Discourses on Women and Gender Issues in The Canterbury Tales

|| Academic Paper |

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales gives valuable insights on the roles women assume, the struggles they undergo, and the strategies they adopt in appropriating their share of socio-political influence available to men and women during the Middle Ages. The 14th century text showcases various discourses on women empowerment as conveyed especially through the only three female characters in Chaucer’s narrative poem. Through these characters, the methods women employ in order to subvert the male-dominated social dynamics of their period are communicated.

The Wife of Bath, the Prioress, and the Second Nun represent distinct groups of women with different roles, desires, and coping strategies. As will be demonstrated, one group (represented by the Prioress and the Second Nun) actively adopts transcendent goals and lifestyles that incidentally bypass gender-based power struggles. Another (represented by the Wife of Bath) opts to directly confront male dominance by redefining the domestic space and covertly assuming the lead role in its affairs, whether by romantic, coercive, or other means.

While economic mobility was truly restrictive for both men and women during the Middle Ages, women generally had fewer options than men in terms of societal roles—specially in terms of trade or profession—they could assume. This apparent lack of accessible professional roles is evident in the characterization of The Canterbury Tales: of the 24 pilgrims who journeyed together to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, only three are women. Of the three, only two female roles are represented, that of a nun and that of a wife.

This obvious limitation notwithstanding, Chaucer still infused much societal insight into the work through the voices of the highly interesting female characters which are also the subjects of this essay: Alyson (the Wife of Bath), Madame Eglantine (The Prioress), and the Second Nun.
Some sort of gradation in terms of how their personalities accept, assimilate, or transform their different goals may be achieved in a simplified manner: Based on the prologues, their actions, their dialogues with other characters in the pilgrimage, and the tales they have chosen to share, the three women prioritizes worldly and spiritual concerns quite differently. Viewed within this context, in fact, one may claim that given a yardstick that measures worldliness and spirituality, the women might be lined up so from the highest level of worldliness to the least:

  1. Alyson
  2. Madame Eglantine
  3. The Second Nun
Clearly, Alyson is a passionate wife and is unashamedly passionate about the World and all it represents—money, sex, food, earthly pleasures. She had had five husbands and, after being widowed yet again, is still voraciously looking for the next:
Experience, though no authority
Were in this world, were good enough for me,
To speak of woe that is in all marriage;
For, masters, since I was twelve years of age,
Thanks be to God Who is for aye alive,
Of husbands at church door have I had five;
For men so many times have wedded me;
And all were worthy men in their degree.

Of the three, Alyson is the possibly the most honest and is perhaps the most beloved and memorable even among all the characters of The Canterbury Tale. Her honest earthliness, in contrast with the hypocritical religiosity of many of the other pilgrims is a stark commentary on the rigid set of moral rules imposed by the clergy during the Middle Ages. Having had five husbands and an ample share of love and its pleasures and pains herself, Alyson still chose to narrate a tale of romance, betraying her desire as well as her strategy in self-empowering: she marries and dominates the men in her life, thereby gaining covert economic control through her husbands’ trades. In the conclusion of her tale, she wishes for young, meek, easily pliable, and virile husbands and curses old, stingy men. While providing comic relief, the appeal exhibits Alyson’s zest and honesty.

And Jesus to us send
Meek husbands, and young ones, and fresh in bed,
And good luck to outlive them that we wed.
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who'll not be governed by their wives;
And old and querulous niggards with their pence,
And send them soon a mortal pestilence!

Meantime, Madame Eglantine takes the middle position in terms of the worldliness-spirituality gauge. As gleaned from her prologue, Madame Eglantine remains somewhat a worldly woman, conscious of her pretty face, the way she talks, and the elegance she exudes, and yet still desiring gold despite becoming a nun. For example, while most nuns have disowned their jewelries, Madame Eglantine still wears a secular necklace—not a religious scapular as one would expect—that even bears the motto popularized by the Roman poet Virgil: ‘amor vincit omnia,’ which means love conquers all.
In comparison, the Second Nun is thoroughly spiritual based on her demeanor among the other Pilgrims, and the tale she has chosen to share: that of the remarkable and more popular story of St. Cecilia. This tale is an archetypal portrayal of the enduring faith professing Christians must assume all the time, but specially when their beliefs are put to doubt or directly assaulted.  Certainly, the Second Nun desires to possess the same bold conviction.

As can be gleaned from the foregoing narratives, there are basically two approaches shown in the selected text on how women navigated the male-dominated milieu of the Middle Ages. One, as exemplified by the Prioress and the Second Nun—albeit in varying degrees—is to actively adopt transcendent goals [such as spirituality], thereby bypassing other discourses commonly ranked lower—such as politics and gender issues—in the hierarchy of human pursuits. Such transcendence is seen in nunneries and abbeys, where women lead semi-autonomous, all-female communities. In this sense, a type of significant empowerment is shown to be attainable, especially in social contexts similar to the Middle Ages.
On the other hand, women may still subvert the patriarchic dynamics of the Middle Ages by directly confronting male ascendancy and redefining the discursive arena, as humorously shown by the Wife of Bath. As seen in Alyson, the institution of marriage may be reconfigured to favor women who can play the cards that are dealt to them cleverly enough, even in an already lopsided game. 


  1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Reader-Friendly Edition by Michael Murphy. < http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/webcore/murphy/canterbury/>
  2. Somerville, Carole Anne. Chaucer's Approach to Gender in Canterbury Tales: Male/Female Roles in the Wife of Bath and the Merchant's Tale. Associated Content