The wives of the ``Canterbury Tales'' and the tradition of the valiant woman of Proverbs 31:10--31

Frances Minetti Biscoglio, Fordham University


A survey of the many feminine portraits in the Canterbury Tales reveals that Chaucer was aware of the medieval literary topos which categorized women as either good or evil. Since he lived and wrote within the context of a Christian culture steeped in the Bible, it is not surprising to find that his polarized depiction of women was shaped to some degree by a highly influential Biblical passage commonly used in the literary tradition of his time. This study examines Chaucer's use of the Song of the Valiant Woman, a pericope appended to the book of Proverbs (31.10-31). The theme of the mulier fortis, as she was called, appears with varying emphases in his contrasting descriptions of a group of wise and foolish wives.^ Chapter one surveys the long tradition of Hebraic and Christian commentary on the valiant woman. She is described in Proverbs as the enfleshed expression of Wisdom in action, counterpoising other feminine images who embody Folly. Chapter two studies the significance of the Proverbs epilogue as reflected in the works of some other non-Chaucerian authors.^ Chapters three and four analyze six thematic images of the mulier fortis as they are mirrored and distorted in the behaviors of the ideal and wicked wives. They include the wife as faithful and trusted spouse, counselor to her husband, manager of the household, clothmaker and clothwearer, source of strength and constancy, and finally, creative and productive woman. These images surface in Chaucer's text mainly through the use of irony, a poetic technique he consistently employs in the Canterbury Tales. The ideal wives are represented by the central feminine figures of four religious narratives: the Man of Law's Tale, the Clerk's Tale, the Tale of Melibee, and the Second Nun's Tale. The wicked wives appear chiefly as the fabliaux women in the Reeve's Tale, the Miller's Tale, the Merchant's Tale and the Shipman's Tale, and as one female pilgrim-narrator, the Wife of Bath.^ Chapter five discusses the implications that Chaucer's delineation of the ideal wives has on medieval and modern conceptions of women. It adds a provocative dimension to the stereotypical interpretation of women in the fourteenth century. It also provides a definition of feminine power that re-evaluates the question of "maistrie" within the tales and challenges the modern feminist attitude towards women's power. ^

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Biblical studies|Theology

Recommended Citation

Biscoglio, Frances Minetti, "The wives of the ``Canterbury Tales'' and the tradition of the valiant woman of Proverbs 31:10--31" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9127023.