Remind yourself of lines 77-162 of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. How does Chaucer present contemporary attitudes towards the church in this passage? In most of Chaucer’s characters within The Canterbury Tales, we can derive opinions and attitudes towards the church. Some characters, such as the Prioress, Friar and Monk who should be devout and honourable are, in fact, presented as being entirely dishonourable. Chaucer seems to be highlighting the obvious flaws within the Medieval Church, such as its corrupt Friars and money-orientated core.
The Wife of Bath, although not a character related directly to the church, presents many points regarding the church’s ‘ideal’ and her own opinion of this. This opinion may be taken as representative of the ‘common people’ and could depict the popular attitude towards the church at the time. Although in the general prologue, it is mentioned that the Wife attends church, the context in which this is put (that it is merely an excuse to wear nice clothes), immediately highlights the lack of genuine interest towards the church. The Wife, being a loud, gregarious, rebellious woman, does not easily fit the church ideal, “Virginitee is greet perfeccion” [l 105].Within this passage, the Wife presents the church’s ‘ideal’ as being unreasonable and unrealistic. This is supported in the Friar’s general prologue, whereby Chaucer speaks of him having to find husbands for the women he made pregnant (obviously even members of the church found it difficult too!). She makes the point that for most people, virginity is impossible.
She speaks of having been given leave to marry by St. Paul, because she found virginity too difficult, “And for to been a wyf he yaf me leve of indulgence” [ll 83-84]. The Wife extends this to mean that she can marry more than once, conveniently forgetting that the church forbids bigamy.Although the Wife recognises that virginity is the ideal, she constantly tries to justify her way of life and explain why it should be accepted by the church. She uses logic and metaphors to support her points, such as her argument about the practicality of wives compared with virgins: “For wel ye knowe, a lord in his houshold, He nath nat every vessel al of gold; Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise.” [ll 99-101]Here she is making the point that although she may not be a virgin, she can still perform her role as a Christian just as well as a nun.
Further on in this extract she uses another metaphor to highlight her role as a Christian, this time using different types of bread to differentiate between virgins and wives: “Let hem be breed of pured whete-seed, And lat us wives hoten barly-breed; And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan, Oure Lord Jhesu refreshed many a man.” [ll 143-146] She even goes so far as to suggest that she is more religious than some virgins, for if celibacy is without “devocion”, it is not honourable at all.Throughout her prologue and tale, the Wife adopts a scholarly method of argument, constantly using justifications and biblical references to support her points, for example when she speaks of Jesus’ advice in line 107, “But Crist…
“. However, she contradicts her own technique in debate, by mocking the scholars need to explain and justify the presence of sexual organs with examples and evidence: “Trusteth right wel, they were nat maad for noght. Glose whoso wole, and say bothe up and doun…” [ll 118-119]However, aside from this, her need to justify and defend her lifestyle shows us something fundamental about the church at this time.
Although few people adhered completely to the church’s ideal, finding it too difficult, the contemporary ideas of hell and purgatory were sufficient enough an incentive to at least try and justify their lives in accordance with the bible. Ultimately, Chaucer is highlighting the lack of control the church had on influencing most people’s lives. However, the rules were still recognised, even if they were not followed, causing many people to feel obligated to justify their lifestyle by manipulating the bible to their own interest.
The Wife also frequently uses the concept of experience as a tool, not only against the scholars but also against the fundamental wishes of the church as well. Her argument against the scholars, regarding the purpose of sexual organs is merely that of her own personal experience, “The experience woot wel it is noght so” [l 124]. The concept of experience versus authority (mentioned in the first line of the prologue) is relevant not only to the Wife of Bath, but also to the population as a whole. In general, scholars’ arguments, although undeniably intelligent, were seen as unrealistic. Therefore, many people regarded experience as the main code they should follow. If their parents used their sexual organs for recreation, why shouldn’t they?As previously highlighted, the Wife is very particular about which biblical references she uses and which she avoids, mainly because most she does not comply with most of them. Not only does she manipulate St.
Paul’s advice to her advantage in line 83 (as shown earlier), she also uses weak biblical references to support other points. “Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me; And bad oure housebondes for to love us weel. Al this sentence me liketh every deel.” [ll 160-162] This statement, that husbands should love their wives, is taken by the Wife to mean that the church accepts marriage.
Not only this, but in the last line [l 162], she admits to liking this statement, perhaps only because it complies with her lifestyle.Chaucer takes a very ironic overview of many social situations throughout The Canterbury Tales. In regard to attitudes towards the church, the fact that all the pilgrims are on a pilgrimage, ultimately for a holiday, immediately mocks the church and the way in which people use it as a pretence to have fun. Ultimately, to most people, it was the only way to have a social life, so people exploited festivals and events to have a good time. Most people were not devoutly religious, if Chaucer’s incite into medieval life is to be believed. This shows not only a distinct lack of respect, but also mocks the church for its hypocritical status within the community: that due to the unrealistic ideals set by the church are so hard for people to comply with, that they take no notice at all and merely use the church as an excuse to have fun.The Wife, although representing an extreme way of life (heightened by Chaucer), would probably be part of the majority more so than a devout monk or priest.
Chaucer the pilgrim, acts as the ‘middleman’ during The Canterbury Tales, remaining fairly objective throughout. By using the Wife’s personality to represent the lack of control the church had over some people, Chaucer highlights the flaws within the church and shows how people like the Wife of Bath used it merely as a pretence for a social life.This extract ultimately shows, through the Wife colourful lifestyle, the lack of control the church had over the people and the lack of respect the people had for the church.
The impossible standards set by the church were on the whole, not adhered to, with people justifying their lifestyle with other contradictory passages within the bible. However, this is not to say that the church was not still a powerful object at this time.It was still the only main source of jobs and most, if not all people, attended church on a Sunday. The abbeys and monasteries were the greatest landowners in the country and due to the corrupt nature of some aspects of the church, such as the trade in ‘pardons’, it was very wealthy and powerful at this time. However, overall, and in this passage, Chaucer seems to focus on the negative aspects of the church, and, accurately or not, portrays to the reader an overall lack of respect by the people towards the church.