Advertisement

Refiguring the “Scandalous Excess” of Medieval Woman: The Wife of Bath and Liberality

  • Alcuin Blamires
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

In medieval debate about gender, moral claims and counter-claims were a lively medium of contention through which subtle reversals could be wrought. This essay shows how Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath’s discourse to gender the ethical concept of “liberality” feminine, especially in the realms of counsel and of sexuality. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale thus convert the misogynous notion of feminine “excess” into a positive, a strategy here termed “redoctrination.”

Keywords

Moral Discourse Gender Prejudice Canterbury Tale Medieval Culture Male Writer 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 2.
    See, for example, Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 91, and Linda Woodridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540–1620 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 59. For further reflections on the balance of facetiousness and seriousness in the debate, see Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 5–7, 36–7, and 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    Helen Solterer, The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 148.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    R. Howard Bloch, “Medieval Misogyny,” Representations 20 (1987): 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
  5. 8.
    Blamires, The Case for Women, pp. 96–8, 105. For other critical discussions of Blochs essay, see Elizabeth A. Clark and others, “Commentary on Bloch, ‘Medieval Misogyny’,” Medieval Feminist Newsletter 7 (1989): 2–16.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Constantia describes woman as the “second edition of the Epitome of the whole world,” and the “second Tome of that goodly volume compiled by God”; The Worming of a Mad Dogge, in The Early Modern Englishwoman, pt. 1, vol. 4, Defences of Women, introduced by Susan G. O’Malley (Aldershot: Scolar; Vermont: Ashgate, 1996), p. 2.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    All Chaucer quotations are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); The Canterbury Tales are cited by Roman numeral and line number in the body of my text. The Riverside note to VIII. 645–6 cites a manuscript gloss supplying the common proverb “Omne quod est nimium vertitur in vitium”; though a specific Ethics reference is not impossible—cf. “Vertu is the mene, / As Etik seith,” Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, “F” 165–6. See Aristotle, Ethics, II. vi, trans. J. A. K. Thomson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953), pp. 100–2. Jill Mann cites the partial medieval Latin translation circulating in the thirteenth century, ed. R.-A. Gauthier, Ethica Nichomachea, Aristoteles Latinus (Leiden and Brussels: E.J. Brill and Desclée de Brouwer, 1972): “Medietas autem, duarum maliciarum, huius quidem secundum superfluitatem, huius vero indigenciam. Et adhuc, quoniam hee quidem deficiunt, hee autem superhabundant, eius quod oportet, et in passionibus et in operacionibus, virtus autem medium et invenit et vult,” in “Satisfaction and Payment in Middle English Literature,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 5 (1983): 17–48 (pp. 18–19).Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Andreas Capellanus on Love, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh (London: Duckworth, 1982), pp. 310–11.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Walsh, pp. 318–21. Andreas thus articulates a view that women “exhaust male substance” both in the financial and physiological domains. Physiologically women’s sexual demands “weaken” men’s bodies by intercourse (Walsh pp. 304–5), and cf. Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale, X.147, and D. Jacquart and C. Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, trans. M. Adamson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), p. 56.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    “Unde et alio nomine liberalitas largitas nominatur,” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIa IIae q. 117 on Liberality, in Summa theologiae, gen. ed. Thomas Gilby, O.P., 60 vols., vol. 41, Virtues of Justice in the Human Community, ed. and trans. T. C. O’Brien (London: Blackfriars, in conjunction with Eyre and Spottiswoode; and New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), pp. 224–5. See also Chaucer, Parson’s Tale, X.464, where among signs of gentillesse listed by the Parson is “to be liberal, that is to seyn, large.”Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    “Vous devez mettre grant peine […] de mettre a proufit les biens et la chevance que vos mariz, par leur labour […] ameinent ou pourchacent. Et est l’office de l’omme d’acquerre et faire venir ens les provisions; et la femme les doit ordonner et dispenser par bonne discrecion […] sans trop grant escharceté, et aussi bien se garder de fole largece […]. Et doit bien aviser en toutes choses que gast n’en puist estre fait, ne s’en attendre du tout a la meisgnee; ains elle meismes doit etre dessus et s’en prendre souvent garde, et de ses choses vouloir avoir le compte” [You ought to devote very great care (…) to using to the best advantage all the goods and provisions that your husbands by their labor (…) obtain for the home. It is the duty of the man to acquire all the necessary provisions (…). Likewise the woman ought to manage and allocate them with good discretion (…) without too much parsimoniousness, and equally she ought to guard against foolish generosity (…). She should understand that nothing must be wasted, and she should expect all her household to be frugal. She herself must be in overall charge and always watchful]; Le Livre des trois vertus, ed. Charity Cannon Willard and Eric Hicks (Paris: Champion, 1989), III. 1, p. 173, and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, trans. Sarah Lawson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 146. For further discussion of this topos, see Blamires, Case for Women, pp. 91–3.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    “Largitas maxime claros facit,” Boethius De consolatione philosophiae, II. pr. 5 (“largesse maketh folk cleer of renoun” in Chaucer’s Boece, II. pr. 5, 10). See also Cligés (197), “Par soi fet prodome largesce” [Liberality on its own makes a worthy man]. Sir Gawain describes larges as one of the attributes “Þat longez to knyƷtes,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, line 2381, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E.V Gordon, 2nd ed. by Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Part of a protest by “Glad Pouert” against Fortune in John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes, III.372–5, ed. Henry Bergen (pt. ii), Early English Text Society. Extra Series 122 (London: Oxford University Press, 1924).Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Boccaccio’s discussion of liberalità in his two versions of this narrative (the Filocolo IV.4 and Decameron X.5) is expertly reviewed in N. S. Thompson, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of hove (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 251–7.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    “Li amant / Doignent du lor plus largement / Que cil vilain”; Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Daniel Poirion (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1974), 1. 2214; all further quotations are from this edition. Cf. “Resoun wole that a lover be / In his yiftes more large and fre / Than cherles that can not of lovyng”; in the Chaucerian Romaunt of the Rose, ll. 2331–3.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Confessio, V.4769–70, in The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, Early English Text Society, Extra Series 81–2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1900–1).Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Christine says to Droitture that she has seen “de femmes moult hommourables en discrete largesce de ce que elles povoyent” and knows women joyful over money “bien employé, que nul aver ne pourroit avoir de tirer a soy et mettre en coffre,” in Le Livre de la cité des dames, ed. Maureen Curnow, Ph.D dissertation, Vanderbilt University (1975), Xerox University Microfilms (Ann Arbor), II.66.2, pp. 963–4; see also The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (London: Pan Books, 1983), p. 210; and Droitture responds, “de inffinies largesces, courtoysies et libéralités de femmes te pourroye dire,” II.67.2 (Curnow p. 965, trans. Richards p. 211).Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    Andrée K. Blumstein, Misogyny and Idealization in the Courtly Romance (Bonn: Bouvier, 1977), p. 7.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    See remarks in De mulieribus claris, ed. Vittoria Zaccaria, in Tutte le opere, vol. X (Verona: Mondadori, 1970), pp. 274–8 and 314–19; Concerning Famous Women, trans. Guido A. Guarino (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963), pp. 150–1 and 173–5.Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, in The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (London: 1987), pp. 71–2.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Cicero, De Officiis, I.16, ed. and trans. Walter Miller (London: Heinemann; and New York: Macmillan, 1913), pp. 52–6.Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    “For Þe gentyl Cheuentayn is no chyche, [… He] laueƷ his gyfteƷ as water of dyche, / OÞer goteƷ of golf Þat neuer charde. / Hys fraunchyse is large”; Pearl (ll. 605–9), ed. E. V. Gordon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953).Google Scholar
  23. 37.
    See Essay XIII, “Of Goodnesse, and Goodnesse of Nature,” in Sir Francis Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, ed. Michael Kiernan (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), p. 39: “Goodnesse answers to the Theologicall Vertue Charitie, and admits no Excesse, but Errour. The desire of Power in Excesse, caused the Angels to fall; The desire of Knowledge in Excesse, caused Man to fall; But in Charity, there is no Excesse; Neither can Angell, or Man, come in danger by it.”Google Scholar
  24. 38.
    Trans. Frances Horgan, The Romance of the Rose (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 18 [Et Diex li fesoit foisonner / Ses biens, si qu’ele ne savoit / Tant donner cum el plus avoit; ed. Poirion, ll. 1136–8].Google Scholar
  25. 39.
    The point is elaborated in Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee, which urges that riches are to be used “in swich a manere that men holde yow nat to scars, ne to sparynge, ne to fool-large—that is to seyen, over-large a spendere. / For right as men blamen an avaricious man by cause of his scarsetee and chyncherie, / in the same wise is he to blame that spendeth over-largely” (VII. 1596–1600). This exposition of the use of riches derives from a brief hint in chapters 43 and 45 of Albertano’s treatise, and takes up his invitation to draw on a chapter, “De acquirendis et conservandis opibus,” in his De amore et dilectione dei et proximi et aliarum rerum et de forma vitae. See Albertani Brixiensis Liber consolationis et consilii, ed. Thor Sundby, Chaucer Society, 2nd ser. Viii (London: Trubner, 1873); and Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), p. 563.Google Scholar
  26. 41.
    Aquinas invokes Ambrose on the point that superabundantia is bestowed upon some so that they can gain the merit of bona dispensatio [good stewardship] whereby the liberalis spends on others more than self; Summa theologiae 2a 2ae q. 117, art. 1, on “whether liberality is a virtue.” For similar statements, see Chaucer, Boece, II. pr. 5; Dives and Pauper, VII. 12, ed. Priscilla Barnum, I, pt. 2, Early English Text Society, Ordinary Series 280 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 160. For a survey of the doctrine of wealth as stewardship, see Miri Rubin, Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), ch. 3, “The Idea of Charity Between the Twelfth and Fifteenth Centuries,” pp. 54–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 42.
    Poirion, ll. 7405–14. Jealousy is berated for greediness: “It is foolish to hoard such a thing, for it is the candle in the lantern, and if you gave its light to a thousand people, you would not find its flame smaller” (trans. Horgan, pp. 113–14). A moderately wide dissemination of the figure is attested in Bartlett J. and Helen W Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), C24, “One Candle can light many.” The antecedent in Ovid is: “Sufficit et damni pars caret illa metu. / Quis vetet adposito lumen de lumine sumi? / Quisve cavo vastas in mare servet aquas?” [That part endures, and has no fear of loss. What forbids to take light from a light that is set before you? or who would guard vast waters upon the cavernous deep?]; Ars amatoria, III.88ff, in Ovid II: The Art of Love, and Other Poems, ed. and trans. J. H. Mozley, 2nd ed. revised by G. P. Goold (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; and London: Heinemann, 1979), pp. 124–5. For an extended discussion of the Ovidian link, see Michael Calabrese, Chaucer’s Ovidian Arts of Love (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994), pp. 81–111.Google Scholar
  28. 44.
    This aspect of Blanche’s representation is well elicited by Priscilla Martin, Chaucer’s Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), p. 25.Google Scholar
  29. 45.
    Lee Patterson, “‘For the Wyves love of Bathe’: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales,” Speculum 58 (1983): 656–94 (p. 680); Martin, Chaucer’s Women, pp. 70, 96. However, an alternative view links the Wife’s sexual generosity with the philosophy of “plenitude” promoted by the school of Chartres; Paul G. Ruggiers, The Art of the Canterbury Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), pp. 198–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 46.
    The Decameron, trans. G. H. McWilliam (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 499–500 [Le done … le quali molto meglio che gli uomini potrebbero a molti sodisfare; … domando io voi, io che doveva fare o debbo di quel che gli avanza? Debbolo io gittare ai cani? Non è egli molto meglio servirne un gentile uomo che piú che sé m’ama, che lasciarlo perdere o guastare?], Decameron VI.7, ed. Cesare Segre (Milan: Mursia, 1984), pp. 398–9.Google Scholar
  31. 51.
    Plaint of Nature, XVIII; trans. J. J. Sheridan, p. 214. The fourteenth-century English treatise Speculum Christiani explains that “wast ouerspens is called largys and fredam of hert;” see Thomas Bestul, Satire and Allegory in Wynnere and Wastoure (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), p. 21, citing Speculum Christiani, ed. Gustaf Holmstedt, Early English Text Society, Ordinary Series 182 (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 232. Bestul also cites Isidore, Sententiae 2.35 1–3, PL 83.636–7.Google Scholar
  32. 53.
    “[…] the bountiful do not hold back but let go” [quod largum est, non est retentivum sed est emissivum], and “when someone lets something go [emittit] he liberates it [liberat] from his care and control”; Summa theologiae IIa IIae 117.2, Responsio, trans. O’Brien, p. 225. See also a passage from Wace, Brut (ll. 3685–9), cited by David Burnley in Courtliness and Literature (Harlow, Essex: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998), p. 71: “Bledudo was more generous than his father” [plus larges fu de duner] and “did not know how to refuse or retain anything of his own” [Nule rien ne saveit veer / Ne a suen ués rien retenir].Google Scholar
  33. 54.
    [… largece ne s’estant mie tant seulement en dons, come dit un sage, mais aussi en reconfort de parole], Livre des trois vertus, ed. Willard and Hicks, I.20, p. 78, trans. Lawson, I.19, p. 78. Christine elsewhere reports her father’s view that learning was a treasure that one could keep giving away, without losing any; Le Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune, I.3, trans. Kevin Brownlee in The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 91. I am grateful to Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski for bringing this detail to my attention.Google Scholar
  34. 58.
    Midas appears in Gower’s section de avaricia, in the Confessio Amantis beginning at V.141. Keats (Sonnet 17) bids poets be “Misers of sound and syllable, no less / Than Midas of his coinage.” It has been customary to derive negative readings of the Wife of Bath from the interpolated episode of Midas’s wife, as does R. L. Hoffman, Ovid and the Canterbury Tales (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), pp. 145–9, though more ambiguous possibilities are glimpsed in Patterson, “‘For the Wyves love of Bathe’,” pp. 657–8.Google Scholar
  35. 59.
    Women’s divulgence of secrets in the tale has not I think been seen in this light before, though it has been held by Susan Signe Morrison to herald “a community of power”; “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The Wife of Bath and Vernacular Translations,” Exemplaria 8 (1996): 97–123 (p. 117); and see Karma Lochrie’s important analysis of “gossip” in the Wife of Bath’s performance, in Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 56–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 63.
    “‘Vanysshed Was This Daunce, He Nyste Where’: Alisoun’s Absence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” English Literary History 59 (1992): 1–21 (p. 9) repr. in Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, Longman Critical Reader, ed. Steve Ellis (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998), pp. 100–120 (p. 108).Google Scholar
  37. 65.
    “Ja cele rien ne vudra mes / Quë il nen ait a sun talent; / Doinst e despende largement, / Ele li troverat asez” (ll. 136–9), and “Ja ne savrez cel liu penser…. Que jeo ne vus seie en present / A fere tut vostre talent” (l. 163), Lais, ed. A Ewert (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn Burgess (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 74–5.Google Scholar
  38. 67.
    “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays,” in The Feminist Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 91–116 (pp. 95–7).Google Scholar
  39. 69.
    Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women (London: 1589), in The Early Modern Englishwoman, pt. 1. vol. 4, Defences of Women, introduced O’Malley, fol. Cv.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alcuin Blamires

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations