Historical Background

One of the most memorable pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales, as well as one of the most memorable women in literature, is the Wife of Bath. She is a "lusty and domineering" woman who is proud of and outspoken about her sexuality and believes that a woman should have sovereignty in a marriage (Norton 80). She is also extremely blunt and outspoken about her ideas and beliefs. Despite being a woman of the fourteenth century, her ideas, beliefs, and behavior are more like those of the twentieth century. For these reasons, she seems true to life even today. However, her ideas, beliefs, and behavior are not at all representative of the women of her time. Women in the Middle Ages had more freedom compared to women in the Anglo-Saxon period. However, women in the Middle Ages were still considered to be dependent on men. In the medieval period, most women were not formally educated. They did not have the right to own property, to express themselves freely and openly or to make their own decisions. They did not have a lot of freedom and choice, and were not treated as equal to men.

In the Anglo-Saxon period women were generally identified by marital or sexual status. In "Caedmon's Hymn," as told by Bede, Abbess Hilda is an exception, because despite being a woman, she is the head of and rules over the monastery. In Beowulf, the tragic story of Hildeburh suggests that women were not warriors in the Anglo-Saxon culture and period. They were there to support their husbands and cook, clean, and give birth. In the house as well as in the society men were given much more importance and were favored over women. In the Anglo-Saxon period marriages were often arranged for political reasons to settle feuds between families and make peace. In Beowulf, Hrothgar wants to marry his daughter to Ingeld, the king of the Heatho-Bards, because he believes that through this marriage he will be able to settle the feud between the Danes and the Heatho-Bards.

In the Middle Ages there was a little improvement in women's rights compared to the Anglo-Saxon period, but things were still far from perfect. Before marriage a woman was totally dependent on her father, who was the head of the house. She, therefore, did not have the choice to make her own decisions; her father made all decisions for her. All her possessions were her father's property. Most women in this period did not get a formal education. However, girls could go to convent schools, but not to a university. Only wealthy men of high status were able to get a university education. However, women had a good understanding of literature and would often read to their children. Although the Wife of Bath has not had any formal education, she seems to have good knowledge of the Bible (though she misquotes more often than not). Before marriage, the girl was supposed to help with the family business and help her mother with the housework. If the father died, the eldest son became the head of the house. It was his responsibility to take care of and protect the family. Therefore, in the house, boys were favored and given preference over girls.

In the Middle Ages marriages were often arranged according to wealth and social status. Girls were often married at a young age and to much older men. In the King Arthur legends, King Arthur is said to be much older that Guinevere. When a woman married a man, she legally became his possession, and all her possessions became his. The only way a woman could own property in this culture was if she was a widow or a single working woman. After marriage a woman was supposed to take care of the house, cook, clean, and give birth. Women would also help their husbands in trade, but always for the benefit of the male household head. Besides taking care of the house and the children, women would participate in other chores such as weaving. In The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath is also an excellent weaver. Women were supposed to be faithful to their husbands. However, the same rule did not apply to men. It was common for men to have affairs and mistresses. Women were not supposed to be open about their sexual desires and feelings. In the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," the clerk is shocked and offended by how blunt and open the Wife of Bath is about her sexuality. In a marriage it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife. Wife beating was allowed and often encouraged by family members and society. Even though her fifth husband beats her, the Wife of Bath says that she loved him the most. The Wife of Bath's fifth husband hits her so hard that she becomes deaf in one ear. No matter how bad a marriage, a woman was supposed to stick with it, as divorce was not an option. The only way to be an independent woman in this period was to be widowed. The only way a woman could own property in this period was if she was a widow. However, if upon her husband's death she had an adult male child, all the property then belonged to him.

In conclusion, the Wife of Bath seems more like a woman of the twentieth century than a woman of the fourteenth century. In the Middle Ages, women were considered subordinate and dependent on men. Today women are treated more as equal to men. However, things are still not perfect. There is still a lot that needs to be changed.