poor by making the claim that poverty allows for a greater degree of closeness to God, as she says, “Poverte ful ofte, whan a man is lowe,/ Maketh his God and eek himself to knowe”. Extolling poverty as a vehicle to reach a more profound religious understanding, she is again making the case that virtue is a quality more intrinsically linked to the poor than to the wealthy. She establishes a closer relationship between God and the impoverished, simultaneously negating the role of social position in the attainment of virtue. She makes this explicitly clear as she says, “Thy gentillesse cometh fro God alone./ Thanne comth oure verray gentillesse of grace;/ It was no thyng biquethe us with our place”. By the end of her speech, the old woman creates a strong case for the attainment of gentillesse and nobillesse through individual action, rather than through social position.

While the old woman exalts the lowborn in their ability to act with the virtue of nobility, she simultaneously condemns the affluent who are attributed with the qualities of nobleness simply because of their social position. In a statement near the beginning of her address, she says, “Eek every wight woot this as wel as I,/ If gentillesse were planted natureelly/ Unto a certain lynage doun the lyne,/ Pryvee and apert thane wolde they nevere fine/ To doon of gentillesse the fair office;/ They myghte do no vileynye or vice”. In this passage, the old woman alleges not only that virtue is not automatically passed down through family lines, but also that “every wight woot this as wel as” her. Here, she articulates that it is common knowledge in her society that nobility is not necessarily a result of social position. The old woman continues, discussing this more specifically as she says, “For he was boren of a gentil hous/ And hadde his elders noble and virtuous,/ And nel hymselven do not gentil dedis/ Ne fowlen his gentil auncestre that deed is,/ He nys nat gentil, be he duc or erl,/ For vileyns sinful dedes make a cherl”. In this passage, the old woman conveys an image of a son who does not follow the ancestral institution of nobility. In her comments, she makes it exceedingly clear one’s deeds and not one’s actual social position define an individual’s level of nobility.

In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer challenges the assumption that societal position dictates virtue within individuals. Using the character of the old and loathsome woman who saves the life of the Knight, Chaucer scrutinizes societal assumptions that equate high birth to virtue and nobility. As the old woman contests the way in which society assigns the qualities of noblesse and gentillesse, it becomes apparent that these traits cannot be bequeathed through family lineage, but rather that they must be attained through the virtuous actions of the individual. Using the characters in the tale, Chaucer further reinforces this notion. In the character of the Knight, Chaucer presents his reader with and individual who is clearly a highborn member of society. However, the Knight displays a distinct lack of virtue from the very beginning of the tale when he rapes the girl, the action that necessitates his entire quest. While the Knight is considered to possess noblesse and gentillesse within his society, it is apparent that these are not qualities that guide him in his everyday life. In contrast, Chaucer offers the elderly, lowborn woman. While she is not considered a noble member of society, she displays virtue as she helps the Knight to preserve his life and teaches him of the true meaning of nobility. By the end of the tale, the old woman has constructed a powerful criticism of the manner in which society assigns nobility, and has clearly demonstrated that noblesse and gentillese are not arrived at through societal position, but rather through the virtuous actions of individuals.

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