Virginity for Dorigen and Alisoun
Most critics overlook the importance of virginity in both Geoffrey Chaucer’s “the Wife of Bath’s tale” and to a lesser extent “the Franklins’ Tale.” Examining what virginity means to Alisoun and her failure, despite her efforts, to prove to herself that marriage is superior to virginity will help us to see her struggle in expressing love. In “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” Alisoun emphasizes virginity which she equates with cleanliness, purity and morality. She attributes “losing” her purity to being involved in a man’s world and this is expressed through her guilt about being a sinful wife. In “the Franklin’s Tale,” Dorigen on the other hand honors virginity and chastity in her lament which makes her forget that she were ever married to Averagus if only for a while to drift off into this otherworldly notion of virginity.
Alisoun made sure that she was getting “paid not played.” Her marriage for the most part was not based on love so it could not possibly prevail over virginity in all its shapes and forms – physical or emotional view. She equates losing her virginity to being in a man’s world and this is expressed through her guilt about being a sinful wife. She then goes into a discussion on how imperfect barley represents marriage while purified wheat represents virginity. However, Alison—the Wife of Bath does not prove that these two barleys are on equal footing due to this physical view of virginity as not only barley but a prize to be won. Virginity then is important to The Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale and to Alison’s behavior as a wife.
Both women present virginity at the onset of their failed or failing marriages. Dorigen does this in the moment of being forced to keep the promise she made to Averagus while Alisoun does this at the beginning of her prologue, knowing that all her five marriages, particularly the last four ones, as failed. Specifically, Alison turns to virginity near the beginning of her prologue after a brief unsuccessful attempt at proving that marriage on top of marriage, was the way to go. Dorigen’s lament is more applicable to Alison in the Wife of Bath’s Tale than to Dorigen herself only because Alisoun is the exact opposite of the women Dorigen listed. The women Dorigen talks about exemplified chastity and virtue and knew what love was and as a result were willing to die for it. Her lament’s brings virginity closer to love which as a more emotional standpoint. When we compare Alison to the women in Dorigen’s lament, this begs the question, did Alison have her way because she was not particularly virtuous and didn’t care about love? Alison’s view of virginity is physical she does not prove that her marriage superseded it. Evidently, Alisoun’s latter view of virginity and Dorigen’s emotional view of it, as a much larger and extensive role than is otherwise admitted by themselves within the tales, to readers and scholars respectively. One view more damaging than the other.
Firstly, in order to delve more into virginity let us first attempt to understand how virginity was viewed in the Middle Ages: Referring to The Physician’s Tale, Sandra Prior states that in medieval Christian understanding virginity meant purity and innocence. It was the most important part of purity in mankind, virginity was what made humans a worthy sacrifice to God. Virginity, she states, then is “protected like it is a special good or chattel, what is being protected is the physical goods – the body” (Prior 172). Hence, Dorigen and Alisoun both upholding virginity is but a reflection of the middle age Christian ideology that virginity is purity. Only this medieval view of virginity as purity does Dorigen express. The idea that virginity was the “prized good or chattel” of the body, explains why Alisoun’s seems to focus so much on the physical aspects of most of her marriages. Alisoun having, laid the foundation of “virginity” being a physical good proceeds to having all her marriages mainly focused on physical intimacy in exchange for money.
Let us examine further how Alisoun fails to show how marriage is superior to virginity due to her physicality of it. Charles W. M Henebry states that the Wife, shows the superiority of marriage, “with the defense of marriage against the claims of St. Jerome” (146-147). Specifically, when she states that if everyone where to live like virgins for the rest of their lives, human beings would seize to exist. This statement shows her emotionally distant view of virginity as she herself does not have any children. Granted, she wanted marriage to be superior but did not succeed in proving to herself that it actually was. She says that the prize is set for virginity and whoever can, can win it —“The dart is set up for virginitee; / Cacche who so may: who rennet best lat see. (74-5).” To her virginity is a physical prize, like a chattel to be won. This shows that she upholds virginity even after her attempt to convince herself that marriage is superior to virginity by the use of Jerome. She also says, “virginitee is greet perfeccioun/ And continence eek with devocioun.(105-106)” is another attempt at upholding virginity which undermines her subsequent attempts at asserting any superiority of marriage to virginity. After this she turns gears and begins to describe the economical and psychological domination that her marriage was based on. She asserts:
“I would no longer in the bed abyde
If that I felt his arm over my syde
Till that he had maad his raunson unto me
Thanne wolde I sufre hym do his nycetee.” (409-12).
This shows that in exchange of going to bed with her husband he has to pay her. Marriage based on such ideals could not possibility be superior to virginity. The fact that she goes into a monologue about what virginity means to her shows that she has not figured out how to make her marriage on a higher threshold than virginity.
The underlying impact that Jankyn’s book of wicked wives had on Alison, is of the good wife or good woman not making an influence, because she doesn’t exist. Marriage for the most part as caused Alison’s pain and heartache. Having gotten married at the age of twelve, she has not had foundational knowledge of healthy marital love. Alison’s fourth husband was a wanderer, and that just thinking of him makes her “drift off” into thoughts of her not being young anymore. However, this can also imply that they both could possibly have cheated on each other. This can be interpreted as she wandering about to find other men and her husband wandering about to find other women. In her retaliation to this “cheating” she did all she could to make him jealous and to exert dominance over him. Her fifth marriage was important in that it was a marriage to a young man and this brought her closer to her youthful days of virginity – the only thing she actually loves. However all hell breaks loose on this nostalgic reason for choosing a younger man when her husband Janekyn chooses to spend his time reading a book about “wikkyd wyves.(685)” When Alice rips three pages out of her husband’s book Book of Wicked Wives, it isn’t jealousy as many scholars are so quick to say, it is guilt. It is an expression of her guilt complex of her not being a “good” wife — devoted, loving and faithful. Not only to Janekyn but to all her previous husbands as well. If she were a “good” wife, Jankyn would have no need to be reading books about evil women and she being a virtuous wife would have dispelled his notions of or acute interest in wicked wives. She stated that he knew more about wicked women “than been of gode wyves in the Bible. (687)” Does this mean that he did not acknowledge his own wife Alisoun as being a good woman? Apparently not, so now she has a guilt complex that Jankyn is only interested in books of these contents because of her. Alisoun is guilty that her expression of love was not enough to counteract her youngest spouse’s keen interest in tales of wicked women. I agree with Storm Melvin that her physical and spiritual barrenness does not spring forth – “good words or good works.(300)” I add that she is physically barren because she is not in love at this moment.
When Alison rips three pages out of her husband’s book (790), this brings into play another complication. She does not talk about how she felt about Jankyn reading misogynistic literature, she only said that he were reading tales about wikkid wives. Let us delve into why Alison’s prologue cannot be trusted wholly. One reason is her distortion of biblical doctrines. She argues that it is okay for her to have more than one husband because of King Solomon (44). She stated that she wished it were lawful for her like king Solomon to be “refreshed” each time she got married (38). Then she exclaims at how it was a gift from God that he had so many wives. She then goes on to say that he was happy with each of his wives and all his wives and him were living joyfully (35-43). She evades noting that it was precisely this that lead to his downfall. Then she talks about Abraham and Jacob who had more than two wives (55-57). She does this in order to absolve her guilt of having gotten married five times with her he-did-it-so-I can-do-it-too-stance. Her spiritual bareness is evident in these distortion of biblical doctrines which would be unlikely if she were spiritual. These distortions lend a hand to her marriages predominantly economically based where Alison consents to bed with her husbands in exchange for finance. So it is no surprise that feelings mean little to Alisoun, adding to her unspirituality..
The three pages symbolizes the three old men that she has had such an unsatisfactory marriage with and represents revenge on all those years of sex without love. She ripping three leaves out of Jankyn’s book can also represent the revenge of rape or sexual exploitation on behalf of the maiden in the tale. This behavior alludes to the quote, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” One of the pages out of the ripped three represents towards her virginity being “ripped” from her at a young age. The other two pages represents her dissatisfaction with her old husbands who could not perform in bed all the way to their graves. This is but a payback to all her husbands for having lost her virginity in an economical manner that as left her, “spiritually barren.” For her virginity, like the book to her husband – is and was her most “prized possession.” She also hits Jankyn in the face (792), when one would think ripping the pages out of his book was enough. So she is not just retaliating to her last husband but to all her prior husbands as well. Therefore her experiences are piled up and she is lashing these out on the last younger husband, Jankyn assuming that he can take a hit better than an old man. Doloras Poloma asserts that the rape in the tale, represents for Alisoun a transition from innocent, pure virgin to corruptible wife (4). Unbeknownst to Jankyn, he reacts in a violent manner, hitting Alisoun so hard that she dropped to the floor and was left deaf (795). The ripping of the pages not only represents revenge of the maiden that got raped in Alisoun’s tale, but suggests why she is immediately omitted out of the story after the rape. Her exclusion only makes sense when we consider that we already see the reprisal of the raped maiden in Alisoun’s behavior towards Jankyn.
Alisoun also took the time out to tell a long tale to showcases her power and ability as a woman. In the tale a knight is just returning from war. He sees a fair maiden and rapes her. Everyone in the kingdom is shocked and he is taken to the palace where King Author allows the queen to decide the knight’s fate for raping the maiden. I agree with Poloma that the rape in the tale represents for Alisoun a loss of her supposed purity and youth. I would add that she is still grappling to reclaim or overcome that loss through a means far from love. The fact that the woman decides what happens to the knight, represents what Alisoun sees as female power over a man after he has done something wrong. When Janekyn thought that he killed Alisoun, he gives her the power to decide what happens in their relationship. This is similar to when the king hands over to the queen the power to determine the faith of the rapist knight.
Also most critics do not seem to question whether the knight can actually take the maiden’s virginity since rape is an act of forceful violence. For example, William Kamowski, states that, “besides committing a rape, the knight has stolen from his young victim her maidenhood” (8). I do not believe that her virginity was actually taken from her because she did not consent to having sex with the knight so by virtue she is still a virgin. These critics fail to acknowledge the emotional aspects of virginity like Alisoun. How does Alisoun fail to do this? She herself states that the knight “takes away” the maiden’s virginity evidently not attributing virginity to a state of mind as she detaches it from its emotional component. She attributes virginity to something of a prized physical good hence why a man can steal or take it away. If virginity is something emotional can it be as “taken away” as easily?
The origins of Allison’s focus on the physical is in medieval views of virginity as a physical good — “prized chattel,” which in turn formed the foundation of her marriages. This focus on the physical as evidenced through her prized-chattel view on virginity also forms the foundation of her focus on physical attraction. The Wife goes on to describe that “during the funeral she was struck by the handsomeness of Jankyn’s feet (Henebry 154).” Most scholars do not discuss the significance of this line, which displays physical attraction being the main focus of her heterosexual relationships.
“As help me God! Whan that I saugh him go
After the bere, me thought he hadde a paire
Of leggess and of feet so clene and faire
That al myn herte I yaf unto his hold.(595-599)”
This shows us that physical attraction is precisely how she got all her husbands, perhaps not the first since she were only twelve years old. It also shows the importance of physical attraction to Alison and suggests that she herself partly used this to her advantage in her attainment of husbands. She also talks about how she having a gapped tooth worked to attract Jankyn, “gat-tothed as I was, and that bicam me weel; (603)” According to the editors of the Norton Anthology, to be gap toothed in medieval handbooks of physiognomy, meant to have a “bold” and “lascivious” nature (115). Peter G. Beidler discusses the physical appearance of Alisoun, specifically concerning the line, “A foot-mantel aboute hir hips large,” where he tries to convince Chaucer’s readers of the possibility of them being wrong about reading that line to mean that the Wife of Bath has large hips. Most people, he asserts, including himself read this as literally meaning that Alisoun has large hips. Beidler argues that because Chaucer is writing in middle English we can take into possibility that what Chaucer meant is for “large” to be read as an adverb describing how her “foot-mantle was draped loosely around her hips, rather than as an adjective describing the size of her hips” keeps readers focused on what he believes Chaucer can only see—which is her clothes. So Beidler’s speculation is that “large” means “loose.” I will reverse this hypothesis to claim that sometimes the easiest explanation is the truest. Perhaps she does have big hips and it can be shown under her garments and it is her hips that is a part of the reason, (however small or large that is) in her getting husbands. Were her hips part of her physical attractiveness? The fact that she is financially independent in those times tells us that she for the most part had her way with all her husbands, financially. There is a connection between her having “large hips” and her four husbands. This adds weight to how she was able to continue attracting husbands than if her garments were being “loosely worn.” This same physical attraction attribute spills over into the Tale where the knight lusted after the physical attraction of the maiden through rape. Chaucer seeing only The Wife’s clothes does not add any significance to the Prologue and especially the Tale. Alisoun’s own obsession with physical aspects of relationship with her overt expression of sexual favors tells us that Chaucer wanted us to see Alison the way she was and the way she was, was a physically focused individual. In return this was how she saw others and virginity – physically.
Dorigen’s lament is very applicable to Alisoun, the fact that this is even possible gives one a clue as to how Chaucer might’ve ended the Canterbury Tales had he completed it, although this is not what this paper is about. Dorigen’s lament implies that virginity is the best existence for a women. She drifts off into this otherworldly notion of virginity forgetting for a moment, vows of marriage and the pain of having to keep them. Her lament gives rise to numerous virgin women that would rather commit suicide than to be exploited by men. Alisoun in contrasts flips the script on this and exploits men for their money thereby eluding sexual exploitation. Then Dorigen’s goes on to talk about women who would rather die than lose the chastity that they have kept. “Hath ther nat many a noble wyf er this/ Ad many a mayd, y-slayne hirself, allas!/ Rather than with hir body doon trespas. (1364-66)” Alisoun would rather live and couldn’t care less about being faithful to her husband as long as she is cashing in. However financial security comes at an expense with her “spiritual bareness” and lack of a convincing expression of love. In this striking contrast between Dorigen’s lament and Alison’s traits we are given a clearer picture of Alisoun’s personality — one that outlived five husbands due to her physical focus on virginity which ensured that money would help her to survive. Chaucer would have connected Dorigen and Alisoun’s character on a way that would allow them to learn from and or complimented each other.
II. Virginity for Dorigen
Dorigen’s view of virginity is more emotional and this helps readers to be more convinced that the marriage reconciliation at the end of the tale with Averagus would have a happy-ever after. Dorigen talks about the fifty virgins who would rather die than be raped by men whom they apparently have no feelings for. Dorigen ties virginity to dignity and the necessity of having feelings for men, hence a deduction is made of her emotional view of virginity. This view is responsible for her being able to show her feelings for Averagus whereupon Aurelius acquiesced and broke the prior vow she made with him so that she could return to her husband, Averagus. Another way to interpret this is that Aurelius could interpret her facial expressions and see whom she truly wanted to be with. So just before Aurelius releases Dorigen from the vow he states “…I see well your distress…/I have wel levere evere to suffer wo/Than I departe the love bitwix yow two” (1528-1532). Aurelius is simply reflecting what he could read about Dorigen. Hence Dorigen’s emotional view of virginity set the stage for her view of her marriage as likewise emotional. In essence, she is more responsible for Aurelius breaking the vow with her than is otherwise noted by readers and scholars, including the feminist interpretation that Aurelius denied Dorigen the power of choice. Dorigen’s emotional stance towards virginity makes a more convincing happily-ever after with her husband Averagus.
Now that a clearer picture of Alisoun as now been painted, her Tale will be examined as one that does not prove any superiority of marriage to herself and possibly to her fellow pilgrims. Firstly the rapist knight is a representation of her husbands who have supposedly stolen her innocence and made her “corruptible.” However, in the tale we do not hear of the rape-victim. We see the knight searching far and wide to find out what women truly desires, if he does not find the answer to this in a year he will have his head taken by order of the Queen to King Arther. When he finally reaches upon an old woman, commonly referred to as the hag, he promises that he will do whatever she wants in exchange for the answer; then she gives him the answer. What Allison is trying to say through the hag in the tale, is that she Allison is older and more experienced and knows what a woman wants due to all her experiences specifically those that she has had with numerous men. Noticed that before he stumbles upon the hag there were numerous younger woman telling him all sorts of responses concerning what a woman wants that did not feel right until he finally got to the hag. They both go to the court and the night tells the queen what he has learned from the old woman.
My life lady, generally quote he,
wommen desyren to have sovereyntee
As well over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistre him above. (1037-40)
When we fast forward to this and the hag asks the knight if he would have a young and beautiful woman that is not faithful but cheats or a hag that will be faithful for time and eternity. Then Allison posits that the night and the hag lives happily ever after. There is one critical dilemma here, what becomes of the maiden? Can this couple, specifically the knight who as supposedly learned his lesson, live in happiness not knowing what became of the raped maiden? Love is a juxtaposition here, an isolated incidence of violence is a predisposition to love. This does not prove any superiority to virginity, at least from Allison’s Tale. This only tells us that in order to have a successful marriage there must be an act of violence that links to some form of happiness in a relationship.
Another example for when violence is seen as a catalyst for love is when critics like Warren Smith believe that when women such as Laodamia and Portia in Dorigen’s lament kill themselves rather than live without their husbands, “it only serves to verify the depth of their love. (387)” One can even argue that this is in stark contrast to Allison because in no way form or shape would she kill herself rather than live without her husbands. Evidently a woman killing herself rather than being with another man after her husband’s death is not an act of love but rather a retaliation to her oppression and the limitations in her choices. Suicide—violence should never be an expression of love under any circumstance. Also, there is one thing Alison would say contributed to her supposedly happy marriage, a beating from her husband who is twenty years younger than her.
Separating the Tale from the Prologue, the rapist knight living happily ever after with the hag does not dispel a possible revenge from the maiden. When the Tale and Prologue is joined together, the violated maiden as already gotten her revenge through Alisoun hitting Jankyn and ripping the pages of his book. After Alisoun scares Jankyn into thinking she was dead after he hit her, Alisoun and Jankyn’s abuse of each other leads to an unconvincing happy-ever-after, where Jankyn allows Alisoun to call the shots out of his own guilt and fear. The hag teaches the knight a critical lesson to allow the woman to have what her heart desires, but there is still this underlying notion that some sort of violence —rape must be the instigator of some happy marriage. Since the knight did rape the maiden. Alison’s marriages have been based on superficial elements – sex, money and a fight of dominance in the relationship. Hence physical, economic and fury based marriages cannot supersede virginity and the Pilgrim audience must caution themselves after hearing The Wife of Bath’s Tale.
Alison and Dorigen to a lesser extent tales prove that virginity is the best existence for a woman when a marriage is failing or have failed. Alison tales if anything proves that violence, money and sex are the physical components that predominate all of her marriages stemming from her indoctrination of virginity as something physical. Alison’s prologue and tale also ended up only proving that virginity — though her view of it was physical, was better. However, the proof was done in a manner that served to corrupt her, her perception of love and maneuverings of her marriages. Her physical view of virginity ended up making her happily-ever-after tale with Jankyn doubtful especially since, she even outlives Jankyn. Not only that, her happily ever after ending of the hag and the knight is also unconvincing because both ignored a possible revenge from the raped maiden. Dorigen tale on the other hand upheld virginity only briefly in the hectic moment of feeling as if she had to keep a vow she made with Averagus. This was dissipated owing to her emotional view of virginity which formed the foundation of her viewing her marriage emotionally, then in essence saving it. Female and male antagonism can only be dissipated with love of a spiritual and emotional base and not through physicality of violence or dominance..
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