What are the novelties brought to English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales through his character, the wife of Bath?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The Canterbury Tales itself marks a major contribution to English poetry and all of English literature, as well. Choosing to write in English, rather than French, the language of the English court and the upper class at the time, or in Latin or Italian, the conventional language of poets, Chaucer made English acceptable in literary circles. It was no longer considered to be a kind of "second-class language." In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer demonstrated the power, facility, and beauty of the English language. Future works of English literature would be written in English. His memorable portrait of the wife of Bath and his development of her character, therefore, were accomplished in English.

The wife's character was quite unusual in English poetry/literature. At a time in the late 1300s when women were placed on romantic pedestals, idealized and even worshipped  in verse, the wife emerges as elderly, unattractive, earthy, independent, sensual, sometimes crude, and occasionally violent woman. In short, she is presented as a real woman, rather than a beautiful, virtuous, unworldly ideal of poetic adoration.

The wife is quite worldly. She has traveled widely, married often, and enjoyed the pleasures of life, including sex. She is unashamed and unapologetic about her life; in fact, she defends the choices she has made. She is smart, determined, and when occasion had demanded it, quite manipulative; the wife is the complete antithesis of the feminine romantic ideal of chivalry and poetry.

To further humanize her, however, Chaucer adds more depth to her character. She is also warm and engaging, honest about herself and sociable with the other pilgrims. She is frequently very funny. The wife does not hold back her thoughts, opinions, or emotions. Chaucer creates in her a flesh-and-blood woman, rather than the usual literary caricature of his day.

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