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Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted:
What Lies Behind Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale
It is a commonplace when teaching the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale to stress the anachronism of calling Chaucer a feminist. Yet it is also common to find Chaucer attractive for his play with gender in the gap between the book and the body, 1 nowhere better demonstrated than in the reconstitution of various misogynist diatribes into the charismatic Wife of Bath, who talks back defiantly to "auctoritee." If Chaucer is not actually endorsing the strident voice he gives to the Wife, he is certainly making play with textuality, with subjectivity, and with the construction of ideas about sexuality. 2 Despite the fact that the Catholic Chaucer presumably is not using the Wife of Bath to present his own views, he allows her to express radical ideas on gender theory and to tell a tale that demonstrates some of what she has theorized. The motif central to the Wife's tale (that a shapeshifting hag becomes beautiful once she gets her own way 3) makes it more feasible that the Wife's tale is centrally about liberation from gender role restriction. 4 Scholars have made the connection between Chaucer's Wife of Bath's hag and other loathly ladies, including the Irish Sovranty Hag and Dame Ragnell. 5 Specialists in early Irish literature (the earliest extant versions) note that the motif recurs with variations. 6 Medievalists equipped with twentieth-century theory have discussed Chaucer's hag in relation to the Wife of Bath, noting the similarities between the two and the suitability of the tale's motif to the Wife as tale teller. Many scholars have explicated the personal politics of the Wife and her tale, but no one to date has centrally interrogated Chaucer's exploitation of the motif's mechanisms. 7
The difference between Chaucer's redaction and John Gower's contemporaneous version suggests that Chaucer is more interested in the gender role destabilization of the vehicle, the allegorical motif, than in the issues of kingship that lie at the core of most loathly lady tales. In the Tale of Florent Gower's focus is on his protagonist's ideal behavior as offering [End Page 329] a model of knightly excellence. In keeping with Gower's broader agenda in the Confessio Amantis of commenting on kingship, this focus retains the earlier Irish tale's central theme of sovereignty. 8 In contrast, Chaucer's foregrounding of gender exploits the shapeshifting loathly lady motif as a vehicle for examining the sphere of heterosexual power contestation. Arguably, Gower, intent on promoting ideals of masculine behavior, tells the same tale with a greater fidelity to the motif's basic purpose than does Chaucer, who plays with its slippage, ambivalence, and reversal of gender roles. 9
The earliest appearance of the loathly lady motif comes in the figure of the Irish Sovranty Hag, an imbroglio of cultural ideas about political power contestation, in which gender roles are loosened, dissolved, and resolved. 10 The loathly lady belongs in the configuration of goddesses who are transversers of stereotype, a group that includes Demeter, Hecate and Diana. 11 Like Diana, she is associated with water and with forests. 12 Just as it is typical that Chaucer's hag meets her knight "under a forest syde" (III 990), so too it is in keeping with the genre that he commits his act of hubris, the rape of a maiden, as he "cam ridynge fro ryver" (III 884). The wilderness backdrop is a reminder that tales of the loathly lady tend to offer a "hunter hunted" spin to gender destabilization. Evidence that the loathly lady is humbly related to a set of goddesses who expand the meaning of femininity is available in the settings in which she is found, in the hunting motif ubiquitous to her tales, and in her quasi-divine control.
The royal court, seat of patriarchal...