Fifty Shades and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale have a lot in common – here’s why

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Fifty Shades and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale have a lot in common – here’s why

The release of Fifty Shades Freed, the final instalment of the Fifty Shades film trilogy, will no doubt see a resurgence in the debate that has surrounded the series since the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011. Fans see the story as an erotic romance about the heroine’s sexual awakening and the redemptive powers of love, while its critics describe it as harmful in its glorification of an abusive relationship and its inaccurate portrayal of BDSM.

Yet the popularity of the books and films cannot be easily dismissed – clearly, for some, these stories fulfil a need, whatever that need might be. The ongoing dispute surrounding the books and the films raises an age-old question: what do women really want in their relationships?

This question lies at the centre of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, one of the many stories included in his Canterbury Tales. A veteran of five marriages, the Wife of Bath fills her prologue with tales of her relationships with her different husbands and her effort to assert herself in spite of the misogyny prevalent at the time.

Her tale, however, is perhaps not what we might expect: a knight of King Arthur’s court commits a rape and is sentenced to death, but Queen Guinevere and her ladies plead for his release, on the condition that he can find the answer to the question of what women most desire.

He struggles to find a suitable response until he meets a loathsome old woman – “fouler than any man might conceive” –- who promises to help him, but he must promise to do whatever she asks. He agrees and she gives him the answer: that all women want sovereignty over their husbands. This saves his life, but in return she demands that he marry her. He is dismayed but has no choice.

On his wedding night, the bride offers her unhappy groom a choice: she can be beautiful but fickle – or “loathly” and loyal. The knight, after much consideration, tells her that the choice must be hers. Instantly she is transformed into a beautiful woman, and she assures him, in recognition of his humble response, that she will also be faithful.

What women want

Readers of the tale cannot reach a consensus of how it should be interpreted. Has the knight truly been reformed? If he has learned the lesson that the quest was meant to teach him, the importance of female desire, then surely he will never repeat his crime. But there are those who think he is unfairly rewarded – and there’s nothing about what happens to the victim, who disappears from the story. So why would the Wife of Bath tell this tale?

Chaucer’s pilgrims assemble (the Wife of Bath is mounted, in the middle of the group). From Chaucer for Children. A golden key, by Mrs H. R. Haweis. British Library

Other versions of the story seem to have been in circulation in Chaucer’s day, but these usually involve a knight undertaking the quest to find out what women want on behalf of King Arthur. Only in Chaucer’s version is the knight being punished for the crime of rape. Moreover, in other versions of the story, the “loathly lady” is a beautiful young woman under an enchantment who is released by the knight breaking the spell. The Wife of Bath never reveals who or what this woman really is or what she wants, and her identity and motivations remain unclear. Yet Chaucer presumably chose this version of the story, even if he did not add these new elements himself.

Prince Charming?

The Fifty Shades trilogy and the Wife of Bath’s tale have a certain amount in common. Both involve a troubling (or troubled) protagonist whose past relationships with women are not entirely above reproach who finds redemption and eventually marriage in another relationship that has –- perhaps -– transformed him into a loving and respectful husband.

But both of these stories are fantasies – so cannot be seen as an accurate representation of relationships between men and women. But do these fantasies have the power to harm those who consume them by influencing their perceptions of their relationships in reality? And who gets to decide? In the end, only audiences can decide how they choose to read or interpret stories. Romance, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.

So what do women really want? As Roxane Gay writes in The Trouble with Prince Charming:

Whenever women do something in significant numbers, the media immediately becomes frenzied as they try to understand this new mystery of womanhood.<

Perhaps the real danger lies not in these stories themselves, but in thinking that any individual, whether it is E L James, one of her critics, Chaucer, the Wife of Bath – or even the mysterious loathly lady – can answer this question for all women.