I didn’t know, when I set up my Early British Literature survey in January, that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath would be speaking directly to the American presidential campaign. But there we were this past Friday talking about the views of Rick Santorum as we looked at Chaucer’s most memorable character.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. According to Molly Worthen in a New York Times column, Santorum’s 2006 book It Takes a Family was once described as having been written by “one of the finest minds of the thirteenth century.”
Santorum speaks with the certitude of ancient church authority, but doing so leads him into positions that Worthen describes as “self-caricaturing.” She points out that he
has asserted that the right to privacy “does not exist,” equated homosexual sex with “man on dog” relations, and compared the campaign against same-sex marriage to the war on terror.
She could also have mentioned that Santorum opposes birth control on the premise that it encourages promiscuity.
Critical though she is, Worthen find a theological consistency in Santorum’s views. Here’s how she describes his reasoning:
“Human beings have a purpose, or ‘end,’ a telos,” Santorum writes in his book. According to the tradition of natural law, every part of our bodies has a telos too. In the case of our genitalia, that natural end is heterosexual sex for the purpose of procreation. It follows that marriage between a man and a woman “is fundamentally natural,” Santorum writes. “The promise of natural law is that we will be the happiest, and freest, when we follow the law built into our nature as men and women. For liberals, however, nature is too confining, and thus is the enemy of freedom.”
We’re now paying attention to Santorum because he has suddenly emerged as the major rival to Mitt Romney for the right to run against President Obama. Furthermore, Catholicism’s strictures against birth control have suddenly been in the news, what with the Obama administration’s ruling that all health plans must provide free birth control to women, which Santorum has declared to be a tyrannical imposition of executive authority on religious institutions. (He is maintaining this even after Obama modified the rule, allowing Catholic hospitals and colleges to opt out of payment—churches themselves were already exempt—with the costs to be picked up by insurance companies instead.)
We need the Wife of Bath at moments like this. As a five-time widow who loves sex, she may be on the defense in her strict Christian culture. But figuring that the best defense is offense, she goes on the attack and some of her points strike home. Arguing against the “natural law” decrees of the time, she points out that, as much as the church celebrates the virginity of the Virgin Mary, without sex virgins couldn’t be born. She notes that St. Paul acknowledged it is permissible for widows to remarry, even though he didn’t like it. He also had to acknowledge that marriage itself was necessary because “it is better to marry than to burn.” (Come to think of it, St. Paul could be invoked here in defense of same-sex marriage.) In another response to natural law, she says that the sexual organs have got to be for something more than excreting waste.
Now, the Wife of Bath is not a great debater. She’s wildly inconsistent, she digresses, she contradicts herself, she makes wild leaps in logic. (Here’s my favorite leap: describing herself as barley bread to Jesus’s white bread, she says that with barley bread Jesus “refreshed many a man” [the miracle of the loaves and the fishes]—so in bestowing her sexuality [mine instrument], she is like Jesus.) On strictly theological grounds, Santorum would undoubtedly get the best of her.
But Chaucer shows that there’s something deeper in the Wife than dry theology. She is an irrepressible life force, a woman striving to assert herself in a world where men are trying to control her. In that sense, she is the forerunner of those American Catholic women who routinely (to the tune of 98% of them!) ignore their Church’s prohibition of birth control and use it anyway. Regardless of what the pope has to say, they feel that they have the right to control their own bodies.
The Wife of Bath is an extraordinary creation because, in her wild and whacky way, she’s making the case for female autonomy and female dignity in the 1390’s. Her modern sisters now take many of her positions for granted. Or did until a 13th century American politician came along.