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Sarah Lindsay

The Wife of Bath and Dangerous Authority

Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere Manuscript
Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere Manuscript, early 15th century (Huntington Library) | image via Luminarium

“Experience, rather than any authority in this world, is good enough for me to tell you about the woe that is marriage”: so proclaims Chaucer’s vivacious Wife of Bath in the opening lines of her Prologue in the Canterbury Tales. She frames the conflict between experience and authority vividly as she contrasts her wide-ranging marital experience (five husbands) with the academic theological authorities on women and marriage. Although her concerns differ in some ways from ours today, the tension between her lived experience and the authoritative thinking on femininity remains familiar to women.

As the allegations of sexual assault and harassment keep rolling in, and more prominent men face the consequences (most recently, Matt Lauer), I am finding Chaucer’s 600-year-old exploration of the dichotomy between authority and experience particularly relevant. His Wife of Bath, Alison, experiences — often painfully — the tension between the authorities about women and her own life as a woman. Alison is well aware of the received wisdom about women: women manipulate men and lie about cheating; they care only about their position and appearance; they cannot control their sexual appetites (this last characteristic has, since Chaucer’s day, switched from women to men).

And the Wife of Bath doesn’t deny this received wisdom, exactly. She brags about how she manipulated her first three husbands, all elderly and rich, in order to gain wealth — while lying about her extramarital affairs. She unabashedly seeks social prominence, gained through her husbands' wealth. And she openly pursues her own sexual satisfaction in her fifth marriage.

But while authority describes the Wife of Bath, it cannot comprehend her lived experience. She tells us that she was first married at age 12: a surprisingly young age for even Chaucer’s fourteenth-century readers, and an age at which the young Alison was completely at the mercy of authority — parents, guardians, husband. Of course Alison does what she can to gain some degree of power and autonomy, using the only tools she’s ever been given.

Authority also comes into more direct conflict with experience in Alison’s fifth marriage, to Jankyn — her only named husband. She, wealthy now from the estates of her first three husbands, chooses the young Jankyn because she finds him sexually attractive. But unfortunately for her, Jankyn’s hobby is reading the so-called antifeminist authorities: those church fathers who most venomously attack and condemn women as uniquely sinful, the cause of all evil in the world from Eve onward.

In a scene worthy of any sitcom, Jankyn sits by the fire reading these authorities to his wife. She, unable to bear any more, rips the pages from the book and tosses them into the fire; Jankyn knocks her down in a rage. But when he sees that he has hurt his wife, he is overcome with repentance and the two reconcile — burning his antifeminist book.

Although Chaucer plays this scene for comedic effect, he also highlights the interplay between authority and experience. Jankyn’s affinity for a certain type of authority leads him to treat his wife badly, haranguing her with readings on her inadequacies as a woman and even physically abusing her. These authorities can’t remain abstract: they are inevitably reflected in experience. And Alison’s experience suggests that these antifeminist authorities are dangerous to women precisely because they do not attempt to understand how their arguments affect the actual lived experience of women.

So how does this 600-year-old story connect to this particular moment, in which men are facing a reckoning as women collectively voice the pain of years of harassment and abuse?

In our society — both broadly and within the church — received authority tells us that men want sex, while women do emotions. It tells us that boys will be boys — and if you want to play with the boys, you have to learn not to cry. It tells us that women manipulate men sexually and that women lie, so their stories about assault are always suspect.

Women have known, have experienced, the consequences of these beliefs for decades. All too often, however, these experiences, because they conflict with the authority of cultural beliefs, have been denied and suppressed. And it’s not just men who do these: we women do it to ourselves when we downplay and justify our experiences. (NPR’s Kat Chow has a brilliant article on this topic.) Sometimes, especially in the church, we do this in response to overt authority; other times, it’s under the pressure of cultural authority.

But we’re witnessing a moment of experience talking back to authority: when we let “boys be boys” (code for bad behavior), we let them harm women. When we paint women as emotional at best, manipulative at worst, we make it impossible for them to hold men accountable for their actions. When we accept harassment as the price for workplace success, we condemn women to an extra burden of stress and discomfort in their jobs.

Ideas have consequences. Authority shapes experience. And authority that cannot acknowledge experience, cannot adapt when it produces harmful experience, is dangerous.

I love Chaucer because of the way he explodes binary oppositions — the Wife of Bath sets up authority and experience as opposites, but as we see in her tale they are inextricably linked. Chaucer demonstrates that problems arise when that link goes only one direction, from authority to experience; experience should also inform authority.

Changes to received wisdom are always slow. But as the experience of hundreds and thousands of women comes to painful light, I hope it will reshape our authorities on women. Women cannot thrive in a society that suppresses their experiences and refuses to let those experiences reshape our ideas.