The Wife of Bath and the Women of Today

16 Sep

What is it that women want? It’s a question that has been asked thousands of times, and, chances are, it has thousands of answers. I found the inspiration for this post in the least likely of places–my Medieval literature class. We were talking a bit about Chaucer and one of his Canterbury Tales, “The Wife of Bath.” We didn’t read it and won’t be reading it for class, but our prof gave us a basic rundown of the story.

A knight in King Arthur’s court rapes a woman, which is a crime punishable by death. But the queen intercedes and gives the knight a second chance (which is pretty ridiculous, I know, but just bear with me). She tells him he has a year and one day to go on a quest to find out what women want more than anything else. Needless to say, this quest is futile and the knight never gets the same answer twice. The year has gone by and he is on his way back to the palace to admit his failure to the queen. On his way, he meets a “hag” who says she has the answer, and will give it to him if he does one thing for her. He is desperate, so he agrees.

The one thing all women want? To be able to make their own choices.

This surprised me. I don’t know why. It’s an obvious answer (although some might argue anti-choicers must not want autonomy, but again, bear with me for the sake of the story). It’s not the answer one would expect in a 15th century Chaucer text.

To finish the story, the knight and the hag go back to the castle and the queen accepts his answer. The hag’s request is that the knight marry her, and of course he isn’t happy because he finds her ugly. In their marriage bed, the hag says he can choose between her being ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. But the knight has learned his lesson. He lets his new wife choose. She becomes beautiful and faithful and they live (yes, I’m going to say it!) happily ever after.

Obviously this is not a story without its flaws. It’s not the most feminist story; it’s very fairy tale-like, and we all know that most fairy tales (or at least the manufactured, Disneyfied versions of today) are not feminist. I don’t really have any big, elaborate point or argument to make with this post. It was just a totally random occurrence that made me smile and I wanted to share it with you. I loved the moral of the story too much to keep it to myself, especially when I blog for the pro-choice movement. All women want is to be able to make their own choices. Even Chaucer knew that in the 15th century. Why is the concept so hard to grasp today?

2 Responses to “The Wife of Bath and the Women of Today”

  1. Dee September 16, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Interesting that you brought this up. There was a very engrossing examination of this story in an episode of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse entitled Belle Chose. It was particularly interesting in light of that show’s exploration of the exploitation of women:

    http://dollhouse.wikia.com/wiki/Belle_Chose

  2. Nicole G. September 16, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that, Dee. I will definitely have to check it out!

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