Chaucer’s Heroines

The portrayal of women by Geoffrey Chaucer is a topic that to this day inspires thought provoking debate. Two interesting characters are Grisildis, from The Clerk’s Tale, and Custance, from the Man of Laws Tale. Both women, while either major characters or the main character, take little if any true actions in their tale. Instead, they allow the male presences in the stories to drive the plot while they affect the story by their mere presence.

The women in the two tales exemplify idealize characteristics of women in the middle ages. Griselda in impossible and perfectly faithful, despite the trials and tribulations inflicted upon her and her children, while Constance’s silent power of Christian conversion is seemingly Christ-like. Both women however have the unfortunate trait or luck that leads them repetitively into terrible situations.

While discussing these two tales in class, a common theme that continued to surface was the similarities to biblical stories. Constance has some similar qualities to Christ, but with notable flaws. Griselda draws comparisons to both Abraham, with the willing yet ultimately unneeded sacrifice of his son, and to Job, who patiently and faithfully suffered in the name of the Lord.

Concerning Griselda in the Man of Laws Tale, our group discussion lead us to determine that her qualities of idealized patience and faithfulness to her husband, while seen as a virtuous quality in the time of Chaucer, would not be popular in today’s society. In fact, the things she allows could be considered an instance of criminal negligence or abuse today. Griselda’s virtues are not however the whole of the story. As pointed out in our discussion, Chaucer states that, while women should be like Griselda, that it’s actually impossible, or as he says “I openly declare that no married man should be so harsh as to try his wife’s patience in hope of finding another Griselda, for he shall certainly fail.” Essentially, no woman can hope to be so patient as Griselda, so it falls to men to not treat their wives as Walter does. Chaucer does in fact paint Walter as a villain, as someone who should in no way be emulated.

Constance’s ideal virtue is her powerful, Christ like belief. Her belief leads her to numerous conversions as she searches for a suitable husband. She is not, however, Jesus, and must therefore be continuously bailed out of situations by God. In our class group, Constance was seen as more of a “modern” woman. A woman who was more worldly than most, but at the same time never seemed to evolve over the course of the tale. From beginning to end, her actions, and the actions of those around her follow the same routine. Constance continues on her seemingly ill-fated journey though, because it is her role to play; she must obay the authority in her life.

Both Constance and Griselda show a similar theme in their willing subjection to authority. For Constance, this is obeying the will of her father in finding a husband, and for Griselda, this is obeying the will of her husband. This idea plays well in the Man of Laws tale, where the father is both loving and understanding, and God interjects to rescue Constance whenever needed. In the Clerk’s tale though, there is an absence of the power of God. Griselda suffers with no help from the Lord in the fashion of Job. This was also an interesting topic in class. If Walter is supposed to be a portrayal of God, where is the compassion and understanding? Is this how we are supposed to view God? Indeed we came to the conclusion that even though Walter is the authority, and Griselda in her perfect obedience must obey him, Walter is not a figure to be emulated in any way.

The women in these two tales are representative of idealized virtues in the ideas and social norms of the time. It will be interesting to see if Chaucer continues with this portrayal of women in his other stories, or changes his writing style.

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7 comments on “Chaucer’s Heroines
  1. Will Whiteside says:

    Is this a prototype recap blog post done well in advance, or is this one of the class’s group discussion posts?

    I’m not sure if my group (“the left wing”? The ad hoc group formed of the people closest to the left side of the room as viewed on entry) formulated a google docs artifact as a reply to this.

    Whatever the case, I suppose I should come up with a discussion reply to this.

    The bulk of my thoughts on the two works can be observed on my discussion blog posting, fittingly enough titled “Draft(Whiteside)” as of this moment.

    While it is virtually indisputable that Custance is a figure of faith, chastity, silence, and obedience(yes, Christian faith held alongside the trifecta of feminine virtues), the main question to be derived about Custance is not whether she abides by these traits, but what the intent of the author was in telling a tale of a woman being depicted as such.

    In my blog post, I didn’t really contemplate a particularly irony in the fact that Custance (whose name is derived from the Roman emperor Constantine) represented meekness and docility while at the same time serving as a personification of the Catholic church’s attempts at evangelism. Could her physical weakness be a vague accusation that the catholic church, in all of its pious pomp and circumstance, was ill prepared to convert the masses due to its authoritarian nature? It certainly isn’t a commentary on the church’s weakness within its own sphere. One could hardly argue that the corrupt medieval church was “meek” in any sense of the word, for it was far more likely that heretics would be thrown to the lions than religious leaders, at the time.

    As a tangent Custance’s arrival in the northern end of Britain (Northumberland, to be precise) is interesting to me in the sense that it vaguely reminds me of Mark Twaine’s writings-taking a figure as esteemed as the saintly protagonist of the story and transporting her to a setting more familiar to the audience.

    The Clerk’s tale gives a very similar story, though it is less a narrative about a saint’s life and more an educational story about the need to uphold virtue in the face of senseless brutality. As an associate of Petrarch, Chaucer probably had a similar, though possibly not identical, view of the text as his origin source. Should one hold this to be the case, one wouldn’t really have a rock solid case of Chaucer being antifeministic in nature, and the case grows weaker still when one considers the Wife of Bath’s tale.
    His stance towards women’s rights is actually a hotly debated issue. Just a quick google search of Chaucer+Feminism(no need to use quotations to guide the search, either!) yields a diverse variety of interpretations of his works.

    I do agree that the women in these stories do seem to adhere to the archetypal “perfect woman” that the hegemonic cultural viewpoint in Chaucer’s society championed, though it’s really challenging to determine Chaucer’s true intent in portraying them this way.

    One thing that struck me as odd about the choice of speakers here. The clerk is a student of philosophy and theology -heavenly fields, I suppose- and the Man of Law was a master of MAN’S law, a decidedly more secular field. While they were united in sharing a differing message than that of the Wife of Bath, they seem to be otherwise diametrically opposed. Perhaps as those who have grown accustomed to the thought and theory of the heavenly and wordly powers they would be keen to offset the Wife of Bath’s rebellious nature?

    • Mykhail says:

      To add to what Will said, Custance and Griselde are very similar in nature. However, this question is hard to answer because one has to take into account the view of a heroine in medieval times as opposed to our current view of what a heroine is. In modern times, we view a heroine as someone that is able to protect, save lives, or help others in need no matter the situation. However, in the time of Chaucer, it seems that a heroine is more of a role model for example rather than a figurative hero.

      Both women go through various forms of mental torture and suffering, yet are still able to overcome it by either remaining true to their faith, or true to their values. In the case of Custance, she is able to adhere to her unwavering belief and trust in God, despite all the negative and twisted events that happen around her. Griselde on the other hand was subjected to the same pain over and over and cruel trickery in the form of a test from the Marquis. Although there is no indication of her religious values, the audience is well aware of her devotion to her husband and her commitment to being a good wife – which in these times consisted of doing all that a husband says and always supporting their decision.

      In comparing the two tales, we were able to gather several personality traits that both women have in common. It might be safe to assume that these traits were ones that exemplified a medieval day heroine. Both women had to endure the pain of suffering, they were true to themselves and committed to their husbands, both had strong virtues, and both were extremely loyal. All these traits also seem to be the perfect combination for wife material. This brings me to the conclusion that a heroine in medieval times is the equivalence to the perfect woman or wife for any man.

  2. Annette Almonte says:

    Going back to what Will said, regarding how Chaucer should not be regarded as an antifeminist: I completely agree with this idea. In fact, Chaucer really does incorporate a theme in which gender roles are swapped in some of his writings. Not only can this be seen through Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, but also in the most recent tale that was discussed in class, “The Miller’s Tale.” In this tale the reader is introduced to Alisoun, a rather cheeky female character who actually takes a stand for what she wants.

    It was very refreshing to finally come across a female character that actually takes control of her own fate, even if most of her actions are rather brash. Even though she is portrayed as somewhat unintelligent, in contrast to most of the female characters that we’ve seen so far, Alisoun makes her own decisions; she doesn’t have some “higher form of authority” such as her father or her husband telling her what to do. She chooses to stay with Nicholas and rejects Absolon’s advances.

    On the other hand, characters such as Cunstance, Grisildis, and Emelye, are portrayed as the ideal, submissive, and polite women of medieval times. However, Chaucer does not necessarily use these female characters to make a statement about how women should behave in the Middle ages, but to tell moral messages linked to the religion and the faith that most people believed in during the Middle Ages.

    It is also worth mentioning that in “The Tale of Melibee” the gender role reversal is seen again through Melibee’s wife, Prudence. While she is in a situation in which she cannot express her free will or independence to the extent that Alisoun does, she is treated as an adviser. Melibee actually takes into consideration her suggestions as to how he should seek revenge. He doesn’t treat Prudence as his equal, but he listens to what she has to say.

    I look forward to see more female characters like Prudence or Alisoun, who take a more dynamic role in their respective tales and, to some extent, are more independent.

  3. Olivia says:

    I agree that these heroines, Custance and Gricelde, were more like role models than the traditional hero we think of today. They were heroic because they maintained what was expected of them. It may be seen as cowardice if someone deviates and succumbs to pressure, rather than standing up for themselves. These two women were passive heroes, as they did not choose their own path(most women didn’t anyway), but they did make the most of their situations.

    Each of the women’s response to the obstacles thrown in their way was not a reflection of their own strengths and weaknesses, but rather, a true testament to the time period. In essence, women didn’t have much to work with. How could they truly prove themselves if all that was expected of them was to take care of their husband, children, and home? To test a women’s love for her children, such as what Griselde’s husband did when he falsely took away her children, was an extremely counterproductive action to take; of course she would mourn, but she will still obey by the laws of her Lord and her God.

    Women were to be chaste and to be faithful, and men were expected to defend their own name. It is interesting that men in these stories would more often blame or make accusations toward others, such as God or their enemies, for the pain and suffering in their lives. Women, on the other hand, often turned inward and placed their fortune in the hands of others, without asking the “how” and “why” questions. It is this strength in faith that leads me to believe that both Griselde and Custance are indeed heroes.

    • Janelle Francis says:

      Referring back to what Annette said of the character of Alisoun, I completely agree that it was refreshing to see a female character go against the grain and actually achieve what she wanted. Especially while I was ready the Clerk’s tale, Grisildis seemed to almost not even have a personality. Chaucer only gives her a voice when she begs for her children not to be taken and when she is excited when they come back. She is almost void of any depth in her depiction.

      I believe he portrays women generally as loyal, chaste, and virtuous because of the parallels it draws to the bible. Most female characters are not explored deeply within the books of the bible and loyalty and loyalty through suffering are reoccurring themes (story of Ester and Naomi). Grisildis and Custance can be admired for having those characteristics even today, when someone being loyal or have morals is more of a rarity than in that time period. Even outside of the box of just women, throughout the bible men alike are tested for their loyalty and ability to obey. Since the Bible was the most well known literature of that time using those same themes is a way to relate to all different classes of people.

      Its interesting how Chaucer plays with gender throughout the tales. He often describes men with female characteristics and then presents opposing stories of women, The Wife of the Bath compared to the Man of Law. His view of women is unclear, which leaves us still discussing what facets of society he is trying to portray with each tale.

  4. eslep says:

    I definitely agree with Olivia that these two women were passive heroes; however, I believe that the notion of a hero, in Chaucer’s day at least, would have had a different dimension to it as well, one that is not so easy for us to understand. In Medieval Europe, especially in France and Italy, where Chaucer draws most of his source material from, the Church was more-or-less an ever-present aspect of daily life. Christianity’s influence was culturally significant across all of Europe and it affected all aspects of society, from the daily routines of the poor peasant to the decisions made by the noblest of rulers. Even the greatest works of art of the era were made, more or less, for the purpose of depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. This kind of worldview, with God constantly looking over your shoulder, is something very different from anything any of us are used to.

    It is because of this ever-present aspect of religion that the stories of saints were told in much the same way as those of heroes and knights, and these characters–saints and knights alike–were intended to act as role-models for the peasants of the day. Characters such as Griselda and Constance would have been seen as exemplars of pious living, always submitting with humility to the will of God. In this sense, they would have without a doubt been seen as heroes in the eyes of a medieval storyteller, despite the fact that they are just doing what’s expected of them.

  5. sburke7 says:

    In comparing these two women, it is not hard to see their similarities to each other. Each woman is the epitome of a good woman for the time period. They are passive, faithful, beautiful, and obedient. Constance was faithful to christianity while Griselda was faithful to her husband even though for both women, the things that they were faithful to were the things that were causing the most damage. For Griselda, her husband put her through hell to test her patience simply because he wanted a wife who would never complain. For Constance, everywhere that she took her beloved christianity was overcome with death soon after she passed through.

    I believe that men and women during the middle ages would have said that these two women were heroines. I also believe that any man would have pushed or asked to have a wife like either of them. However, to take a modern look at them both and say that they are heroines is a bit of a stretch.

    Yes, they may have been heroines in the time period but they only received that title because they were quiet. In today’s world, being called a hero or a heroine is something that is earned by doing something that is the opposite of quiet. The heros and heroines of today are those that do something unbelievable for the good of others; they don’t sit quietly while others make their decisions for them.

    I am by no means a feminist, but women today who act as Constance and Griselda (maybe without the sever consequences) did are way too patient and quiet about what they want. I mean, I don’t think we ever got a clear image of what either of these two women really wanted for themselves.