Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender

By Jerilyn Fisher; Ellen S. Silber | Go to book overview

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Gender in the Middle Ages (ca. 1388–1400)

Michael G.Cornelius

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides a unique opportunity for exploring issues of gender from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. Chaucer’s stories told on pilgrimage provide readers with numerous views of medieval women, and many of the gender issues that are debated in these pages still claim relevance today. Chaucer’s social satire thus ensures lively classroom discussion while offering fresh glimpses into a society often considered antifeminist by the standards of modern culture.

There are three women on Chaucer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury: the Second Nun, the Prioress, and the Wife of Bath. “The Second Nun’s Tale” tells the story of Saint Cecilia, a Roman martyr. The tale is simple and straightforward, befitting a character upon whom Chaucer bestows one line in his “General Prologue.” With the Prioress, Chaucer presents the reader with a more developed character. In the “General Prologue,” he seems to generously praise the Prioress: She is “so charitable and piteous / That she would weep if she but saw a mouse / Caught in a trap” (lines 143–45). If the author’s exacting descriptions of her clothing and eating habits seem puzzling at first, it is important to remember that Chaucer was a master of sly criticism; in this case, the Prioress’ expensive, well-tailored clothes and extravagant foodstuffs alert the reader to her materialism and overindulgence, two qualities unbecoming a medieval nun. With this in mind, teachers should have students closely examine the “General Prologue” for insights into the pilgrims that are not revealed through their tales.

Despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, the Prioress is in many ways the typical caricature of a medieval woman. A strong mix of both good and bad features, she is matriarchal and pious, greedy and snobbish, kind-hearted but materialistic. Her tale, the story of a small Christian boy murdered

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