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Attitudes Towards Women in Fragment VII of Canterbury Tales
One of the most prominent themes in Fragment VII of the Canterbury Tales is the attitudes of the pilgrims towards women. There are two distinct sides in the dispute: that women are simply objects of lust that must never be trusted, and that women are highly respectable and loving.
The Shipman's Tale starts off this debate with his depiction of women, which was less than favorable. The woman who is depicted in this tale is the wife of a merchant. She is not treated well by her husband, but certainly is not trustworthy or honorable herself. She sells her body to the best friend of her husband for a measly 100 francs. Her faithfulness to her husband was worth only a few extravagant garments for her to wear. It is her greed for these material goods that drives her into cuckolding her unsuspecting husband. Her worldly desires are more important than her marriage, and in the end she is hardly punished at all. She does manage to keep her husband from finding out, by saying that the Monk was simply repaying his debt and she used the money to buy some clothes. So, she gets away with a crime that would have dealt her a far greater punishment. This outcome, while it certainly wasn't perfect for the wife, was much less than she deserved.
The Prioress steps in with the next tale, and takes a much different view. The Prioress herself is a very humble and well-mannered woman, as she is described in the General Prologue. She is also extremely compassionate towards all of God's creatures. Her tale is a tribute to the greatest woman of all, the Virgin Mary. While it is a tribute to the Virgin, the focus of the story is more on the little boy and his widowed mother. The mother is greatly distressed at her son's disappearance, and is eventually led by Jesus himself to the place where her son has been tossed. The idea that Jesus himself was consorting with this woman and answering her prayers makes a strong statement. Jesus certainly would not aid an evil person, so this widow must have been virtuous and humble.
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The tales of Chaucer himself followed the Prioress' Tale. The first of which, the Tale of Sir Thopas, didn't take as strong stance on any attitude towards women as did the two tales that preceded it. It did, however, portray women to be objects of lust and affection which could put a man in grave danger. This is what the reader might expect from Chaucer, since he does place himself among some of the other rascals of the group in the General Prologue. The other rascals (the Reeve and Miller especially) had already told stories that depicted women as objects of male desire. Sir Thopas, the knight, left his hometown of Flanders because he had become bored with the local maidens. On his adventure, he dreamt of a beautiful Elf Queen, with whom he fell desperately in love. He searched the forest in search of her, and vowed to never stop until her found her. When he met the three-headed giant who stood in his way, he went back home to prepare to fight. He was ready to risk his life to gain the love of the Elf Queen. The Elf Queen in this story is an object of lust and desire, much like the merchant's wife in the Shipman's Tale. Since the story is cut short, though, the reader never gets a chance to see what this Queen is really like. All that is seen is that she has captured the heart of this young and noble knight, which has him risking his life in search of her.
After Chaucer's first sorry tale is cut short, he moves on to the Tale of Melibee. In this story some different attitudes towards woman are actually discussed verbally amongst the characters. Melibee talks of how all women are evil and none are good. But, his wife Prudence responds to that by saying that Jesus would never have been born to an evil woman, nor would he have appeared to a woman after his resurrection. So, not all women could be evil. This point is accepted by Melibee, as her point as been clearly made. Also, she points out women who have saved the lives of their husbands and who were truthful to them. As this argument continues, Prudence continues to sway Melibee to accept her argument. She does this with good intentions as well. She does not want her husband to go to war with these enemies of his which certainly could put them all in danger. By the end of the story, she has convinced him so thoroughly that he ignores the advice of his counsel, and follows her advice almost to the letter. He does, however, give his enemies a bit of a verbal chiding against her wishes. It is quite possible that he did this simply to maintain himself as the sovereign lord of his estate, and to show Prudence that she has not gained complete mastery over him. This story takes an opposite approach towards women than Chaucer did in the Tale of Sir Thopas. But, since Chaucer does portray himself in the tales as a dunce, it is possible that this character is simply to doltish to make up his mind and take a solid stance on the issue.
The Monk, who is the second most noble character of the group, follows with his tale. He is a religious man, but one who enjoys worldly goods, and certainly does not deprive himself of them. He hunts quite regularly, even though his religious order discourages it by old standards. He is described as handsome and well-built man. One might wonder if he also neglects to deprive himself of intimate relations with women.
The central theme in the Monk's Tale is tragedy. He does, however, get in little tidbits about his attitudes towards women. Much as Melibee was at the start of Chaucer's second tale, the Monk is quite distrustful of women. In his tale of Samson, he described how Samson had told his wife, Dalilah, that his strength was in his hair. She betrayed him and sold his secret to his enemies, who cut off his hair and threw him in a cave. After looking at this single example, the Monk concludes that men should keep their secrets to themselves, because wives can not be trusted. His view of woman is actually quite similar to the Shipman's. As stated, he believed they could not be trusted. Then he went on to tell of Zenobia, a great Persian conqueror. This woman married a Prince, but refused to sleep with him except when trying to conceive a child. While the wife of the merchant in the Shipman's Tale was sleeping with her husband's friends, Zenobia was refusing to lay with her own husband. Neither case would be looked upon approvingly by most of the pilgrims.
The Nun's Priest has the final say in the matter. The Priest is traveling with the Prioress, so before reading this tale one might think that he will be afraid to offend her. This story deals extensively on this issue, and has to main points which reveal the Priest's attitude towards women. Chauntecleer quotes a Latin phrase that he says means that women are the bliss of men. However, the phrase actually said that women are men's ruin. So why did Chauntecleer lie to Pertelote when he told her this false translation? Well, quite possibly because he didn't want to upset her any further, and because he was about to spend the whole morning having sex with her. If he had upset her further, she may have turned him away. Chauntecleer also began to compliment her looks along with changing the meaning of the Latin phrase because he loved her and he wanted to make love to her. So, this is in fact showing that women are the bliss of men, since Chauntecleer is going out of his way to please Pertelote.
By afternoon of the same day, the story takes quite a turn. Pertelote had criticized Chauntecleer for being so cowardly after his dream, and he flew down from his safe perch because of her insults. Because of this, his vision soon came true, and he was captured by the fox. If it had not been for Pertelote berating him because of his cowardice, he would have stayed in his perch in safety. Now, the true meaning of the Latin phrase is also shown as true, as Pertelote has caused the ruin of the great Chauntecleer. There is one substantial difference in this story, however. When Chauntecleer is taken away by the fox, Pertelote shrieks and is quite distressed, as the story emphasizes. She expresses genuine concern for Chauntecleer, unlike the wife in the Shipman's Tale and Dalilah in the Monk's Tale. So, the Nun's Priest's point on the matter is quite simple. Women are the bliss of men, but, whether intentionally or not, also bring about the ruin of the men they love.