In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.
Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.
That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.
The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.
In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.
The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.
Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.
Hence, even if “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.