Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late 1400s. He came up with the idea of a pilgrimage to Canterbury in which each character attempts to tell the best story. In that setting Chaucer cleverly reveals a particular social condition of England during the time. In this period, the status, role, and attitudes towards women were clearly different from that of today.
Two tales in Chaucer?s collection specifically address this subject: the Miller?s Tale and the Reeve?s Tale. The interplay between the tales and characters further enhances the similar viewpoints these stories have towards women. In the Middle Ages, most women married and began raising children soon after reaching puberty. They remained largely indoors, having no true chance to receive a formal education or to gain any social or economic power. Husbands commonly had full control of their wives, often limiting their public lives solely to the family.
? A wife . . . must please her husband and be totally obedient to him, even when he is unjust and violent.? (Blewitt, 662)
In both the Miller?s and the Reeve?s tales Chaucer presents the women of the household indoors in all instances. Alison of the Miller?s Tale lives in a cottage alone with her husband John and fly Nicholas, a scholar. Her implied role besides sexual purposes includes tending to house chores, just as the Miller?s wife and daughter in the Reeve?s Tale. Although, the women?s sole purpose as a wife comes naturally as one of sexual purposes a wife?s first duty was to provide her husband with an heir, and she could be divorced if she was barren.
The wife must be loyal to her husband and obey him, even when her husband commits fiendish acts such as affairs. In these two tales, Chaucer brings about the ideas of protection and immortality. With men often leaving the house to tend to their own chores, the women of the house have plenty of chances to, ?play around? with other men without their husbands knowing.
John, the carpenter in the Miller?s Tale, constantly worries about his eighteen year-old wife, Alison. ?Jealous he was,? the Miller told us, ?and he kept her closely caged, for she was wild and young, and he was old, and thought she would likely make him a cuckold.? (Chaucer, 118) This protection of the women of the home parallels that of Reeve?s Tale, in which Simon, the miller, protects his wife and daughter, Molly, when he finds the mischievous Alan and John have slept with them.
?By Holy God I?ll have you tripes for daring to dishonor my daughter . . .? Simon exclaims. (Chaucer, 118) Full of rage, he attacks Alan as to sustain his protection for his women. Immortality is discussed in the Miller and Reeve?s tales in the sense that the women of both tales have no true sense of integrity. Both John and Simon show some level of restraint over Alison, Molly, and the miller?s wife, for ?Restraint is recommended (for women) in regard to sexual behavior.? (Blewitt, 662)
Fly Nicholas, who pays rent to stay with John and Alison, finds John frequently leaves the house for many days as part of his job. Nicholas is portrayed as the sliest character in both tales, knowing all for love, sexual pursuits, and astrology. He approaches Alison one day and makes an intense sexual pass, and after little resistance, Alison accepts the pass. Alison then readily engages in sex with Nicholas, being assured that John will not find out. She stops not even once to think of what this will cause to her faithful and loving husband.
Another such offense comes about when Alison openly sticks her, ?Rompi? out the window for Absolom to kiss. Her overall character seems as one that has no shame. To the same extent, the miller?s wife and daughter, Molly, commit a similar crime of lewdness. John and Alan, angry at the trick Simon has played on them, decide to sleep with Simon?s wife and daughter that very same night. Carefully and cunningly, John gets Simon?s wife into his bed, while Alan gets himself into Molly?s bed. Molly, just as Alison readily accepts Alan?s sexual offer, for Chaucer writes, ?They soon were one.? (Chaucer, 172)
John uses a different approach to get Simon?s wife, leading her to falsely believe his bed is actually hers. He instantaneously begins to have fun, but again the wife believes it is her husband who, ?Thrusts like a madman, hard and deep? upon her. (Chaucer, 173) Although just implied, there exists as much immortality in her actions as that of Molly and Alison. Having a child whom obviously has already passed through puberty; Simon should be considerably older than John. Thus the miller?s wife must have known that Simon was not receiving her pleasures in a way in which she could not resist. If such immoral behaviors exist in Molly?s mother there stands no question as to why Molly herself acts the same way. Not only does she disrespect her own body, but even worse her loyalty towards her father. She confirms with Alan that her father steals flour, and actually reveals that he has taken some from them. Just as Alison desecrated her love for Simon, Molly and her mother did the same for Simon. The two tales reveal a hint of the roles women of medieval times play socially. That was what was expected and believed of them.
In Chaucer?s The Canterbury Tales, the Miller?s Tale and the Reeve?s Tale each parallel the others through their representations of women. In a period of time when the overall outlook on women was different from today, Chaucer depicts the life of women as one filled with over-protection by the husband or father, extensive chores solely on the house, and self-immortality. Alison, the Miller?s wife and Molly all show or deal with these characteristics of medieval women. Through their actions, The Canterbury Tales holds a clear view of one particular social condition of the time, the depravity of women.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Bantum Books, 1964.
?Geoffrey Chaucer.? (http://lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/19th-authors.html)