Monday, July 26, 2010

Oh mother, where art thou?

None of the Pilgrims traveling to Canterbury are mothers.  In fact, of the 29 Pilgrims, the nun, Prioress, and Wife of Bath are the only women.  (Given that current population estimates places men as 51% of the population and women at 49%, women are gravely misrepresented by the Pilgrims, even by medieval standards.)  When you remove the nun and the Prioress from the equation, which you must do because they would have been spiritual mothers but not natural, physical mothers, the sole remaining Pilgrim to undertake the role of mother is the Wife of Bath.  In his defense, Chaucer never indicates that the Wife is not a mother; however, lack of dialogue about children leads readers to presume that she in fact has none.

The representations of motherhood within the tales themselves don't exactly paint favorable pictures of Medieval mothers:
  • In "The Reeve's Tale," the mother is so oblivious to her daughter that she does not hear her struggling against the advances of a young clerk even though they are in the bed next to her.  Although this oblivion carries over from her role earlier in the tale, it seems very unnatural for this to go unnoticed by her, even if she is a sound sleeper.
  • In "The Man of Law's Tale," the mother of the Sultan of Syria murders everyone at her son's wedding feast, including her son, for converting to Christianity upon his marriage to Constance, taking the image of the mother-in-law to a reprehensible level.
  • According to the Wife of Bath, her mother taught her how to "lay upright" (on her back), among other sexual adages.  This is not the kind of talk my mother and I had about the birds and the bees, but I guess some families handle sex differently than ours.
  • Griselda, the mother in "The Clerk's Tale" promises her husband Walter, Marquis of Italy, that she will accept any joy or pain he deems fit to bring upon her without complaining and with a good heart.  He abuses this vow, testing her will, by taking her children from her and murdering them for no reason more than whim.  On both occasions, she sits "as a lamb" and aside from requesting that the bodies be handle respectfully in their burial, does not shed a tear or raise an objection or attack the sergeant who takes them from her.  When she discovers years later that her children are still alive, her emotional break-down is glossed by many readers as a sign of weakness rather than motherly joy.  Maybe it's because I am a mother and have never been a wife that this behavior is repugnant to me, but I do not know a mother who would sacrifice her children in this manner.  In the words of Dave Barry:  "If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base."
  • At the end of "The Merchant's Tale" it is implied that May is pregnant, but readers are left to wonder which man--her husband, January or her lover, Damian--is the father.
  • My reaction to the mother in "The Prioress's Tale" is one of quandary.  When her son is murdered by a "gun for hire" while walking home from school one day, her despair is ardent and much more fathomable than Griselda's.  However, the school her son attends is located far from home and the only route to it leads him through an area described as a ghetto of highly unfavorable inhabitants.  ("The Prioress's Tale" is strongly anti-Semitic; the murderer and the residents of the ghetto are Jewish.)  The son walks to school alone each day which is not something I would allow my own son to do if I felt his life might be in danger which leads me to wonder what is wrong with this mother.
For my final project for this course, I did some research about motherhood in Medieval England.  The next several entries will focus on various aspects of the culture of motherhood in the Middle Ages.  I do not know if I have come any closer to understanding why Chaucer presents mothers in these colorings, but I do know more about the cultural implications of mothers and I can't wait to share them with you. 

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