The Wife of Bath

By challenging the value of virginity, the Wife of Bath, calls into question both secular and religious ideals of women. The most powerful image of woman in the Middle Ages, one who embodied all the occulted misogyny that the idealization of virginity entailed was of course the Virgin Mary. The symbolic valences attached to Mary were complex. Mary had been held to be a type of the church since St. Ambrose (4th century) asserted that by giving birth to Christ, she had also given birth to Christians. Mary as a symbol of the Church and as the bride of Christ (sponsa Christi) was an image that received great attention from the latter half of the eleventh century, culminating in the commentaries of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception--Mary's own conception free from sexuality and thus free from original sin with all that it entails, including painful childbirth, was a matter of dispute in the Middle Ages. In England, it was denied by Asnselm of Canterbury and defended by Duns Scotus. From the thirteenth century, it was promoted by the Franciscans and opposed by the Dominicans. The image that developed in the Middle Ages of the Virgin Mary reflected the complex, ambivalent, and contradictory feelings about marriage and sexuality that women evoked.

In his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard of Clairvaux developed the most extended and best known explorations of the image of Mary as symbol of the Church and thus bride of Christ:

Let women consider carefully with how much glory the Lord elevated their inferior sex and how natural it must seem that both the heavenly and the earthly paradise pertain to them. Indeed, although in the latter the female sex was first created in body and soul, to the former she is this day raised in soul as well as in body. Eve was created out of the Old Adam, but the new Adam, Redeemer of the Old, was produced out of Mary. The former expelled him who was at once her husband and father from paradise. Today, he who is at once her bridegroom and son lifts the latter to a more happy paradise.

Although some people have seen the new attention to Mary that blossomed in the twelfth century as a sign of a new dignity attributed to woman, it must be noted that Eve is figured as a secondary and derivative creation, the daughter, as it were of her husband Adam, and like an ungrateful child or disobedient wife, she holds responsibility for his great loss, the loss of paradise of the one from whom she drew her origin. Mary on the other hand figures as the mother of Christ who is both her bridegroom and son. Bernard's commentary divides up the different functions of women into incompatible and mutually exclusive roles and shows the profoundly ambivalent attitude towards women and towards relations between men and women, particularly marriage. The painting here The painting here (Fra' Angelico, "The Annunciation," 1435, The Prado, Madrid) represents the strict connection that Medieval Christian exegesis saw between the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a result of a woman's disobedience and man's redemption through Christ who was born of a spotless virgin. In this representation of the Annunciation, Mary's porch is juxtaposed with a lush Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve slink unhappily away just at the very moment that the Christ child quickens within the womb of Mary, announced by an angel and penetrating as a beam of light. The virgin conception of Christ was often likened to a sunbeam which penetrates glass without breaking it.

As the sonne taketh hire pas
Withoute breche thorghout that glas,
Thy maidenhod onwemmed it was

(As the sun passes through glass without making a breach, so your maidenhood was not blemished)

The literary and artistic representations of Mary sublimate her sexuality and desirability, always present, by idealizing her submissive humility, her nurturing tenderness, her compassion and meekness at the same time as her exalted role serves to elevate those who choose her as the ideal of femininity and desirability. The role of Mary is most striking for the fact that it idealizes a bride and consort that is exactly what no human woman could ever be: wife and maiden, virgin and mother.

The portrayal of Mary as consort and bride of Christ, companion on the throne of heaven but subject to her heavenly bridegroom as symbolized by the act of submission in bowing her head to receive the crown bestowed by him became a frequent subject in painting from the twelfth century. This altarpiece (circa 1414, by LORENZO Monaco, National Gallery, London) shows the Coronation of Mary flanked by, on the left, saints Benedict (in white), Matthew, Catherine, Stephen and Francis and on the right, Romuald, Peter, John, Lawrence and Dominic.

Literature as well as art enshrines Mary as the bride of Christ and Queen of heaven, as in this portion of a Middle English lyric (#187 from Luria and Hoffman)    

Be glad, of all maidens floure,
That hast in hevene swich honoure
To passe in hye blisse
Aungeles and other seints also;
The joye is nought like ther-to
Of eny that ther isse.

Be gladde, Goddes spouse bright,
That gevest ther gretter light
To the hevenly place
Than ever dede sunne on erthe heere
When it was brightest and most clere
In the midday space.

(Middle English Lyrics, eds. Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman (New York and London: W. W. Norton: 1974)

Mary was often depicted within a hortus conclusus, a closed garden that symbolized both her virginity and her desirability as a love object. The rose, with its combined connotations of sexual and religious love, symbolized the blood of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception--Mary's own conception free from sexuality and thus free from original sin with all that it entails, including painful childbirth, was a matter of dispute in the Middle Ages. In England, it was denied by Asnselm of Canterbury and defended by Duns Scotus. From the thirteenth century, it was promoted by the Franciscans and opposed by the Dominicans. The image that developed in the Middle Ages of the Virgin Mary reflected the complex, ambivalent, and contradictory feelings about marriage and sexuality that women evoked.

A similar portrayal of Mary as the ideal object of lay sexual, connubial affection is found in numerous medieval lyrics, such as the verses from this Middle English lyric:

From #188

Upon a lady my love is lente,
Withoutene change of any chere
That is lovely and continent
And most at my desire.                                

This lady is in my herte pight;                            
Her to love I have gret haste.                            
With all my power and my might                      
To her I make mine herte stedfast                     

Therfor will I non other spouse
Ner none other loves, for to take                         
But only to her I make my vowes,
And all other to forsake.

The complex, paradoxical and contradictory nature of the different roles which Mary embodied was itself the subject of literary artistic reflection, as these verses from Lyric #184 from Luria and Hoffman's volume show:

Thou wommon boute fere                                 You, woman without equal
Thin owne fader bere.                                       Bore your own father
Gret wonder this was                                        This was a great wonder
That on wommon was moder                            That one woman was the mother 
To fader and hire brother,                                  To her father and her brother
So never other nas.                                           As no other ever was 

Thou my suster and moder                                You, my sister and mother
And thy sone my brother--                                And your son my brother --
Who shulde thenne drede?                                Who should then fear
Whoso haveth the king to broder                       Whoever has the king of heaven for a brother
And eek the quene to moder                             And the queen also for mother
Well aughte for to spede                                   Should succeed well.

Mary's pregnancy was that aspect of her experience which most closely identified her with the normal sexuality of mortal women at the same time that it most distanced her from it.

From Lyric 181 (Luria and Hoffman)

I sing of a maiden              
That is makeles,*       "matchless," but also "spotless" and "mateless"                
King of alle kinges              
To here sone she ches.        

. . .

Moder and maiden              
Was never non but she:      
Well may swich a lady
Godes moder be.

Madonna del Parto, Venetian School, end 14th century, Galleria dell'Academia, Venice

Mary was often portrayed as the infinitely compassionate, nurturing mother, one whose limitless and unconditional love for her children, often represented in painting by the act of nursing the infant Jesus, made her the natural intercessor of mankind with Jesus, portrayed in this lyric as the foster brother of humanity:                                                           Boltraffio, 1490's, St. Petersburg,                                                                                                                                    Hermitage Museum

From Lyric 196 (Luria and Hoffman)

In a tabernacle of a toure,
As I stode musing on the mone,                
A comly quene, most of honoure,              
Apered in gostly sight full sone.                  
She made compleynt thus by hir one,        
For mannes soule was wrapped in wo:
"I may nat leve mankind allone,"  
Quia amore langueo.*    Because I languish for love

I longe for love of man my brother,
I am his vokete to voide his vice;        
I am his moder--I can none other--                        
Why shuld I my dere childe dispise?
If he me wrathe in diverse wise,  
through flesshes freelte fall me fro,
Yet must me rewe him till he rise,        
Quia amore langueo.

I bid, I bide in grete longing,                
I love, I loke when man woll crave;                                                                         The Virgin and Child
I pleyne for pite of peyning;                                                                                   Lorenzo di Credi, 1485
Wolde he aske mercy, he shuld it have.                                                                National Gallery, London
Say to me, soule, and I shall save;
Bid* me, my childe, and I shall go;      
Thou prayde me never but my son forgave:
Quia amore langueo.


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