Representation of Women in Canturbury Tales

Juliana Burkhart


As Queens and peasants, goddesses and mortals, chaste virgins and prostitutes alike, women have played crucial roles in history and literature as characters who serve to motivate men to act. Whether those acts are noble or base varies by situation, and Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” provides several examples of women as motivating forces. However, these women do not motivate due to admirable personal characteristics which give them the will to make things happen, but rather their physical characteristics which attract the men of the tales to them and cause them to behave according to the physical state of each woman. In this way, Chaucer presents women as objects not dissimilar to currency. Male characters in the text are moved to act based on the female character’s physical qualities, and women may be won as prizes or used to achieve other goals.

In the first tale, the Knight tells a story of two men, Palamon and Arcite, who are also knights and likewise chivalrous and noble in their beliefs and behavior. Sworn brothers, the two knights are imprisoned by Duke Theseus. During their sentence, they both fall in love with fair Emily, sister to Hippolyta, Amazon queen and wife of Theseus. They first sight her in the garden picking flowers, which inspires them to compare her to a flower: fairer than a lily, rose-colored, and fresher than the May new with flowers (I. 1035-38). She weaves the flowers into a garland for her head, topping herself with a corolla of petals.When she is later described as “clothed al in greene” (1686), the portrait of her as a human flower is complete. Indeed she is treated as no more than a portrait at times, something for a man to “cast his eye upon” (1077). As if she were a painting, she can only be described physically, and once her outward description is complete, neither brother has anything left to say about her despite the fact that Palamon lives disguised as her personal page for a year or two (1426).

Emily is never described as merely human, and the knights take their admiration for her even further when she is compared to a “hevnysshly” angel (1055). In her chaste beauty she is ethereal and unearthly, as if her position in the free world outside of the prison is not the only thing that makes her unobtainable. Like a painting of a child-like cherubim, she is sexless. Her beauty invokes not lust, but reverence and worship. She causes the knights to wish to serve her (1397) rather than swyve her. She is so far above the plane of mortal beauty that she causes Arcite to become unable to partake in mortal necessities such as eating and sleeping (1361).

Emily’s pure beauty motivates the knights to act out of a pure wish to serve and worship her. Though they desire her, they do not attempt to take her sexually by force, but rather work in noble pursuit to win her hand in marriage. Her brother-in-law Theseus wishes her to marry as all proper women did in Chaucer’s time, and his wish for her to do so results in the only instance of rebellion against her patriarchal world that we see in demure Emily. In desperate attempt to avoid marriage, Emily approaches a statue of the goddess Diana and begs help. But even Diana cannot help her, and when her request to the goddess for eternal chastity is denied she calmly accepts her fate. The tale ends with her happy marriage with “alle bliss and melodye” (3097) to Palamon, who has finally won her. Her happy submission to male law results in a happy ending to tale.

While Emily’s purity engenders pure intentions in her suitors, the next tale, told by the very drunk Miller, presents Emily’s moral opposite. Alison is the 18 year-old, “wilde and yong” (I. 3225) wife of an older carpenter who, according to the Miller, did not know any better than to marry such a girl. In roughly the same amount of text that is spent describing Emily’s perfect physical characteristics, the Miller describes Alison in a different way. After saying that her body is like that of a weasel (3234), he spends an inordinate amount of time on the details of her every article of clothing. We get a complete picture of her belt, apron, dress, collar, bonnet, headband, purse, brooch, and shoes, but learn nothing of her face, save that her eyebrows are plucked. Not even the color of her hair, so lingered over in Emily’s case, is mentioned. The small amount we learn of her personality is still more than we received in the initial description of Emily. Alison is skittish (“Winsinge she was, as is a joly colt” [3263]), and likes to sing, skip, and play (3257-60).  However, these details have nothing to do with her behavior or the plot of the story. The manner in which her clothing is described in such detail hints at her extreme superficiality, a trait which is more important to the tale than those which are stated more overtly by the Miller.

Nicholas, a clerk living in the carpenter’s household, desires Emily. This man who is frequently described as “hende,” meaning a range of things including gentle, gracious, courteous, pleasant, clever (Kolve and Olsen), prove not so when he grabs her between the legs and demands that she “love [him] al atones” (3280). She struggles to break free of his hold and threatens to cry for help, but he puts on such a piteous act that “she hir love him graunted atte laste” (3290). Suddenly Alison is in love with Nicholas (according to the Miller at least) although he has physically assaulted her and demanded her to sleep with him.

Nicholas is not alone in his pursuit of Alison. She is also admired by Absalon, a parish clerk whose personality traits are not altogether undesirable. He is said to have many useful skills including blood-letting and barbering, and he knows how to draw up land charters (3326-27). He is a musician and a dancer “that jolif was and gay” (3339) who tries daily to woo her, always speaking sweetly to her, sending her gifts, and singing her songs (3377-80). He seems superior to crass Nicholas in every way. However, the Miller describes Absalon as having some unattractive physical characteristics including a wild head of hair, and Alison rejects him. She cruelly makes a joke and a fool of Absalon, telling him that she loves someone who is better than him and threatens to throw a stone at him (3712). When he asks for a kiss in the dark, she presents her “naked ers” (3734), which he kisses before realizing what has happened. Finally her abuse strikes a nerve in Absalon, and this normally kind and gentle man procures a red-hot iron in hopes that she will try to repeat her joke and he will brand her. Instead Nicholas farts thunderously in his face, but Absalon is ready and strikes Nicholas with the hot iron. It is Alison’s cruel and obscene nature that moves Absalon to act out of character, turning him from a worthy gentleman to one almost as cruel as Alison and Nicholas themselves.

Like Emily, Alison is more of an object that motivates the actions of the male characters in the story than she is an active character herself. But unlike Emily, she is an object of sexuality, not of purity. The attractiveness of her is physical as it is for Emily, but in an entirely different way. She is described in earthly terms, as animal rather than angel, and her clothing draws more attention than her face or body. Her raw sexuality incites Nicholas to sexual goals, and he devotes all his cleverness to devising a plan to enable he and Alison to make a fool of her husband and spend the night together his bed. Characteristically she is more free-spirited than Emily and more easily swayed toward violation of the traditional mandates of marriage. However, while Emily is sweet and kind-hearted, weeping at the potential death of the knights she does not even know (1749) and inspires chivalrous and noble actions, Alison is mean-spirited and “lecherous” (3244), which causes men to respond in kind.

        Upset by the Miller’s tale of the duped carpenter since he himself is a carpenter, the Reeve sets out to quyte, or repay, the Miller with his own tale in which a lying miller, Simkin, is quyted by two scholars, John and Aleyn. Simkin has cheated the scholars in a sale, and in return they rape both his wife and daughter. Once again, the females are minor characters in the text and have little to say. The main difference between the wife and daughter in the Reeve’s tale and Alison and Emily is that neither one is described as being particularly desirable in any way. The wife is the bastard child of the town parson and is said by the Reeve to be “as digne as water in a dich/ and full of hoker and bismemare” (I. 3963-65), and the daughter is stout with a pug-nose (3973- 76). Because they are in no way desirable physically, they, unlike Emily and Alison, are not seen as objects to be obtained. They are used not as motivators, but as a means to achieve the goal of quyting the miller for his thievery.

Both the wife and the daughter in the Reeve’s tale are far weaker characters than Emily, who shows strength in expressing her own desires to Diana, or Alison in her vulgar rebellion against what is considered lady-like behavior. In the instance of the rape of the daughter, Alan creeps up on her in her sleep so that she has no time to cry out, and assaults her as her parents slumber just feet away. Though he has raped her in her sleep, when he leaves her she wishes him well and tells him where he can find some bread to take with him, and upon their parting she almost begins to weep (4240-48).

John, not wishing to be outdone by his friend, tricks the wife into coming to his bed in the dark, rather than returning to her husband’s after she gets up to go to the privy. They have a “mery fit ne hadde she had ful yore” (4230), and she is tricked into believing that he is her husband. Her gullibility leads her to hit her husband in the head with a staff, thinking that he is one of the scholars fallen on top of her. Once she unwittingly knocks him down, John and Aleyn proceed to beat him. The story ends there, with “the proud millere well y-bete...his wyf is swyved, and his doghter als.” (4313...4317). Nothing is mentioned about how the wife feels about being tricked and enabling her husband’s beating. The appeal and personalities of the wife and daughter are inconsequential, and as such they are seen by the men as inconsequential tools to be used as means of achieving their goal of revenge.

While Emily and Alison are not greatly inspiring models of feminine action themselves, they do inspire action from the men around them. Unlike the miller’s wife and daughter, they are seen as something to be obtained. They are the end goal of these actions, rather than the means, and though they are not as deeply characterized as the male protagonists, they are still crucial to the plots of their stories. If the wife and daughter had not been a part of their story at all, the two scholars would have found some other way to quyte the lying miller. Unlike Emily, they are not beautiful and do not incite nobility. Unlike Alison, they are not spunky or sexual and do not incite even lewd desire. The men in these tales behave according to the appearance of their object of desire. Since the miller’s daughter and wife they are presented by Chaucer as being of inconsequential mind and body, they become inconsequential characters.