Chaucer, Gower, and What Medieval Women Want

Peter Chiykowski

Abstract


Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, friends and colleagues, both chose to retell the same story at roughly the same time in their story collections, The Canterbury Tales and the Confessio Amantis. We can imagine a bet or a friendly competition os some sort between the two writers over who could make the most ingenious transformation of a traditional folktale, the Loathly Lady story - although sadly no account survives to prove they wrote the stories in competition with each other. The story they chose for their source is of a young knight who is sent to find out "what women want" as punishment for some transgression, and who ends up marrying an ugly old hag to discover the answer. That answer is, of course, "sovereigntee" or to do what they please. In Gower's version, the hag then gives the knight the traditional fairy-tale choice, whether he would have her beautiful by day and ugly by night, or vice versa. Chaucer, however, mixes things up a little, and the choice becomes a much more loaded one: whether the knight would have his wife be beautiful and unfaithful, or ugly and chaste.

Peter Chiykowski's essay clearly shows the gendered concerns underlying these choices: both the choices the knights within the story make, and the choices the two authors make in constructing their tales. Using the Bakhtinian theory of dialogism and mutli-voicedness, Ciykowski argues that Chaucer's version opens up many more possibilities for women and women's voices than Gower's version does.

-Dr. Kathleen Cawsey


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