The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 5)

This simultaneous self-assertion coupled with subjection to social expectations is evident in the Wife of Bath’s treatment of biblical passages on marriage. While accepting the authority of Scripture in consonance with the expectations of her society, the Wife of Bath applies interpretations that allow her to assert her authority over her society’s most authoritative texts. She appeals, for example, to the polygamy practiced by certain Old Testament patriarchs in an attempt to justify her own polyamorous behavior:

What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye

Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?

I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,

And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;

And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,

And many another holy man also.[1]

Turning to New Testament texts on marriage, she admits St. Paul’s advice to prefer virginity over marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, but turns to assert her own authority over the text: “He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly; / And lordynges, by youre leve, that am not I.”[2] In a reference to the Epistle to the Ephesians, she mentions that “the Apostel” Paul “bad oure housbondes for to love us weel,” proclaiming that “al this sentence me liketh every deel.”[3] To fit this passage to her argument, however, she leaves out the preceding injunction that “wives” should “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” and the immediately following injunction to “let the wife see that she respects her husband.”[4]

At this point in her prologue, the Pardoner interjects, “Now, dame . . . by God and by Seint John! / Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.”[5] The accusation that the Wife of Bath has been preaching is an indication of what Chaucer is doing here. He has taken up the methodology employed by the medieval misogynists while turning it on its head. In the same way that, for example, St. Jerome quotes selectively from Scripture to justify his preference for virginity over marriage and to defame femininity, the Wife of Bath provides carefully selected biblical references coupled with creative misinterpretations to substantiate her own position.

The most powerful example of the Wife of Bath’s attempts to assert her dominance over the textual tradition in which she stands comes at the conclusion of her prologue. There, the Wife describes her fifth husband, Janekyn, reading from his “book of wikked wyves.” At last, she grows impatient with his impetuous reading and, snatching several pages from the book, strikes Janekyn on the cheek:

And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne

To reden on this cursed book al nyght,

Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght

Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke

I with my fest so took hym on the cheke

That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.[6]

Janekyn’s reaction, she continues, is to jump up “as dooth a wood leoun, / And with his fest he smoot me on the heed / That in the floor I lay as I were deed.”[7] Although Janekyn has struck her so hard that she will remain deaf in one ear, the Wife of Bath seizes on this opportunity to practice the sort of manipulation attributed to women in the very misogynistic tradition she is struggling to assert herself against. Appealing to Janekyn’s sympathy, she cries out, “O! hastow slayn me, false theef? . . . / And for my land thus hastow mordred me? / Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee.”[8] Janekyn, moved by his wife’s suffering, falls down on his knees and begs her to “foryeve it me.”[9] At last, after Janekyn is subjected to one more punch from his wife, the two are reconciled in a manner that fits the Wife of Bath’s tastes:

He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,

To han the governance of hous and lond,

And of his tonge, and of his hond also;

And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.[10]

In a commentary upon the Wife of Bath that, fittingly, evinces the influence of Michel Foucault’s notions of asserting power through “the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of” a text,[11] Susan Crane lauds the Wife of Bath’s actions as “suggesting that fundamental changes can arise from limited acts of destruction.”[12] Adding to Crane’s commentary, Bisson remarks on this passage that “the right to say what the culture’s central texts mean underpins the right to rule.”[13] By applying her own interpretations to her culture’s texts and, finally, engaging in a symbolic mutual destruction of those texts alongside her husband, the Wife of Bath is asserting her right to define her marriage and herself on her own terms.

More than that, he and she together are rejecting the sort of typology which has hitherto defined their respective self-understandings and, through so defining their identities, defined both of their understandings of each other and of their relationship. Whereas Janekyn and the Wife of Bath previously saw themselves and each other through the lens of the medieval misogynist texts, their mutual destruction of those texts is an act symbolic of their new mutual recognition of their own and each other’s personhood. The result, says the Wife of Bath, is that

After that day we hadden never debaat.

God helpe me so, I was to hym as kynde

As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde,

And also trewe, and so was he to me.[14]

The Wife of Bath has, through this mutual text-burning, found the means by which to surpass social expectations. She is able, albeit temporarily, to define herself and her relationship with Janekyn in fresh, creative terms because they have together made a decisive break with the tradition that had hitherto colored their relationship and prevented them from authentically offering themselves to each other.

[1] Ibid. III.53–58.

[2] Ibid. III.111–112.

[3] Ibid. III.160–162.

[4] Ephesians 5:22, 5:33, respectively (English Standard Version).

[5] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.164–165. There is no small irony in the Pardoner being the pilgrim who interjects here as his prologue and tale, told later, indeed constitute a sermon on avarice.

[6] Ibid. III.788–793.

[7] Ibid. III.794–796.

[8] Ibid. III.800–802.

[9] Ibid. III.807.

[10] Ibid. III.813–816.

[11] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 119.

[12] Susan Crane, “The Writing Lesson of 1381,” in Chaucer’s England: Literature in Historical Context, ed. Barbara Hanawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 216.

[13] Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World, 163.

[14] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.822–825.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 4)

Much the same can be said of Katherine Minola, the character in all of Shakespeare’s plays most likely to end up as a version of the Wife of Bath. That Katherine is at the mercy of a society whose dictates shape her identity while she simultaneously surpasses and rejects them is evident from the moment that Katherine enters the stage in the Taming of the Shrew. Entering alongside her father Baptista, her sister Bianca, and her sister’s two suitors Hortensio and Gremio, Katherine’s first words are a rather mild rebuke of her father’s attempts to find a husband for her. “I pray you, sir,” she says, “is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?”[1] Hortensio responds by warning her that she will find no husband “unless you were of a gentler, milder mold.”[2] Katherine’s response is, as is to be expected, a suitably shrewish threat of violence coupled with a rejection of the institution of marriage:

I’faith, sir, you shall never need to fear;

Iwis it is not halfway to her heart.

But if it were, doubt not her care should be

To comb your noddle with a three-legged stool,

And paint your face, and use you like a fool.[3]

While Katherine’s threats of harm aimed at Hortensio are unnerving, the reactions they elicit from the men present are of exaggerated proportions when one considers that the person making them is a young woman surrounded by older, and ostensibly stronger, men who possess the position of authority in the social order. “From all such devils, good Lord deliver us!” Hortensio cries.[4] Gremio follows Hortensio’s shriek of terror with his own “And me too, good Lord!”[5] Tranio, watching from a distance and with no knowledge of Katherine aside from what he has just witnessed, concludes immediately “that wench is stark mad or wonderful froward.”[6] If this is the reaction that she receives for defending herself against a father who offers her in marriage to men she has expressed no interest in and the insults of her younger sister’s suitors, it is easy to see why a strong-willed woman like Katherine cannot find a comfortable place in her society.

Later, Katherine follows up on this threat of violence to Hortensio when she smashes his head with a lute while he attempts to give her music lessons. As Hortensio, disguised as “Litio,” a music teacher, tells it,

I did but tell her she mistook her frets,

And bowed her hand to teacher her fingering,

When, with a most impatient devilish spirit,

“Frets, call you these?” quoth she, “I’ll fume with them.”

And with that word she struck me on the head,

And through the instrument my pate made way;

And there I stood amazed for a while,

As on a pillory, looking through the lute,

While she did call me rascal fiddler

And twangling Jack, with twenty such vile terms,

As had she studied to misuse me so.[7]

According to Coppélia Kahn,

the language in which her music lesson with Hortensio is described conveys the idea that it is but another masculine attempt to subjugate woman. . . . Later Petruchio explicitly attempts to “break” Kate to his will, and throughout the play men tell her that she “mistakes her frets”—that her anger is unjustified.[8]

Katherine, then, is not merely a “shrew,” but a woman who is, in a sense, in rebellion against cultural norms. Simultaneously, however, and like the Wife of Bath, she has no means by which to define herself apart from these cultural norms. The result is that she is placed in the tenuous situation of defining her identity according to a tradition she, again like the Wife of Bath, surpasses and rejects.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, I.1.57–58. All quotations from the Taming of the Shrew are taken from David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2014).

[2] Ibid. I.1.60.

[3] Ibid. I.1.61–65.

[4] Ibid. I.1.66.

[5] Ibid. I.1.67.

[6] Ibid. I.1.69.

[7] Ibid. II.1.149–159.

[8] Coppélia Kahn, “‘The Taming of the Shrew’: Shakespeare’s Mirror of Marriage.” Modern Language Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1975): 93.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 3)

In the Canterbury Tales, it is the Wife of Bath who introduces the topic of mastery in marriage into the discussion. Apparently piqued by the earlier fabliau-style tales of adulterous women and their cuckolded husbands as told by the Miller and the Reeve, as well as the aborted Cook’s Tale which surely would have continued this theme had it been completed, the Wife introduces into the tale-telling the topic of headship in marriage. In her prologue, which, at 856 lines is by the far the longest prologue of any of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales and more than twice the length of her Tale, the Wife of Bath enters into an extended detailing of and tortuous justification for her unfaithfulness to and dominance over her first four husbands.

In so doing, she consistently draws upon the tradition of misogynistic literature in her descriptions of herself and of women in general. In a claim that echoes the claims of these texts, for example, she says, “Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yive / To wommen kyndely, whil that they may lyve.”[1] While women are more deceitful and emotional than men, says the Wife of Bath, again repeating the claims of medieval misogynistic texts, “man is moore resonable / Than womman is.”[2] She also consistently draws upon this tradition to explain and justify her socially unacceptable behavior, as when she claims,

We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,

In this matere a queynte fantasye:

Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,

Thereafter wol we crie al day and crave;

Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;

Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we flee.[3]

Similarly, she invokes the conventions of misogynistic literature to explain certain aspects of her physical appearance, her wide-set teeth and birthmark:

Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel;

I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.

As help me God, I was a lusty oon.[4]

According to medieval physiognomists, gapped-teeth were an indication of “an envious, irreverent, luxurious, bold, faithless, and suspicious nature.”[5] A Latin gloss in the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, an early 15th century manuscript widely considered among the most authoritative, comments on the Wife’s astrology and physical appearance. “Whenever they [any of the houses of Venus, as at the Wife’s birth] are in ascendance unfortunately one will bear an unseemly mark upon the face. At the nativities of women when a sign is ascending from one of the houses of Venus while Mars is in it, or vice versa, the woman will be unchaste.”[6]

More recently, Walter Clyde Curry, in “casting the Wife of Bath’s horoscope” has provided a helpful compilation of a number of similar remarks in the works of various astrological authorities.[7] According to the Wife,

For certes, I am al Venerien

In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.

Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,

And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;

Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars therinne.[8]

Expanding upon this, Curry draws upon a number of astrologers predating or roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, discerning in their prognostications an image of the Wife of Bath. A late 13th or early 14th century misogynistic text titled De secretis mulierum, or “Women’s secrets,” and falsely attributed to Albertus Magnus claims of a woman born under the astrological signs the Wife of Bath describes for herself that, “She reaches maturity at the age of twelve years, has small breasts becoming full and hard, and coarse hair. She is bold in speech, having a keen, high-pitched voice, proud in mind, red of face, erect in carriage, given to drink, she loves to sing, wanders much, and delights in adorning herself as much as possible.”[9] This could nearly be a description of the Wife of Bath herself. She was, she says, married for the first time at “twelve yeer . . . of age.”[10] She is, similarly, “bold in speech” and “proud in mind,” as is evidenced from the outspoken nature of her prologue and tale as well as her emphatically and frequently expressed desire to dominate her husbands. She also “wanders much,” as Chaucer informs us through the list he provides of her various previous pilgrimages:

And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

She hadde passed many a straunge strem;

At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,

In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne.

She koude muchel of wandryne by the weye.[11]

In addition to providing an accurate prediction of her personality, Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s horoscope also matches the Wife of Bath’s physical appearance as described by Chaucer. Says Chaucer,

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;

I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound

That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.

Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,

Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.[12]

In addition to being “red of face,” then, she is also a woman who clearly “delights in adorning herself as much as possible.” Her adornment, in fact, does not end with the “ten pound” “coverchiefs,” “scarlet reed” “hosen,” and “moyste” (or supple) “newe” “shoes” described here. She is also, continues Chaucer, “ywympled wel,” wearing a fashionable hat “as brood as is a bokeler or a targe,” two species of shields in use in Chaucer’s day.[13] In spite of this ostentatious abundance of clothing, however, Chaucer tells us that “upon an amblere esily she sat,”[14] a feat no doubt made possible by her astrologically-endowed “erect . . . carriage.”

Firmly connecting her personal identity with the statements about the nature of women in the misogynistic literature, the Wife of Bath spends much of her prologue detailing the ways in which she cuckolded and domineered over her several husbands by manipulating their desires and emotions. “Her account of her first three marriages to old husbands,” summarizes Lillian M. Bisson, “captures the misogynists’ most nightmarish visions about women, as she unabashedly relates the ways in which she controlled her husbands.”[15] She has, in short, internalized and become the embodiment of the medieval tradition of misogynistic literature. In this, Chaucer has perhaps painted an accurate, if quite exaggerated portrait of many medieval women. “When a medieval woman sought her own features in her mind’s mirror, she found reflected there a preexisting pattern that patriarchal culture had already shaped,” says Bisson.[16] And this is precisely what we find in the case of the Wife of Bath.

Yet, if this were all there is to the character of the Wife of Bath, she would hardly merit the enduring interest she has attracted. Derek Pearsall has argued that the Wife was already “something of a talking point in London literary circles in the 1390s.”[17] More recently than the 14th century, George Lyman Kittredge has enthusiastically asserted that “the Wife of Bath is one of the most amazing characters that the brain of man has ever yet conceived.”[18] Such claims could hardly stand if the Wife of Bath were merely another iteration of the medieval type of the conniving and adulterous woman.

As Bisson remarks, “her confessional prologue consists almost entirely of amalgamed antifeminist texts like those contained in Jankyn’s ‘book of wikked wyves.’”[19] The power of the Wife of Bath as a character arises from the simultaneity of her embodiment of a well-worn type coupled with a remarkable individuality that seeks to thwart any typical appellation applied to her. As J. R. Hulbert observed in a comment on the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales as a whole, the genius of Chaucer is to be found in his ability to merge “individual features with typical ones in such a way as to gain vividness and realism, not to be found in type delineations before him.”[20] The Wife of Bath is perhaps the most outstanding exemplar of this species.

While identifying with the characters described in medieval misogynistic literature, the Wife of Bath surpasses an absolute identification with the women described in this literature, thereby calling the accusations levelled by this literature into question. As Bisson explains, “as Chaucer imagines the Wife appropriating those texts, she becomes a whole much greater than the sum of its parts; she balloons into an independent self, generating energy that her creator can scarcely control.”[21] At one point in her prologue, the Wife of Bath trenchantly inquires, for example,

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?

By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,

As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,

They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse

Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.[22]

With this, the Wife of Bath has entered into a battle with the culture into which she was born and its texts which have shaped her identity. While necessarily living under the influence of these texts, she asserts herself against them.

[1] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.401–402.

[2] Ibid. III.441–442.

[3] Ibid. III.516–520.

[4] Ibid. III.603–605.

[5] Benson, ed., Riverside Chaucer, 818–819.

[6] Ibid., 870.

[7] Walter Clyde Curry, “The Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 166.

[8] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.609–613.

[9] Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, De secretis mulierum, quoted in Curry, “The Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer, ed. Wagenknecht, 179.

[10] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.4.

[11] Ibid. I.463–467.

[12] Ibid. I.453–458.

[13] Ibid. I.470–471.

[14] Ibid. I.469.

[15] Lillian M. Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 210.

[16] Ibid., 191.

[17] Derek Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales (New York: Routledge, 2002), 6.

[18] George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1915), 198.

[19] Bisson, 213.

[20] J. R. Hulbert, “Chaucer’s Pilgrims,” in Chaucer, ed. Wagenknecht,  25.

[21] Bisson, 213.

[22] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.692–696.

English and the Classics

In his 1915 collection of essays on Aristocracy and Justice, Paul Elmer More argues that “the classics, with the accompaniment of philosophy and the mathematical sciences” should form the core of a college curriculum. The simultaneous orderliness and difficulty of Latin and Greek, he writes, make these languages the perfect backbone to a “disciplinary education,” an education which produces orderly and intelligent minds. “It almost inevitably happens that a course in English literature,” or in the literature of any other modern language, he argues, “either degenerates into the dull memorizing of dates and names or, rising into the O Altitudo, evaporates in romantic gush over beautiful passages.” As a result, these languages and the literatures written in them are unfit to be placed at the center of a system of education. While it seems clear that there is a great deal of benefit to be derived from the study of the Greek and Latin languages as well as the literatures written in them, More’s dismissal of the study of English literature as inevitably consisting only of rote memorization of trivia on the one hand or mindless emotionalism on the other is an unnecessary exaggeration that serves as an opening to find fault with his position.

More’s assertion that the difficulty of Latin and Greek qualifies them for a place of preeminence in a “disciplinary education, for example, falls short of reason. There are, after all, much more difficult languages to learn than either Latin or Greek. A language in which meaning is invested in tone, such as Mandarin Chinese, is decidedly more difficult for native speakers of European languages to learn, for example, than their own language’s European antecedents in Greek and Latin. More himself taught Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language of great difficulty, at Harvard University for several years. Furthermore, the implication that a language, or anything else at all, is better because it is more difficult is unwarranted. There is no inevitable connection between the difficulty of an activity and its qualitative effect upon the person performing it.

If what More intends is that Latin and Greek, because of their difficulty in conjunction with their orderliness, serve to develop the reasoning skills of those who learn them, this is certainly to be admitted. Yet the same could surely be asserted about the mastery of the English language and the reading of English literature, contrary to More’s assertion that these inevitably degrade into memorization and emotion. Memorizing the declensions of Latin nouns and Greek verb forms no doubt builds discipline and memory. Studying the sonnets of Shakespeare or, for that matter, the striving of Ernest Hemingway after perfectly succinct sentences is, however, certain to produce the same sorts of results.

If it is the content of the works to be found in Latin and Greek that is of the greatest concern, it can hardly be asserted that the works of authors writing in Latin and Greek is more universal or humane than those writing in English. Shakespeare’s tragedies are as much a school of virtue, for example, as are the works of Homer or any of the Greek playwrights. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are as much, and perhaps more, a celebration and elaboration of the panoply of human possibilities as are Plutarch’s biographies. It cannot be asserted with any truth that the authors of Greek and Latin literature have outstripped the authors of English literature in their appeal to the universally and humanly true.

When Greek and Latin are considered side-by-side with English, the observation and prescription of Winston Churchill, a superb writer and speaker of English who was never able to fully master either Latin or Greek, seems closer to the mark than More’s thought. “Naturally I am biassed in favour of boys learning English,” he wrote in his biography, “I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.”

The Cause of Evil

One of the several defining features of the twentieth century has been the utopian thrust of political and social movements worldwide. As far flung and widely ranged as the Boxers and, later, the Maoists in China, the Leninist-Stalinists in Russia, the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the National Socialists in Germany, the dominant theme has been the belief that by changing laws and structures a perfect society can be created, freed of the age-old problems of poverty and crime. This notion pervades even the less extreme segments of political thought, including most American twentieth century politics. In his 1924 Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt traces the genealogy of this idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s abandonment of the idea of sin in favor of the belief that the causes of evil lie in society.

Writing of Rousseau, Babbitt claims, “in general, his notion that evil is not in man himself, but in his institutions, has enjoyed immense popularity, not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” The thought that was “central to [Rousseau’s] world view,” according to philosopher Christopher Bertram is the idea “that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.” The causes of the evils that afflict human life, then, are not to be found in individuals, their actions, and motivations, but rather in society itself and its effects upon its members. Presumably, if one can alter the social structures which have produced these ills, one can alleviate, perhaps even altogether obviate, these ills.

Ultimately, what Rousseau accomplished was the overturning of the Christian doctrine of sin. Appealing to St. Paul’s use of the term “old man” to refer to the nature of human beings, inclined to sin, Babbitt argues that the Rousseauistic abandonment of this notion “undermine[s] moral responsibility.” Whereas one had previously been encouraged to look within oneself for the source of evil in the world, the responsibility could now be shifted away from himself and toward others. This is, of course, as Babbitt says, “flattering.” One need not admit one’s own flaws nor take responsibility for them; evil is external, rather than internal. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in the middle of the twentieth century.

Influenced by this supposition, the last two centuries, and the twentieth century in particular, have been rife with grand schemes to overturn existing social structures in the hopes of creating a perfected society free of the evils that have plagued earlier societies. Each, in succession, has, of course, been a tremendous failure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been a supporter of one of these movements, Marxism-Leninism in Russia, early in his life, later became one of its victims as a prisoner in the Soviet gulags. After being released from gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1974 three-volume work Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The failure of the social revolutions of the twentieth century stems, as Babbitt presciently wrote even before most of these revolutions had fully taken shape, from the deadly flaw within their basic premises, their flattering assertion that man is good and it is his institutions that make him bad. “The hope of civilization,” however, “lies not in the divine average, but in the saving remnant.” Any attempt to eliminate evil through social engineering is doomed to fail. It is only through the small, but significant, individuals who are able to develop within themselves the discipline necessary to overcome the “old Adam” that any good may be accomplished.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 2)

In his Marriage Group, Chaucer draws upon the robust medieval tradition of misogynistic literature. Among his many sources drawn from this tradition are writings of Church Fathers like St. Jerome in his Epistola adversus Jovinianum, to which, says Thomas R. Lounsbury, “the prologue to the tale of the Wife of Bath owes not only numerous passages, but even its existence.”[1] Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, was originally written “in response to an opponent who had dared to suggest that chastity and marriage were of equal value,” says Helen Cooper.[2] “It is in fact,” she continues, “less theological than anti-feminist—as is demonstrated by his inclusion of a vivid description of the bad habits of wives translated from the pagan Greek author Theophrastus, and preserved only here.”[3] Although too lengthy to quote in full, a survey of Jerome’s selection from Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum, reveals contents that reflect precisely the sort of misogynistic statements found in similar medieval texts and which closely mirror many of the stories of marriage woes told by Chaucer’s pilgrims. “Matrons want many things, costly dresses, gold, jewels, great outlay, maid-servants, all kinds of furniture, litters and gilded coaches,” says Theophrastus in a claim that explains the Wife of Bath’s first three marriages to wealthy elderly men.[4] Similarly, “she complains that one lady goes out better dressed than she: that another is looked up to by all,”[5] continues Theophrastus, which claim the Wife of Bath echoes in her complaint to one of her husbands, “Why is my neighebores wyf so gay? / She is honoured overal ther she gooth; / I sitte at hoom; I have no thrifty clooth.”[6] In a passage that could be a description of the Wife of Bath, Theophrastus goes on:

Upon whomsoever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not. If you give her the management of the whole house, you must yourself be her slave. If you reserve something for yourself, she will not think you are loyal to her; but she will turn to strife and hatred, and unless you quickly take care, she will have the poison ready.[7]

The wife whom Theophrastus-via-Jerome describes is, in short, a wife who is always potentially adulterous, always burdensome, and never a satisfying partner. She is, in other words, just the sort of wife featured in a number of the Canterbury Tales, including those of the Miller, the Reeve, the Merchant, and, especially, the Wife of Bath.

Other sources put to use by Chaucer were of more recent origin, such as the Miroir de Mariage of Chaucer’s French contemporary Eustache Deschamps.[8] Chaucer also drew heavily for both style and content upon the French fabliaux, short works of poetry whose stories focused on, as Jean Rychner has succinctly summarized them, la femme surprise en adultère et niant l’évidence avec succès [the woman caught in adultery denying the evidence with success] and similar themes.[9]

In her prologue, the Wife of Bath provides a bibliography of the sort of misogynistic literature contained in the “book of wikked wyves”[10] from which her fifth husband enjoyed reading, “in which book . . . there was,” in addition to the Ad Jovinianum of St. Jerome,


Crisippus, Trotula, and Helowys,

That was abbesse nat fer fro Parys,

And eek the Parables of Salomon,

Ovides Art, and bookes many on,

And alle thise were bounden in o volume.[11]

The Wife of Bath’s treatment of these misogynistic texts evinces some irony on Chaucer’s part in that she reacts with hostility toward them while, simultaneously, internalizing the claims these texts make about the inherent vices of women.

Shakespeare creates Katherine Minola of the Taming of the Shrew from a similar set of source materials and with a similar effect. In addition to drawing upon the same medieval misogynistic textual tradition as did Chaucer, Shakespeare drew upon more recent texts which exhibit not only a disdain for women as inherently sinful but, in addition, encourage violence toward women to gain the upperhand in the marriage. Richard Hosley has shown, for example, that Shakespeare drew upon “an anonymous verse tale printed by Hugh Jackson in about 1550 under the title Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morelles Skin, for Her Good Behavior.”[12] Going beyond mere defamation of women, the husband of the shrewish woman in this popular ballad demands of her “Thou shalt giue ouer or we departe / The maystership all, or all this day / I will not cease to make thee smarte.”[13] What ensues is a violent battle for mastery in the marriage between a husband and wife, both of whom share with each other and with the Wife of Bath the belief that the marital relationship must necessarily involve one member in subjection to the other.

[1]  Thomas R. Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer: His Life and Writings, vol. 2 (1892; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2013), 292–3.

[2] Cooper, 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Theophrastus, “On Marriage,” quoted in Jerome, Epistola adversus Jovinianum, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Vol. 6: Jerome, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 383.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales III.236–238. All quotations from the Canterbury Tales are taken from Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[7] Jerome, 383.

[8] John Livingston Lowes, “Chaucer and the ‘miroir De Mariage’ (continued),” Modern Philology 8, no. 2 (Oct. 1910): 166.

[9] Jean Rychner, Les XV joies de mariage (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1999), xiii.

[10] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.685.

[11] Ibid. III.676–681.

[12] Richard Hosley, “Sources and Analogues of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’” Huntington Library Quarterly 27 No. 3 Shakespeare (May 1964): 295.

[13] Thomas Amyot, ed., The Old Taming of a Shrew (London: Frederick Shoberi, 1844), 86.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Irving Babbitt

W. E. B. Du Bois and Irving Babbitt are not frequently associated with each other. Du Bois’s thought has exerted its influence most profoundly on the American political left. Irving Babbitt, on the other hand, was a conservative thinker whose influence extends throughout twentieth century conservatism. In spite of their obvious differences, however, Du Bois and Babbitt shared in common a focus upon the necessity of liberal education for the development of individuals, and, particularly, leaders, who would preserve and perpetuate culture.

With these ends in mind, Du Bois introduced his idea of a “Talented Tenth” who were fit to receive the highest levels of training and education and, afterwards, to lead their respective communities. The liberal education this Talented Tenth would receive would prepare them “by study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past” to assume the mantle of leadership in the confrontation of the mass of people with the “inevitable problems of civilization.” For that purpose, “the foundations of knowledge . . . must be sunk deeper in the college and university if we would build a solid, permanent structure.”

Similarly, Babbitt urged colleges to focus in their curriculum upon those books which are expressive of “what is permanent in human nature” so that the student may draw upon the wisdom of the past in the confrontation with contemporary problems. As in the thought of Du Bois, this education in the “sifted experience of generations” is linked in Babbitt’s thought to a notion of an educated elite particularly fit for leadership. In his Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt argues in favor of an “aristocratic principle” which alone can act as a “check to the evils of an unlimited democracy.”

Babbitt and Du Bois also, however, depart from each other in some substantial ways in their vision of this liberally-educated aristocracy. “The ascent of rare merit from the lower to the higher levels of society,” writes Babbitt, “should . . . always be left open.” Citing the British Enlightenment conservative Edmund Burke, Babbitt asserts that men should be judged “not by their hereditary rank, but by their personal achievement.” Neither Burke nor Babbitt, however, provides any program by which those at the lowest levels of society should be able to rise to the top, while acknowledging that “it is hard for the manual worker to acquire such virtue and wisdom for the reason that he lacks the necessary leisure.” Babbitt adds, in addition, that those men of “merit” who would rise from the lower levels of society to the higher must “be required to pass through a severe probation,” providing no indication to why this should be so or, if it is to be so, why it should not be so for the sons of those already at the top of society.

As Du Bois points out in his Dusk of Dawn, however, those with power are never eager to renounce it nor even to share it. And, although “many assume that an upper social class maintains its status mainly by reason of its superior culture,” more often than not the upper class is able to “maintain its status because of its wealth and political power and in that case its ranks can be successfully invaded only by the wealthy.” It is, therefore, necessary to secure some measure of “equality of opportunity” for all so that Babbitt’s imagined manual worker has the ability to rise in the first place.

In this way, Du Bois’s thought offers a more complete approach than Babbitt’s because Du Bois’s thought is better grounded in the realities that average individuals face. While Babbitt imagines a theoretical manual worker who might, through some intensive trial of his ability, be able some day to rise, Du Bois, on the ground, sees the many lives of potential and possibility that have been crushed through the failure of those already on top to offer opportunity to those below. In Dusk of Dawn, he records the words of a mother in Harlem, lamenting that her otherwise “bright” child is forced to attend the “Harlem schools” which are filled with “dirt, noise, bad manners, filthy tales, no discipline, over-crowded” and where “the teachers aren’t half trying.” Even more poignant is the story of Josie in the Souls of Black Folk. While searching for a job as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee during his summer break from his studies at Fisk University, Du Bois met and briefly taught this twenty-year-old woman who, he says, “longed to learn” and to rise, but had been denied the opportunity because of the circumstances into which she had been born. Years later, when Du Bois returned to the small town he had taught in, he found that Josie had died young without ever leaving. Babbitt’s failure to take account of Josie and those like her is a damning error of omission in his thought which the thought of Du Bois is able to obviate.

T. S. Eliot on Religion and Humanism

In his short essay “Religion Without Humanism,” published in Norman Foerster’s 1930 book Humanism in America, T. S. Eliot argues that humanism is an essential supplement to religion. There is, he says, a “danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.” This danger, he claims, is twofold. On the one side is the extreme of a “petrified eccleciasticism” and, on the other, the extreme of “modernism.” The former Eliot identifies with the “narrow and bigoted” reactionaries of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the latter with the “hypocritical and humanitarian” faction of the same Church. Without humanism, religion “produces the vulgarities and the political compromises of Roman Catholicism” as well as “the vulgarities and the fanaticism of Tennessee” in the Protestant churches.

Eliot’s argument, unfortunately, suffers from his failure to define his terms. His failure to define the term “humanism” is, in this essay, apparently intentional. “As I believe I am writing chiefly for those who know or think they know, what ‘humanism’ means,” he writes, “I have not in this paper attempted any definition of it.” The definition which Eliot implicitly provides, however, seems to contradict the definitions which the humanists whose essays are published in the same volume provide.

Eliot, for example, implies that humanism and religion are in some ways mutually exclusive, humanism behaving as a sort of loyal opposition to religion. He identifies humanism, for example, with “criticism from without” religion as well as “infidelity and agnosticism.” His greatest fear for humanism, he goes on, is that it “should make a tradition of dissent and agnosticism, and so cut itself off from the sphere of influence in which it is most needed.” Within Eliot’s notion of humanism as a force external to religion which, through its criticism of religion, prevents religion from decaying into enthusiasm on the one hand and humanitarianism on the other is the clear, if implicit, understanding that the two, religion and humanism, cannot coexist within the same person. One cannot, after all, be both internal to religion and external to it, and the humanist, at least vis-à-vis his humanism, in Eliot’s account, must be in the latter position.

Irving Babbitt, however, in his essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” seems to assume the opposite position. He argues, for instance, that “the man who sets out to live religiously in the secular order without having recourse to the wisdom of the humanist is likely to fall into vicious confusions.” He goes on to write, “It follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” From this point of view humanism can be seen as possibly, though not necessarily, internal to religion in that the Catholic is capable of adopting and applying humanistic principles while remaining a faithful Catholic. This is patently incompatible with Eliot’s view of the relationship between humanism and religion.

In addition to his failure to define humanism, there is the further trouble of Eliot’s failure to define religion. While the former absence of definition is, according to Eliot, intentional, the latter seems, rather, wholly unintentional. While it is clear that Eliot has in mind a specifically, if ecumenically, Christian cultural milieu, he does include among his references to the potential failures of religion without humanism “the communion of saints in Tibet.” This reference to the decadent theocracy of Tibet under the Buddhist lamas, of course, widens the scope of the word “religion” as it is being used by Eliot in this essay. It also, however, complicates the term due to Eliot’s failure to provide a definition for it. There is, after all, an important distinction between the tenets of Buddhism and the beliefs which must be adopted by the committed orthodox Christian. This distinction is, in turn, such that, if the humanist is, as Eliot claims, to play the role of critic, the career of the humanist where Buddhism is the predominant religion will inevitably be quite different from the career of the humanist whose primary religious relationship is with Christianity.

Eliot’s failure to define both humanism and religion in an essay about the relationship between the two creates significant difficulties for his argument. Even so, however, Eliot’s view of humanism as the loyal opposition to religion provides a valuable perspective on the usefulness of disbelief and the unbelievers who espouse it even within an otherwise religious society. Without the voice of doubt, as Eliot says, the power of religious authorities nearly inevitably degrades into pomposity and the importance of faith into an unquestioning and stifling dogmatism.