The stories of "Lanval" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (hereafter referred to as "Wife") both use humor and satire in their respective tales. Humor is something that will make us laugh while satire is social commentary that uses wit and irony. Both stories make light of and comment on the roles of men and women, medieval attitudes towards romance (which for purposes of this essay includes romance as a courtship process and romance as a story of love and adventure set in a world of knights, castles, and contains fantasy elements), and chivalry. What makes these two stories particularly interesting is that "Lanval" was written by a woman (Marie de France) while "Wife" was written by a man (Geoffrey Chaucer) who tells things from a woman's perspective.
To understand the stories, one must first understand the role of women in Medieval England:
Scholars of the medieval family would generally agree that the
lot of the medieval wife was not an easy one. Medieval
husbands held the upper hand in the power relationship, both
legally and socially. Although Lawrence Stone's view of married
life in the Middle Ages as "brutal and often hostile, with little
communication, [and] much wife-beating" has since been called
into question, more recent historians have still painted a
somewhat unflattering picture (Butler 337).
The romance tales of medieval England idealized medieval life. Knights from the Round Table were paragons of virtue and women were placed on pedestals and romanced by these knights in chivalric ways that were often more about wooing the object of their affection than physical consummation.
The reality was different. Knights could be brutal men, dispensing harsh justice to peasants, raping women, and many other acts which were hardly heroic. Likewise with women, who were often treated as chattel, forced into marriage, and as stated earlier, subject to brutal treatment by their spouses.
"Lanval" was written by Marie de France. There are not many records of medieval literature written by women. Marie de France is believed to have been a member of the nobility however not much else is known about her. "Lanval" is not the only work of Marie's that challenged medieval traditions. Her story "Bisclavret" depicts a werewolf as having more honor than some of the land's nobles. Marie wrote her stories in Norman French which meant that they were written for entertainment, primarily for nobility.
"Lanval" really turned the ideas of chivalry, romance, and gender roles on their heads. "Lanval" features weak male characters and strong female characters. While we have seen strong female characters in early medieval literature such as Grendel's mother in "Beowulf", the female there is a monster. Even early medieval writing showed women exercising power passively such as the queen in "Beowulf" who hints to Beowulf that he should be wary of usurping her place in the royal court (and even then, her power lies with getting the men in the court to defend her).
"Lanval" toys with the medieval period's traditional ideas of romance (in this case, not only tales of adventure but the courtship between a man and a woman). The man is typically seen as the aggressor in romantic endeavors. However in "Lanval", Lanval's lover sweeps him off of his feet, lavishes him with gifts, and sets the conditions of their relationship (that he must not speak of her). Clearly, she is in control of the relationship. This is also seen when Arthur's queen makes advances on Lanval.
In "Lanval", we see Arthur's queen who uses her social status to jeopardize Lanval's life by accusing him of both unwanted sexual advances and disputing Lanval's claim that his lover is more beautiful than her. Lanval's lover possesses nobility, great beauty, and magical power. When Arthur and his knights see that Lanval's lover is the most beautiful woman in the world, they release Lanval from his death sentence.
"Lanval" also plays with the role of the man as hero and the woman as damsel in distress. It seems likely that Marie de France's audience got a good laugh at the tale's end when Lanval's lover rescued him from execution. They must have laughed even harder at the story's last few lines, "When the girl came through the gate Lanval leaped, in one bound, onto the palfrey, behind her. With her he went to Avalun, so the Bretons tell us to a very beautiful island" (166).
This satirical take on knighthood is used by Marie to point out the folly in the notion that all men are strong and all women are weak. Marie goes further in showing that all nobility are not good nor are they all evil. Finally, she comments on the folly of how knights are judged by their peers. We see early on that Lanval is a good and worthy knight but he does not earn the respect of his comrades until he can lavish them with the gifts he has obtained from his lover.
Wife was written by Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Wife of Bath's Prologue we are introduced to Alisoun (the wife's name). She describes herself as a lusty woman who has been married five times and is looking for her sixth husband. From her prologue, we learn that she has used her wiles to obtain property from her first three husbands. She also states that she can cheat on her spouse just as well as her spouse can cheat on her. She is even able to hold her own physically when her fifth husband strikes her (although she does come out the worse for wear).
Alisoun is not a sympathetic character by medieval standards in which women were supposed to be submissive. Our text states, "In creating the Wife of Bath, Chaucer drew upon a centuries-old tradition of misogynistic writing that was particularly nurtured by the church" (282). However is Chaucer using this misogynistic tradition as a storytelling Trojan Horse? One could argue that Chaucer's humorous depiction of Alisoun prepares the reader for the story she is about to tell and to imply that women need not be submissive.
During the prologue, the wife argues that there might be a better understanding of women if more women wrote stories, insinuating that stories written by men are bound to be biased against women. She comments "By God if women hadden written stories, As clerkes han within hir oratories, They wolde han written of men more wikkednesse Than al the merk of Adam may redresse" (298). This is ironic because Chaucer (a man) writes a story that some have interpreted as being sympathetic to women.
"Wife" also satirizes medieval norms. Chaucer's tells of a knight from Camelot who has raped a damsel. Such behavior was unusual in medieval literature where King Arthur's knights are supposed to be the finest knights anywhere. The knight is put at the mercy of Guinevere and the court ladies. The knight goes on a quest to learn "what women want". He is stymied until an old hag tells him she will reveal the secret in exchange for granting her a favor.
Although the knight learns the answer and is reprieved, he is horrified when he learns the hag wishes to marry him. At first he refuses on the grounds that she is old, poor, and ugly. The hag instructs the knight on the reality of life, refuting his arguments. Nobility is determined by behavior, not birth. Poverty is nothing to be ashamed of (she refers to Christ's poverty). Old age is something to be revered because of the wisdom it brings. The hag reminds the knight that he can be confident that she will be faithful to him as no one wants an ugly woman.
Chaucer's tale can be seen as satire in several respects. First, there is the irony of the bad knight whose actions stain a profession that is said to be honorable but which medieval readers knew was not always the case (and Chaucer undoubtedly had experience with given his experience as a squire). Second, he comments that women are capable of not only dispensing justice but rehabilitating criminals (under a man's law, the knight would have been executed). Third, he shows that there is more to romance than landing a beautiful young woman. What happens when she has been won? Will she be faithful? What is more important- her beauty or her loyalty? Chaucer uses the hag's remarks to comment on what true nobility means, what is important in a marriage, and why age should be respected.
What is less easy to figure out is whether Chaucer is satirizing women by his depiction of the wife and her tale. The moral of the wife's tale is that women want control in a relationship. One could argue that Chaucer was mocking women's desire for control. However there is also the argument that he agreed that relationships would be better off if women were in control. In the end, the knight submits to the wife but the wife then allows him to have control of their relationship. The hag reverting power to the husband may be a reflection on Chaucer's part that women do not have to be oppressed in order for men to maintain control and that a healthy relationship consists of give and take.
In any event, the character of the Wife has spawned endless debates as to Chaucer's true intentions:
A classic instance of these alternative modes of reading medieval texts is provided by critical responses to Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Indeed, if, as Helen Cooper once said, there is less of a critical consensus on what Chaucer was doing "than for any other English writer," then there is probably less agreement about what he was doing in the case of the Wife of Bath than for any other part of his work (Rigby 133).
That being said, I believe that Chaucer used "Wife" to raise the legitimate complaints of some women that they were more than property and that relationships were about more than beauty. Along the way, he was also able to comment on what was truly meant by nobility and that poverty was not bad in and of itself.
In the end, "Lanval" and "Wife" both criticize medieval society, particularly women's inferior status but also literature romanticizing things such as relationships and knighthood. Both tales use role reversal to question gender roles. Rather than directly confronting medieval society, both authors use humor and satire to soften the blow giving their audience something to laugh at but also something to think about.
Butler, Sara. "Runaway Wives: Husband Desertion in
Medieval England." Journal of Social
History 40.2 (2006): 337-359. Project Muse.
Web. 7 Mar. 2015.
Rigby, S.H. "The Wife of Bath, Christine de Pizan,
and the Medieval Case for Women." The
Chaucer Review 35.2 (2000): 133-165. Project
Muse. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.