My favorite of Chaucer’s tales was the The Wife of Bath’s Tale. During the Middle Ages, women were not valued or respected. Women were treated as property. They were not able to own property or be educated. Instead, women were fated to live lives of servitude to their husbands.
Knowing history as I do, I understand this is a limited view. During the Middle Ages, women brewed beer, owned brothels, birthed babies, and educated themselves. There were pious women, strong women, promiscuous women, power-hungry women, demur women, and virginal women.
How do I know this? Women, regardless of the time period, were multi-faceted. They contained multitudes as Whitman would say.
And this brings me to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. He creates a femme fatale who has had five husbands. She has enjoyed sex with all of them, and she craftily achieved sovereignty with each one. Her tale involves a knight in King Arthur’s Court.
The story goes that the Knight shamelessly raped a virgin, and the court is outraged. The typical consequence was beheading, but the Queen rules that he be punished by traveling throughout the land to find out what women want. Unfortunately, the knight is confused because every woman he talks to tells him something different. He sulks back to the castle to meet his fate when he runs into a disgusting, old witch. She promises to give him the answer, but he must come back to that spot and marry her after his life is saved.
He is disgusted, but he fears death more, so he agrees.
When he goes back to the court, the Queen demands an answer.
He says, “All women want sovereignty over their husbands.” Or at least it is something to that effect. I always remembered it as women just want to be able to make their own choices, but that is not the important part.
The Queen is impressed and she allows the knight to keep his head, so he returns to the forest to marry the witch.
On the wedding night, the knight is repulsed as they lay in bed together. He wants absolutely nothing to do with the old hag.
“What’s wrong?” The witch asks. The knight admits he is disgusted by her. She reminds the knight that true love is not about looks but about virtue and trust. So she gives him another choice. She says she can make herself beautiful beyond words but he can never trust her faithfulness. Or she can stay an ugly hag and she will be the most virtuous wife in the land.
The knight considers her offer and answers, “The choice is yours.”
The hag is so happy that she says, “Kiss me, and you will find me both beautiful and faithful as a wife.”
He had passed the test.
What does this have to do with my father?
My father called me the other day for my birthday. He told me the most delightful tale about his trip to his physical therapist who is a young, beautiful woman. At one point, he called her, “Babe.”
My father is an old school, old man who is well conditioned in his ways with women, but recent events have not been lost on him.
“I’m sorry,” he says as they continue. “I hope that doesn’t bother you. I call everybody babe, baby, honey. I am not trying to make you uncomfortable, but if it does, I promise I won’t do it. I know it’s just a habit, and I just don’t mean anything by it.”
The young lady kindly said it was “okay” and my dad was pleased with himself, and I was proud of him too.
Since the “Me, too” movement, I have heard some men say the most ridiculous things.
“I guess you can’t say anything to women anymore.”
“I am just scared I am going to say the wrong thing and get attacked for it.”
“I just don’t know what women want.”
I will tell you what I told my dad. I will tell you what Chaucer realized over eight centuries ago.
Women want to feel heard, safe, and respected. If you aren’t sure your words or actions help women to feel heard, safe and respected, ask. We will tell you, and then you will know.
So I told my dad he got it right. We don’t expect perfection. We will recognize true mistakes and sincere apologies.
Keep in mind, I am a 45 year-old white woman who has not suffered from any significant sexual trauma, but I feel my advice is sound in that it gives women choice.
When a man insists on a hug or kiss, or when a man in a position of power asks us questions that make us feel uncomfortable, this takes our choices away.
We are only asking to matter, not just enough to be considered, but matter enough for the respect our autonomy as human beings provides us every day.
If a man from the Middle Ages and an old man from the hood get it, I think we are on our way.
Love and Light, my friends.