The Canterbury Tales

On Cuckoldry: Women, Silence, and Subjectivity in the Merchant's Tale and the Manciple's Tale

The Wife of Bath's extraordinary prologue gives the reader a dose of what is sometimes missing in early male-written literature: glimpses of female subjectivity. Women in medieval literature are often silent and passive, to the extent that cuckolding is often seen as something one man (the adulterer) does to another (the husband). Eve Sedgwick argues in Between Men that in many literary representations, women are playing pieces or playing fields in struggles between male players. By default it seems, male writers cannot help but create shallow constructions of women; heroism occurs in male spheres of activity, while the wives and daughters make the background, and the female love interest becomes a trophy. Unfortunately, when women are not silent they are often monstersand quite often, the silent ones conceal hidden dangers. Why should women present such a threat? Why do so many pre-modern (and, unfortunately, modern) male writers approach female subjects with such trepidation, with strategies of demonization or avoidance? Analysis of the Merchant's Tale and the Manciple's Tale proves fruitful in exploring these questions. In the sphere of the written word, women have often been silent in the West; the small number...

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