CHAUCER'S IMPRESSION OF WOMEN OF MEDIEVAL TIMES
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1400s. By conceiving the idea of a pilgrimage to Canterbury in which each character strives to tell the best story, Chaucer cleverly reveals a particular social condition of England during the time. In this time period, the status, role, and attitudes towards women was clearly different from that of today. Two tales in Chaucer's collection specifically address this subject: the Miller's tale and the Reeve's tale. The interplay between the tales and characters further enhances the similar viewpoints these stories have towards women.
In the Middle Ages, most women married and began raising children soon after reaching puberty. They remained largely indoors, having no true chance to receive a formal education or to hold economic or social power. Husbands commonly had full control of their wives, often limiting their public lives to solely the family; "a wife . . . must please her husband and be totally obedient to him, even when he is unjust and violent"(Blewitt 662). In both the Miller's and Reeve's tales Chaucer thus presents the women of the household indoors in all instances. Alison of the Miller's tale lives in a cottage alone with her husband John and Fly Nicholas, a scholar. Her implied role besides sexual purposes includes tending to house chores, just as the miller's wife and daughter in the Reeve's tale. The woman's sole purpose as a wife, though, comes naturally as one of sexual purposes. In Chaucer's time, ". . . a wife's first duty was to provide her husband with a heir, and she could be divorced if she were barren"(Rhinesmith 601). The wife must be good to her husband and obey him, even when he may commit unfavorable actions such as affairs.
With this knowledge of women's duties in medieval times, Chaucer in these two tales brings about the ideas of protection and immorality. With men often leaving the house to tend to their own chores, the women of the house have plenty of chances to "play around" with other men without their husbands knowing. John, the carpenter in the Miller's tale, constantly worries about his eighteen year-old wife, Alison. "Jealous he was," the Miller tells us, "and he kept her closely caged, for she was wild and young, and he was old, and thought she would likely make him a cuckold." This protection of the woman of the home parallels that of the Reeve's tale, in which Simon the miller protects his wife and daughter, Molly, when he finds the mischievous Alan and John have slept with them. "'By holy God I'll have your tripes for daring to dishonour my daughter. . .,'" Simon exclaims. Full of rage, he attacks Alan as to sustain his protection for his women..
Immorality is discussed in the Miller's and Reeve's tales in the sense that the women of both tales have no true sense of integrity. Both John and Simon exhibit some level of restraint over Alison, Molly, and the miller's wife, for "restraint is recommended (for women) in regard to sexual behavior"(Blewitt 662). Fly Nicholas, who pays rent to stay with John and Alison, finds that John frequently leaves the house for many days as part of his job. Nicholas stands as the sliest character in both tales, knowing all of love, sexual pursuits, and astrology. He approaches Alison one day and grabs her cunt, and after little resistance, Alison accepts the sexual pass. Alison than readily engages in sex with Nicholas, being assured that John will not find out. She finds Nicholas young and attractive, and approves of his sly plan to deceive John, stopping not once to think of the anguish she will soon cause her faithful and loving husband. Another such offense comes about when Alison openly sticks her "romp" out the window for Absolom to kiss. Her overall character seems as one which has no shame.
To the same extent, the miller's wife and daughter, Molly, commit a similar crime of lewdness. John and Alan, angry at the trick Simon has played on them, decide to sleep with Simon's wife and daughter that very night. In a most careful and wise manner, John gets Simon's wife into his bed, while Alan gets himself into the bed of Molly. Molly, just as Alison, readily accepts Alan's sexual offer, for Chaucer writes "they soon were one." John uses a different approach to get with Simon's wife, leading her to falsely believe his bed is actually hers. He instantaneously begins to have his fun, but again the wife believes it is her husband who "thrusts like a madman, hard and deep" upon her. Though just implied, there exists as much immorality in her actions as that of Molly and Alison. Having a child who obviously has already passed through puberty, Simon should be considerably older than John. Thus the miller's wife must have known the Simon was not receiving her pleasures, but rather a young man who returned her pleasures in a way in which she could not resist. If such immoral behaviors exist in Molly's mother, there stands no question as to why Molly herself acts the same way. Not only does she disrespect her own body, but even worse her loyalty towards her father. She confirms to Alan that her father steals flour, and actually reveals that he has taken some from them. Just as Alison desecrated her love for Simon, Molly and her mother did the same for the Simon.
In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the Miller's and Reeve's tales parallel each other through their representations of women. In a period of time when the overall outlook on women was different from today, Chaucer depicts the life of women as one filled with over-protection by the husband or father, extensive chores solely in the house, and self immorality. Alison, the miller's wife and Molly all exhibit or deal with these characteristics of medieval women. Through their actions The Canterbury Tales holds a clear view of one particular social condition of the time, the depravity of women.
Blewitt, Ralph. The Middle Ages "Courtesy Books" Princeton; Princeton Printing Press, 1993.
Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canterbury Tales New York; Bantum Books, 1964.
Rhinesmith, Harvey. The Middle Ages "Family, Western European" Princeton; Princeton Printing Press, 1993.