Chivalry and Chauvinism: Chaucer, Feminism, and the Modern Man

The Madonna-Whore Complex is the tendency of men to idolize women who are sweet and innocent in public but wild and adept in the bedroom. One striking example of this discrepancy is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While the Knight and the Franklin spin tales of females with perfect chastity and fidelity, the Miller and Reeve portray women as crafty temptresses who delight in the fruits of their sexuality. More realistic characters such as Lady Perletote of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Wife of Bath prove that women are not all of one and all of the other but a balance between the two. The Canterbury Tales show that both sexual double standards and the movement to destroy them were planted in the Western consciousness hundreds of years ago.

The Knight’s swashbuckling Tale features male heroes whose nobility and honor are matched only by the purity and chastity of their women. Hippolyta wields great power, saving men from execution by her tears alone (page 66). She raises no complaints, however, when her fiance Theseus postpones their nuptials so that he can wrest the city of Thebes from the evil King Creon (45). The Lord of Athens is only taking the risk, after all, because he cannot refuse the humble petitions of the oppressed noble women who meet him on the road (44-45). Hippolyta’s beautiful personality is matched, if not exceeded, by her sister Emily. Emily’s beauty destroys the friendship of the brothers Arcita and Palamon; their love for her is so passionate that they question whether she is a goddess or a woman and pledge the remainder of their lives to serving her (47-53). So astounding is her purity that, given the choice between Arcita and Palamon, she prays to Diana to let her marry neither so that she can remain a virgin forever (80-82). Diana, in her wisdom, does not grant this wish, and Emily proves to be an excellent wife. She dissolves to tears over the death of her betrothed, Arcita, a man she has never met (97). Then, as per Theseus’s wishes, she weds Palamon and serves him faithfully her entire life (102). Venus, the Goddess of Love, is a more assertive woman who provides a contrast to Hippolyta, Emily, and Diana, but the knight does not dwell long on the influence of this woman (84-85). For the most part, the Knight’s females are pure and passive and, thus, perfect.

The Franklin provides a similarly sunny outlook of the feminine disposition. The protagonist, Dorigen, is “among the loveliest under sun / And came from kindred of so high a kind” that her knight, Arveragus, lacks the temerity to tell her his true feelings (427). Eventually, though, she takes him as her husband, and the couple live in wedded bliss. When Averagus leaves on a campaign in Britain, Dorigen is so heartbroken that her friends fear she will commit suicide (429). She laments about the rocks off the coast of Brittany which represent the imperfections of life (430-431). Though Aurelius courts her fiercely, Dorigen remains ever faithful to her husband (434). She contemplates suicide as an alternative to faithlessness and is delighted when Aurelius releases her to her husband (443-446; 449). Arveragus and Dorigen, the perfect couple, live in marital bliss forevermore (449). In this tale, the woman is a model of perfection, giving all her love to her husband and receiving the same in return.

While the women of the previous tales are valued for their spiritual gifts, the Miller and Reeve judge women by another criterion: sexual vigor. The “fair young wife” of the Miller’s Tale is as beautiful as Emily or Dorigen and a frequent churchgoer, traits that mask her lecherous eye and carnal appetite (106-108). The wife welcomes the advances of her tenant, Nicholas, and connives with him to humiliate her husband (107-108). She tricks Absalom into kissing her “nether eye” for sport (119; 122). The carpenter’s wife fits the stereotype of a sexually driven young lady whose older husband drives her into the arms of other men; she is the kind of woman that young men love but older women despise.

The Reeve expresses an even lower view of women; his females lack any trace of chastity or intelligence (131-133). The Miller’s wife and daughter are descended not from nobility but from a celibate priest (126). They prove easy prey for college students Alan and John, who give them the best “surprise sex” of their life (131-133). The daughter falls in love with her rapist and returns him his cornmeal, and the wife unwittingly assists the boys in beating her husband. This imbroglio expresses man’s desire for easy sex and gives a veneer of hypocrisy to the sermonizing of the Knight and the Friar.

For a more balanced opinion about the feminine mystique, Chaucer turns to Lady Pertelote, spouse of Chanticleer, and the Wife of Bath who display both the sexual and spiritual aspects of her gender. Pertelote enjoys both physical and emotional pursuits with her husband (238, 242). She is “discreet and debonair” and influences Chanticleer to do whatever she wishes (234-236). The Wife of Bath’s powers are similar, if not superior, to Pertelote’s. She is a flashy dresser, clad in tight scarlet red hose, new shoes, and ten pounds of kerchiefs on her head (31). She respects virginity but sees no purpose in it and hypothesizes that the only way a man can repay his woman is by using “his silly little instrument” (280). By extorting her husbands into giving her money and land in return for sexual gifts, she is just like a whore (284-287). The Wife is no mere sex object, though; she is also a person with fond memories and intense emotions. She marries her fifth husband for love, not money, and enjoys a reasonably happy existence with him (290). Though he is at first frightened of her independence, reads anti-feminist literature, and beats her, Johnny finally comes to love her and live peacefully with her (293-298). According to the Wife of Bath, what women most desire is neither purity nor pleasure but control over their husbands and, thus, a voice in the world (309-310). This moral is simple yet revolutionary; the Wife of Bath’s feminism is hundreds of years ahead of its time.

A man wants a wife who is both a perfect mother and a perfect lover. For his spiritual standards he uses his own mother, or perhaps Mary, the Mother of God; thus, the qualities of purity, tranquility, and sweetness present in Emily and Dorigen most appeal to him. For his physical standards, he plunges into the caverns of his imagination and gravitates towards women who are sexpots or “man-eaters” such as the carpenter’s wife and the Miller’s wife and daughter. Instead of forcing their Madonna-whore complexes onto the women in their lives, men would be best-suited to settle for a woman who is balanced in her spirituality and sexuality such as Pertelote or even the Wife of Bath. The psychological struggle between man’s higher and lower impulses detailed in The Canterbury Tales is still relevant today. Feminism did not suddenly materialize in the 1970s; equality and understanding between the sexes have been goals of humanity for hundreds of years.

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