The development of medieval literature in Europe as a creative medium for exploring social issues thrived on the controversies which surrounded the sexes. The fourteenth century England was a period of male dominance. While the female roles were limited and confined to motherhood and domesticity, the men occupied all the important socially recognized roles of trade, profession, and power in the medieval English society. In the The Canterbury Tales,' Geoffrey Chaucer explores the contradictory and tensional gender discourses in a collection of stories which are tactful, ironically and derisively written (Ennen 21). The concepts of medieval masculinity are approached from various perspectives including courtly love, chivalry, religion and the nascent humanist models-each attempting to maneuver both the contemporary assumptions about gender and the common existential views of sex image in the medieval period. The characters used are majorly male, with very few female characters each representing a larger social population.
Courtly love is a medieval notion of showing love and admiration in a noble and chivalrous context. Even though it exists outside of marriage, courtly love is an idealized realm, spiritual and not physical. In The Knights Tale,' Chaucer reveals the ideologies of women in the matters of love, the role of women in breaking even the tight-knit relationships founded in brotherhood. Two Knights: Palamon and Arcite, fight each other in a royal battle to win the heart of a fair maiden called Emelye, and either of them to finally have her hand in marriage. Arcite wins the battle, but the conflict of two gods subjects him to fall from a horse and succumb to fatal injury. Emelyes prayer, before the fight, is that the God of love would grant her wish to remain a virgin or marry the man who deserves her most. On his death bed, Archie endorses Palamon to Emelye as a good husband. This story represents the role of beautiful women as the cause of tense relationships that break brotherhoods, and at the same time depicts mens inability to understand women (Laskaya 13). Also worth noticing is the passive role of Emelye in this story, she causes a royal fight unintentionally.
Chaucer tends to share the social structure, the relationships among different genders and classes, the cultural rules and limits, the moral questions through characters in this collection. At the same time, they also present the various techniques womenfolk employ to destabilize the social dynamics of male domination. The distinct groups of women with different desires, roles, and coping mechanisms, are represented by the wife of Bath, the second Nun and the Prioress. The limited roles for women, Chaucer shows, in their representation in the group of twenty-four Pilgrims voyage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The journey only had three women with roles two of which are representative of a wife and a nun. Chaucers consciousness to showcase women participation in a gender imbalanced society comes from his use of female voices in the narrations (Laskaya 13). The Wife of Bath is narrated by Alyson, The Prioress and the second Nun are narrated by Madam Eglantine. Provision of the voice to womenfolk is often the beginning of reworking the construction of gender.
Alyson portrays a bunch of contemporary women who tend to confront male dominance by redefining their domestic space by any means possible. She is so passionate about her role as a wife, and the world and the earthly pleasures like money, sex, food and other materialistic things. Unlike the hypocritical group of women who conform blindly to the religious doctrines, Alyson does not hide the fact that she has unashamedly had five husbands and shared her fair share of love from as many marriages, and still in pursuit of the next. She unties herself from the rigid moral rules that are socially prescribed in the middle ages. Alysons choice to narrate the tale of romance and love despite having five failed and painful marriages are strategic in her relentless bid to empower herself. The economic mobility, once a luxury to the womenfolk, is achieved by Alysons ability to dominate all her husbands trades (Laskaya 15). From her desires of or preference for younger, gullible and submissive men over the old and parsimonious is significant her longing to be in control.
In this category, the merchants wife in The Shipmans Tale marries a wealthy husband for materialistic love for money. She sleeps with another man when her husband is out on a business trip, she later suffers the consequences of a broken marriage, but the sole purpose lies in her bold declaration for the same. Edith Ennens description of the medieval society shows that male dominance was as a result of dogma and means. Money was directly proportional to power. The death of a husband declared his widow as the sole heir of his wealth, and this created a lot of sour domestic relationships.
On the other hand, Madam Eglantine represents women whose transcendent goals and lifestyles seem to dodge gender-based power struggles. From her prologs, she proceeds with moderation when it comes to worldliness and spirituality. She is a beautiful woman who devoted her life to be a Nun, meaning that shes supposed to surrender her desire for worldly pleasures and treasures. Her desire for gold, yet she is a nun, is an epitome of hypocrisy. On her neck dangles a secular necklace not representative of religion, but shows an engraving of amor Vincit Omnia, whose meaning is love conquers all.' The second nun is a strongly spiritual person, evident from her attitude and the story she chose to tell about St. Cecilia. It highlights both the desire for spirituality and the significance of faith for Christians in the face of trial.
In the hierarchy of human pursuits, spirituality is an original goal that overpasses the social issues of politics and gender demarcation. Spiritual supremacy is witnessed in many women-led institutions such as the nunneries and convents where women lead a group of other women in achieving spiritual satisfaction, noble, and humanitarian services, just like Mother Theresa. This route, as has been discussed, is a pathway to female relevance and influence supported by self-empowerment, to evade the male dominance of the middle ages. Directly challenging the male pre-eminence through institutions like marriage is another way in which women redefine their domesticated roles. Alyson is a typical example of how women can manipulate their husbands and play their cards cleverly to favor their interests. However boldly and humorously as it sounds, Alyson provides a channel, a breakthrough in which women find relevance in a society bedevilled by women insignificance and male ascendancy.
Chaucers use of these women, their characteristics, goals, and scrutiny of their lifestyles, amid a lot of male characters, is a cue to the inevitable revolution which was to come to pass one day (Chaucer 23). The Canterbury Tales therefore carried the seeds of change in its pages, from the medieval society.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Tustin: Xist Publishing, 2016. Internet resource.
Ennen, Edith. The Medieval Woman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. Print.
Laskaya, Anne. Chaucer's Approach To Gender In The Canterbury Tales. 1st ed., Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1995. Print
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