Comment on The Wife of Bath's statement in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, specifically with regard to "Who peyntede the leon, tel me, who?"

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tale, the Wife has a good deal to say about how poorly women are portrayed because men are telling the stories. She argues that if women were writing the stories instead of men, the men (not women) would be presented as the villains.

The Wife says:

For trust me, it’s impossible, no libel

That any cleric shall speak well of wives,

Unless be of saints and holy lives,

But naught for other women will they do.

Who painted first the lion, tell me who?

By God if women had but written stories,

As have these clerks within their oratories,

They would have written of men more wickedness

Than all the race of Adam could redress. (694-703)

The important aspects of this segment of text are first, the Wife's insult of the cleric. His job was to record stories, history, etc. (For a very long time, members of the Church were some of the few in society educated to write.  Some of the oldest literature and records in existence survived from the many years when stories and histories were passed down in the oral tradition—by word of mouth—only because scribes and clerics of the Church recorded them on paper. See Beowulf and the oral tradition.) Her insult of the cleric is that his writing is biased against women. She feels that as long as a man is keeping the records, women will always be presented as evil. 

Second, the Wife's question regarding "who painted the lion" alludes to one of Aesop's fables, "The Lion and the Man." As a peasant and a lion look at the picture of a man killing the lion, it is easy to see (notes the lion) whose perspective is being represented. Had a lion painted the picture, the King of the Beasts would have been killing the man.

Cleverly the Wife (or Chaucer) notes that the "truth" of the story depends on who is writing it. She is postulating that if women were to do the writing, there would be more stories about the evils of men than there were descendants of Adam to remedy them.

Additional Source:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4174149?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Sources:

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