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,

Tertulan,

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.

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