This essay analyses and compares the female characters presented in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and will demonstrate the role of women in fourteenth century England and their place in society. As well as the influence and restrictions of the church over the female lifestyle of the time; which is both patriarchal and misogynistic. In this century, is the perfect wife considered to be humble and obedient to their dominant husband, accepting of their fates to be ruled by their fathers and passed down to a contractual husband whom they must become subject to, as to avoid the label of a wicked, immoral shrewe. What was a women’s legal status, restrictions suffered in the society and their place in religious society, as well as their access to economic resources.

Women in the fourteenth were thought to be lesser in comparison to the male authority figures who ran the world and dominated female lives. At the beginning of her life, a lady was the property of her father until a husband was chosen and she was handed over to him, quite literally as a bride is handed from father to husband at the alter when being joined in marriage. After marriage, a women became the cattle of her husband and therefore dependent on him. Women became so dependent on their husbands they were no longer considered a legally competent women and all legal issues were consulted and controlled by their husbands. The inferiority forced upon women at this time even impacted their right, or lack of, to inheritance. The possession of large amount of property or money was at equal to having power in small communities, which was why women rarely had powerful positions in society. A women was not be first in line to their husbands, instead brothers of sons became the legal heirs of said husbands property or land left in said husbands name. However if the deceased sons were not of age his wife was put in charge of all assets until the sons were old enough or if there were no siblings or successors the legacy was left for his wife, as the sole heir, to take for her own. Many widows would choose not to remarry now that their futures were secured and they were capable of an independent life. Despite this, some women worked alongside their husbands as traders, sewing or weaving and running small businesses.

Now delving into how the church effected and ruled over Christian women’s lives in the medieval period. The men the church heavily relied on the bible which included scripture including such lines as: ‘Your desire will be for your husband’, ‘He will rule over you’ ( as said in Genesis). The world was controlled by the aristocracy, rich men and the clergy most all of whom relied upon and looked to the church for guidance, this was not a good thing for women. Women were regarded as the weaker sex and looked upon with less importance and intelligence as well as being viewed as emotionally unbalanced with fewer morals. This was the perspective taught by the church as it was Eve who was created second to Adam with one of his ribs and was the one deceived and goaded by the devil in snake form to taste the forbidden fruit, in doing so she convinced Adam to also commit a sin and therefore cause the human race’s exile from God’s Garden of Eden. This meant women could not be trusted and were deemed inferior to the superior males whom existed first, even the Pope supported the exclusion of women of the church and even now in the 21at century women disallowed becoming or marrying priests or deacons in the catholic church; again making women dependent on males. This also backs the belief that women who were capable of having power at this time were only able to do so out of manipulation and force so that they could reap the benefits of money or land forcibly taken from men by women.

Now the main focus in this essay is the Merchants tale, beginning with his Prologue, the character of the merchant is off putting. Whilst we are given a detailed description of the Merchants appearance, which describes him as finely clothed and up to date with the latest fashions, we know little about his past or his personality. What we do find out is the Merchants feelings towards marriage and here is where the confusion begins. The merchant paints a lovely portrayal of marriage once he begins his tale and we dive into Januarys tale but when the Merchant tells of his long suffering marriage, which in reality has lasted only two months, he is cynical and unforgiving, advising others not to part take in such horridness if they wish not to be betrayed and met with disappointing expectations. This comic addition of the Merchant complaining about his own short marriage adds humour and presents his tale as satire but also dissolves any previous sympathy for the teller, as he describes his wife as a ‘Shrewe’ and ‘the worste that may be’. In the prologue the Merchant also voices his opinion on the Millers character, Griselda, who he compares to his own wife proposing them to be different in every aspect; ‘Ther is a long and large didderence…bitwix Grislidis grete pacience…and of my wyf the passing crueltee’. This implies the Merchant would rather have a stereotypical wife of the century who is submissive and obedient. From the description we are given, the Merchant wife reflects the Wife of Bath who revolts against society and begins to use her husbands for her own gain and gaining power for herself and her sons.

When we first meet Januarie we are offered context into his life so far, we know he is an old knight who comes from Pavia, place which is particularly renowned for its large sum of brothels and we come to understand it is largely regarded as an uncouth area. This implies that January has had a largely sexually active life and after reaching such an old age has decided to settle down. Januarie searches for the perfect wife and much like putting a filter on a dating app, Januarie requests a wife who fits into his particular boundaries. As backed up by his friend Justinus who advises him to choose a wife who has ‘Mo goode thewes than hire vices badde’ we understand here that the men have put no consideration to what a women should want or expect from a man and that she must only oblige wants a man has declared his wish to marry her. Januarie desires a young wife under the age of thirty who has ‘a pretty face and a weak character’, and someone who is capable of being treated like ‘Warm wex’ by him so that he may mould her for his own benefits. Januarie also requires a virgin wife which is hypocritical of his own sex filled life and also slut shames and sets unequal standards for women who are expected to wait till marriage whilst men are praised and believed to become a man once their sexual life commences.

Januarie is naive to believe that marriage will lead him down the road to a fulfilling, happy and sin free end of life. This is comedic on Chaucer’s behalf who has Januarie cuckolded by the younger and fitter servant of Januarie, Damian, who falls in love with May at first sight. Damian’s love for May leads him to endless days in bed with burning love sickness, a biblical reference is made that states St. Paul believed to marry was to better than burn with lust.

The Merchant uses frequent biblical references throughout his tale. The biblical allusions play a part in Januaries choice in wife as he wishes to marry someone that can rid him of the sin of his life so far. On his much anticipated and unromantic wedding night, Januarie has a priest come forth to bless the marital bed and May is brought ‘as stille as stoon’ to him to consummate their marriage. This could be a reference to rape in marriage, Chaucer being a pro-feminist would have used his platform to show the wrongness of using woman as objects and how even if a women is legally married she is not obliged to do anything for her husband if he does not give consent. This also suggests that May actions later on in the poem are excusable in retaliation to how Januarie treated her. This backed by John Milton who stated ‘Love in marriage cannot live nor subsist, unless it be mutual; and where love cannot be, there cannot be left of wedlock nothing, but the empty husk of an matrimony’ this suggests that May’s deceitfulness to Januarie is justifiable as neither May nor Januarie truly love each other, where as Damian and May could share true love. It is almost expected that May will deceive Januarie as May is ‘lyk the brighte morwe May’ where as Januarie is described as being visually hideous with his “slakke skin”; even his voice is croaky . However, Chaucer’s, The Merchant’s and Januaries view on marriage can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. Whilst Chaucer has a more orthodox opinion of marriage which he makes known as the narrator as well as in the Merchants and Justinus’ speeches, his characters are more traditional and stereotypical in belief, especially in the role of a wife; this allows room for a discussion about marriage between both real and fictional people. Chaucer also uses imagery of Genesis from the bible, in particular Eve and Solomon and the Garden of Eden. Januaries private garden represents the Garden of Eden, where the first sin took place, however, in Januaries garden May does not commit her first sin, alike Eve, in the marriage but one of many as she finally has a brief moment to consummate her ‘love’ for Damien. Chaucer includes another opinion of marriage by referencing to author Theophrastus who is the writer of ‘The Golden Book of Marriage’. His book preaches that women will bring men to their doom, reflecting the Merchants own opinion of marriage in the prologue.

May makes a power move by using Januarie as a literal and metaphorical stepping stone for her to reach Damian and officiate their relationship. However, as the much awaited moment is reached the Merchant choses to with hold any elaborations involving what takes place up the tree. As a modern day reader and feminist whilst neither May’s nor Januaries actions are morally correct or advisable, Chaucer provides the fourteenth century as well as the twenty first century with a comic poem full of sinister undertones that make serious the struggles of women who are forced into marriages. Through the Canterbury Tales Chaucer was capable of teacher both men and women that despite ordinary lifestyles being the norm, they should not always be followed through ad both men and women deserve equal rights.