What does the Wife of Bath's tale tell about the role of women in the Middle Ages?

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Chaucer is commenting here about the narrow rules and confines women had to live by within a male-dominated society. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that men were born with the "higher" human nature. Men were "blessed" with rationality: they had all the brain power. Women, on the other hand, were viewed as ruled by their emotions, consumed by materialism and sexually insatiable.

Women's positions in life were further confined by the medieval church, which insisted women needed to be "tamed," yet promoted the need to be "fruitful and mulitply." The wife of Bath laments in lines 75-78,

For hadde God comanded maidenhede,
Than hadde he dampned wedding with the deede;
And certes, if there were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it grow?

Another conflict women in the Middle Ages faced in both the Church and in society was in the need for women to be married to survive. Women could not be property owners, nor maintain independent income apart from a man. If one was unmarried, their choices were few: nunneries or becoming a burden to a family member. Thus, while the wife of Bath may seem bawdy and boastful at times with her tales of five husbands, society and the church in reality left women little choice.