restricted access The Wives of the Canterbury Tales and the Tradition of the Valiant Woman of Proverbs 31:10–31 by Frances Minetti Biscoglio (review)
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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER articulation of her doctrine of the assurance of God's love, passed on to her through Christ, just as a mother passes her love to her child. BRUCE W. HozESKI Ball State University FRANCES MINETII B1sc0Guo. The Wives of the Canterbury Tales and the Tradition of the Valiant Woman of Proverbs 31:10-31. San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1993. Pp. x, 177. $69.95. Frances Minetti Biscoglio examines in detail the influence of the Valiant Woman of Proverbs on the presentation of wives in The Canterbury Tales. Her first two chapters present the Hebrew origins of the biblical portrait and its interpretation in Christian tradition and medieval literary culture. Two chapters apply it to Chaucerian wives, "wicked" and "ideal." The last chapter attempts to situate the discussion in relation to two theoretical positions, medieval and modern, which the author regards as irreconcil­ able. Her study presumably originated as a doctoral dissertation: it offers a useful account of one source, a limited argument, and far too many quota­ tions from secondary material. The relevance of the Valiant Woman to Chaucer's representation of women, especially the Wife of Bath, has often been observed. Biscoglio supplies some of the intermediate exegesis and development of the figure. Literally, she is "the ideal Israelite housewife, whose virtues are purely in the natural order," industrious and energetic. Metaphorically, she is warrior as well as worker, a female version of the epic heroes of the Hebrew Scrip­ tures. She is reminiscent of the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs and inJewish commentary symbolizes the Torah. In Christian tradition she was under­ stood allegorically, primarily as a symbol ofthe church but also of Wisdom and Scripture and, latterly, ofthe Virgin Mary. The familiar polarizations of medieval literary culture are rehearsed: the sober mulier fortis of Proverbs contrasting with the scandalous mulier fatua; the good and bad female paradigms, Mary and Eve; the allegorized feminine figures of virtues and vices, such as Wisdom and Folly; the stark analyses, definitions, and op­ positions of masculine and feminine principles as, respectively, reason and matter. (My own version of these commonplaces goes "reason/passion" and "form/matter," but I was unable to check Augustine, whom Biscoglio cites 158 REVIEWS as her source, since her reference is incorrect.) These antitheses are male fantasies, bearing little resemblance to the lives of actual women.The familiar examples of the Paston women, the legal category of thefemme sole, and the work performed by women suggest that the literal portrait of the Valiant Woman might be closer to the roles of women in the later Euro­ pean medieval period. A gloss on The Wife ofBath's Prologue in the Ellesmere Manuscript which quotes the opening verse of the passage from Proverbs suggests that Chaucer and his early readers saw this connection.Biscoglio argues that the wicked wives parody the definition of the mulierfortis and six of her partic­ ular characteristics: her fidelity, her good counsel, her capable household management, her making and wearing of fine cloth, her moral strength and constancy, and her fertility in both children and good works.The good wives of the religious tales in some sense embody the six virtues of the mulierfortis. They demonstrate Christian heroism, patience, and fortitude in suffering rather than action. Some of Biscoglio's parallels are closer and more convincing than others. We scarcely need to turn to Proverbs to learn the importance of mutual trust between wives and husbands, and Chaucer seems prophetically to satirize her example of the disparity of age in the marriages of Alison, May, and the Wife of Bath as "a violation of truth ...according to the theory": "He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude, / That bad man sholde wedde his simylitude" (MilT 3227-28). Some of her connections seem strained: whereas the "primary function of the Israelite housewife was managing the household," "sound household management is another wifely virtue tram­ pled upon by Chaucer's fabliaux wives and the Wife of Bath," a critique which sounds more suburban than scriptural.It had not occurred to me that the wife in The Reeve's Tale was offending against the ideal home by unwittingly...