Geoffrey Chaucer: Early Feminist?

Women Characters in The Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Prologue: Pilgrims at the Tabard Inn
Canterbury Prologue: Pilgrims at the Tabard Inn (woodcut from 1492 edition of The Canterbury Tales). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Geoffrey Chaucer had ties to strong and important women and wove women's experience into his work, The Canterbury Tales.  Could he be considered, in retrospect, a feminist?  The term was not in use in his day, but did he promote women's advancement in society?

Chaucer's Background

Chaucer was born into a family of merchants in London. The name derives from the French word for “shoemaker,” though his father and grandfather were vintners of some financial success.

His mother was an heiress of a number of London businesses that had been owned by her uncle. He became a page in the house of a noblewoman, Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, who married Lionel, Duke of Clarence, a son of King Edward III. Chaucer worked as a courtier, court clerk, and civil servant the rest of his life.

Connections

When he was in his twenties, he married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Philippa of Hainault, the queen consort of Edward III. His wife’s sister, also originally a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, became a governess to the children of John of Gaunt and his first wife, another son of Edward III. This sister, Katherine Swynford, became John of Gaunt’s mistress and later his third wife. The children of their union, born before their marriage but legitimized later, were known as the Beauforts; one descendant was Henry VII, the first Tudor king, through his mother, Margaret Beaufort.

Edward IV and Richard III were also descendants, through their mother, Cecily Neville, as was Catherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII.

Chaucer was well-connected to women who, although they fulfilled very traditional roles, were well-educated and likely held their own in family gatherings.

Chaucer and his wife had several children – the number is not known for certain.

Their daughter Alice married a Duke. A great-grandson, John de la Pole, married a sister of Edward IV and Richard III; his son, also named John de la Pole, was named by Richard III as his heir and continued to claim the crown in exile in France after Henry VII became king.

Literary Legacy

Chaucer is sometimes considered the father of English literature because he wrote in the English that people of the time spoke rather than writing in Latin or French as was otherwise common. He wrote poetry and other stories but The Canterbury Tales is his best-remembered work.

Of all his characters, The Wife of Bath is the one most commonly identified as feminist, though some analyses say that she is a depiction of negative behavior of women as judged by her time.

The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer’s stories of human experience in the Canterbury Tales are often used as evidence that Chaucer was a sort of proto-feminist.

Three pilgrims who are women are actually given voice in the Tales: the Wife of Bath, the Prioress, and the Second Nun – at a time when women were still expected largely to be silent. A number of the tales narrated by men in the collection also feature female characters or ponderings about women.

Critics have often pointed out that the women narrators are more complex characters than most of the men narrators are. While there are fewer women than men on the pilgrimage, they’re depicted, at least on the journey, as having a kind of equality with each other. The accompanying illustration (from 1492) of the travelers eating together around a table at an inn shows little differentiation in how they behave.

Also, in the tales narrated by male characters, women are not mocked as they were in much of the literature of the day. Some tales describe male attitudes towards women that are harmful to women: the Knight, the Miller, and the Shipman, among those. The tales that describe an ideal of virtuous women describe impossible ideals. Both types are flat, simplistic and self-centered.  A few others, including at least two of the three female narrators, are different.

Women in the Tales have traditional roles: they’re wives and mothers. But they are also persons with hopes and dreams, and criticisms of the limits placed upon them by society. They’re not feminists in the sense that they critique the limits on women in general and propose equality socially, economically or politically, or are in any way part of a larger movement for change. But they do express discomfort with the roles in which they are placed by conventions, and they want more than just a small adjustment in their own lives in the present. Even by having their experience and ideals voiced in this work, they challenge some part of the current system, if only by showing that without female voices, the narrative of what is human experience is not complete.

In the Prologue, the Wife of Bath talks about a book that her fifth husband possessed, a collection of many of the texts common in that day which focused on the dangers of marriage to men – especially men who were scholars. Her fifth husband, she says, used to read from this collection to her daily. Many of these anti-feminist works were products of church leaders.  That tale also tells of violence used against her by her fifth husband, and how she regained some power in the relationship through counterviolence.