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The Wife of Bath, Christine de Pizan, and the Medieval Case for Women.*

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 35, Number 2, 2000
pp. 133-165 | 10.1353/cr.2000.0024

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Chaucer Review 35.2 (2000) 133-165



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The Wife of Bath, Christine de Pizan, and the Medieval Case for Women *

S. H. Rigby


"It's the very finest things which are the subject of the most intense discussion."

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies (CL: 8).

In reading medieval texts, literary scholars are frequently motivated by a desire not only to recover the original meaning of a work but also to show how it "may continue to speak to us" today as modern readers. 1 However, whilst some scholars have been able to pursue both goals, in practice, these two strategies of reading often become mutually exclusive "modernizing" and "historicizing" modes of interpretation. Those critics who emphasize how a text addresses us across the centuries then tend to focus on the modernity of the views expressed by medieval authors and to stress the immediate relevance of medieval texts for modern audiences. Alternatively, those who emphasize the historical context of a work tend to underline the "alterity" of medieval culture and the distance that lies between its underlying assumptions and our own values and ways of thinking. 2 Scholars who interrogate a text in terms of its modern relevance are likely to be denounced by their opponents for the heresy of anachronism; those who stress a text's alterity are, in turn, likely to be attacked for the sin of reductionism, for presenting medieval culture in terms of a monolithic, univocal dominant ideology to which all texts necessarily conformed.

A classic instance of these alternative modes of reading medieval texts is provided by critical responses to Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Indeed, if, as Helen Cooper once said, there is less of a critical consensus on what Chaucer was doing "than for any other English writer," 3 then there is probably less agreement about what he was doing in the case of the Wife of Bath than for any other part of his work. Famously, scholars have been divided into two irreconcilable camps. On the one hand are those critics who argue that Chaucer intends us to take seriously the Wife's defence of women against their clerical detractors. Critics from a variety of otherwise-opposed critical paradigms, ranging from the humanist to the [End Page 133] feminist, post-structuralist, and Marxist, have been able to find in the Wife's arguments a plausible defence of women against the misogamy and misogyny which were so prevalent in medieval culture. She is thus presented as a perceptive critic of misogynist orthodoxy who beats male scholars at their own game and creates her own authoritative position from which to speak in defence of her sex and to convince us of her views. For such critics, Alisoun is a persuasive defender of the vision of equality in marriage achieved through the surrender of male sovereignty which concludes both her Prologue and her Tale. 4 This positive assessment of the Wife of Bath's (and Chaucer's) achievement tends to be qualified by those who adopt it only by a New Historicist pessimism about the possibility of our ever entirely casting off the thought-patterns of society's dominant ideological discourses. 5 It is an assessment which has proved extremely popular in an age which tends to see literature in general as a "sanctioned space for the expression of social dissidence." 6

On the other hand are those critics, again drawn from a wide variety of theoretical perspectives ranging from patristic criticism to feminism, who argue that the Wife does not provide a refutation of medieval stereotypes of women but is herself meant as the supreme embodiment and confirmation of such stereotypes. It cannot be stressed too strongly that this does not mean that these critics are themselves sympathetic to these medieval views of women. On the contrary, this school of thought includes those feminist scholars for whom Chaucer's portrait of the Wife is a rehearsal of the male supremacism typical of his works and of medieval culture in general. 7 In other words...