The Midas Touch: Written Authority and Chaucer’s Transformation of Ovid’s Tale

Within Medieval England, misogyny led to women being silenced, powerless, and forced into submission. A contributing factor was the rigid social structure that only made women more dependent on men. This even extended to storytelling, as both men and women would depend on older texts to support a point or a moral of a story. In the “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Chaucer exploits the written authority behind Ovid’s ancient tale about Midas to enhance the power of his female characters. The tale (which features a woman who gains power over a knight) is told by a very verbal woman, who gains power in her life through her words. At the time, outspoken women were greatly discouraged because respect was thought to be awarded to very particular people. However, a written or spoken creative text would not be as appreciated without a sign of authority: the past. Older stories were more appreciated, and Alison, the Wife of Bath, mentions many well-known stories from long ago. However, when Ovid’s “Tale of Midas” is cited, the original story is altered in many ways. It is within using this story, as well as making changes to it, that Chaucer can transform a tale about women’s sovereignty into something of greater worth to medieval people. Thus, one can say that Chaucer depends on the Midas touch to turn his female character’s words into gold (or something of great value).

In fourteenth-century England, power and authority were recognized in a very particular fashion: a social hierarchy. Christianity was the dominating religion (so the pope would even have authority over the king), and it was thought that God preordained these levels of power assigned in such a way. This distribution of power is commonly described as the “three estates”: “those who fight” (aristocracy, knights), “those who pray” (the clergy, spiritual noblemen), and “those who work” (land-owners, peasants). Through such a meticulously-divided system, one can see how important it was for the people to recognize to whom both power and respect must be endowed. However, women are placed outside of this class system, so they did not receive power and respect quite as easily.

Women were still able to gain some form of respect, but there were still stringent conditions that needed to be met. The court system observed love and marriage as “incompatible, since marriage involves mastery on the husband’s part, and mastery drives out love” (Kittredge 545). Whereas the estates functioned primarily on interdependence, women had to be dependent on men to establish any kind of social status. For instance, a maiden or wife’s status “depends on that of the man who supports her,” and a widow, though gaining some independence by acquiring the job of the deceased husband, is still confined to the “status of [the] last husband” (Mortimer 54). It is only fitting that even writers would have to depend on past writers (men) to gain status with an audience.

Since the past reflects wisdom, it is common for medieval writers, especially Chaucer, to gain authority with examples from previous texts. During the fourteenth century, people did not usually live for very long, as there was an average “lifespan of fifty years, more or less” (Mortimer 36). Since there are “fewer elders to ask for advice” (37) at this time, one can understand the preoccupation with trusting older written texts: they supplant the presence of older people with experience. Carla Arnell writes that the medieval preoccupation with written authority “is clearly exemplified by the common practice [. . .] of citing or gesturing towards a prior text as the source of [a] text’s authority (937). As a result, the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales scrounge for stories from the past to truly be taken seriously. These “old books possess the trusted wisdom of the past, for which they demand special credence [. . .] [but Chaucer’s] famous women ironically re-angle the stories found in old books” (937). Also, the old books are all written by men, as the Wife of Bath asserts that “no clerk [. . .] can speak well of wives (and women). It is an impossibility,” but she also asserts that “she can speak with the authority of an expert [in marriage]” (Kittredge 539-540). Alison manipulates old texts to fulfill the needs of her storytelling, just as she manipulated her husbands to fulfill her desires for authority. Thus, when her tale is told, it is only fitting that a female character of hers gains power through such manipulation.

In the “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a knight searches for the answer to the question “what do women want most?” to atone for raping a maid. He must undergo a great trial to truly transform into a man who understands the opposite sex. One would imagine that since the knight has exhibited such a low opinion of women by raping the maiden, he would more likely go to a male authority to know what women desire. In the lines “Somme seyde wommen loven bestrichesse, / Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolynesse” (925-26), the answers are generalized by the words “women love.” This could insinuate that men are giving these answers, but this is not necessarily the case. The lines that read, “Somme seyde that our hertes been most esed / What that we been y-flattered and y-plesed” (930-31) include words of unity, like “we” and “our,” so it is likely that the knight is entrusting his life into the hands of both men and women. There already seems to be a sense of respect towards women, as the knight is willing to both ask and trust women to give him the right answer.

We first read about Midas when the knight receives the answer that women like the ability to keep the secrets of their husbands:

And somme seyn, that greet delyt han we

For to ben holden stable and eek secree,

And in o purpos stedefastly to dwelle,

And nat biwreye thing that men us telle.

But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele;

Pardee, we wommen conne no-thing hele;

Witnesse on Myda; wol ye here the tale? (Chaucer 945-51)

This could be from a woman’s voice, perhaps even the Wife of Bath’s, as she refers to women who like to keep secrets as “we.” Even though this statement could be coming from a woman, the speaker does not exhibit much belief in the statement, as the passage also features the common idea of women’s enjoying gossip and being unable to keep a secret. Alison states that “we wommen conne no-thing hele,” (950) and it is left to interpretation whether or not she believes this to be true. Even though some women said that they can be trusted with a secret, this is completely overturned when Alison says that this is “nat worth a rake-stele” (949). She cites the story of Midas, particularly Ovid’s version, as an example that goes against the idea of a trustworthy woman.

Even though Ovid is cited in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” to establish written authority, the work is not just given a different interpretation by Alison, but it is outright distorted. She justifies most of her opinions and actions through interpretations and careful selections from certain texts: “in justifying multiple marriages she points to the polygamous examples of Solomon, Abraham, and Jacob as they appear in biblical scripture” (Arnell 938). This is nothing like what she does to the tale of Midas, as she does not simply interpret the tale in her own way. Instead, Alison creates a completely new character to supplant the role of the secret-keeper. Thus, Alison can use Ovid’s Midas as an example to further establish how wrong the misogynist ideas of the untrustworthy woman are.

The Wife of Bath introduces Ovid’s tale by establishing that Midas’s secret, his “two asses eres,” (954) is only one that is known to his wife because he “preyede hire” (959) and implored her to tell no one else. Thus, he must beg his wife to keep this secret because he is at her mercy. Midas’s wife promises to tell no one so that she can save her husband’s reputation, but this promise is broken. She also tries to avoid “her owene shame” (964) by keeping the secret safe, but it becomes an unbearable task; she feels as though “she dyde / That she so longe should a counseil hyde” (965-66). It is symbolically killing her inside to not tell anyone, but the reason behind her desire to tell the secret seems to be within the misogynist idea that women “can no conseil hyde” (980). Since she felt bound by her promise to not tell any other person, she goes to a marsh and bursts the words into an inanimate object that can tell no one else (or so she thinks): “‘Biwreye me nat, thou water, with thy soun [. . .] / to thee I telle it name, / Myn housbande hath longe asses eres two!” (975-76). This act is not done to shame her husband, but it is done out of the desperate desire to not keep a secret. She does not laugh at his misfortune, but it is as though she does not want the burden of having such control over her husband. Now, she is technically no longer the only one who knows her husband’s misfortune.

However, the end result of this new version of Midas is not revealed, as it is advised that the readers (and Alison advises her listeners) to read the tale for themselves. Alison says to “Redeth Ovyde, and there ye may it lere” (982). It seems unusual for a pilgrim to advise the other pilgrims to read a tale after citing it as a credible source. Any sources are usually used with the assumption that it is a familiar and credible work of literature. Does Alison assume that the other pilgrims are unaware of the tale, or is this Chaucer’s assumption towards his readers? If no one else is familiar with the tale, then changing it would only be a way to use Ovid’s well-established name to gain authority. If everyone decided to read the story, then this would just reveal the differences between the tales. However, if the story is well-known, then changing it would be that much more apparent. It is important to note that line 951 advises one to “hear the tale” and line 982 advises to “read the tale.” Obviously, if someone were to read the tale after hearing Alison’s version, one would find discrepancies. But by “hearing” the tale, there is a freedom of interpretation that cannot be argued against (a disruption during the telling of a tale not quite as common as a disruption during a prologue).

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath might just be exhibiting the power behind oratory storytelling, but to take this one step further, this is a woman speaking to a crowd. Considering the time period, there would already be little consideration for a woman speaking so publicly, but a man addressing a crowd would be a more fitting situation. If one were to “read” the tale, it would have been written by a man (Ovid), and by the time Alison has finished telling her story, her source may have already been used so effectively that the written work becomes more obsolete. After all, it is the old lady who tells the secret of what women desire to the knight, and this information saves his life. The end result of a woman telling a secret is overturned in the tale, for there is a positive result for both the man and the woman. Chaucer’s modified version of the Midas tale is meant to disprove the idea of women being untrustworthy, and this minimizes the well-established idea of written authority; the tale that is used to support the idea of untrustworthy women never really made this argument in the first place.

Ovid’s original tale of Midas features a different situation than what Alison has told the pilgrims. King Midas’s secret is not known to his wife, but instead it is known by a “trusty barber-slave, that used to dress / His master’s hair” (Ovid 290-91). One cannot help but wonder if Chaucer intended to make a direct comparison between wives and slaves, for the actions of the characters are interchangeable in both interpretations. As previously discussed, women of the fourteenth century did not have much power, and one could argue that a woman’s purpose of serving a man could be compared to that of a slave. The barber-slave “dug a hole, and told [the secret] to the ground,” and then he “cover’d in the earth, and silent left the place” (296-98). As a result, the secret is told within “the rustling blades and whispering wind” (303). The Wife of Bath’s version has the secret told in the water of a marsh rather than in dirt from the ground, which may represent two opposing humors: wet and dry. These oppositions are just like that of men and women, as Chaucer not only changes the sex of the secret-keeper, but he also changes the location of where the secret is told (and is constantly revealed). Still, men are depicted as gossips in Ovid’s version, and Alison may be representing that both men and women are interchangeable in their untrustworthiness. Even though Ovid’s version is altered so significantly, the original text reflects “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in many ways.
The knight’s characterization is comparable to Midas’s characterization in that both men of position enjoy the idea of having dominion over whatever he touches. The story of Midas “has traditionally been used as an allegory of a tyrannical ruler who, without proper system of government and advice, makes foolish decisions” (Connolly 1). This is much like the knight’s situation, for his raping a maiden is punished by law (represented by the death sentence put upon him by the king and queen) and advice (represented by the counsel from the old lady). There is a sense of self-entitlement in the knight’s actions, as simply seeing a young maiden makes him feel free to have his way with her. This was done “anon, magree hir heed, / By verray force he rafte hire maydenheed” (Chaucer 887-88). Evidently, the maid has no say in the matter, and the knight’s decision reigns over her struggle to maintain her coveted “mayhdenheed,” or virginity. The act is committed with “force” despite any of the maid’s attempts to stop it.

Just as the knight lusts for women and the freedom to do what he wishes, Midas lusts for gold and the same freedom. Since Midas supplied the god Bacchus with a feast, he is given the chance to gain a reward from Bacchus’s tutor. Thus, Midas not only asks but orders the tutor to have it so “That with my body whatsoe’er I touch, / Changes from the nature which it held of old, / May be converted into yellow gold” (Ovid 159-61). Midas’s greed and narcissism turn his reward into a curse, just as the knight’s “freedom” to rape a maid lays a curse of death on his head. Undoubtedly, the knight’s act of touching the maid changes her “nature which it held of old,” (Ovid 160) for her virginity can never be regained. Both men exhibit complete control over their surroundings in that whatever their hands touch is thought to be made into their own property.

Fittingly enough, Midas and the knight are punished for their narcissistic actions. Since Midas’s hands transform everything to gold, he begins to starve: “The rich poor fool, counfounded with surprise, / Starving in all his various plenty lies” (“The Tale of Midas” 213-14). The king’s greed has backfired, making it inevitable that he will die of starvation, but he will be surrounded by the gold that he coveted. He may be surrounded by riches, but these riches are only symbols of how his life will be consumed by greed (ironically, his ability to consume any food has been taken away). However, even after this curse is lifted, Midas does not change in his character. He is foolish enough to insult the god Apollo by claiming to be more musically talented, and the “venerable judge… / Fix’d on [Midas’s] noddle an unseemly pair” (258-93) of ears from an ass. Just as Midas is made into a fool and is tested beyond his self-inflicted death sentence, the knight is also given a sentence that lengthens his punishment.

The knight’s raping of the maid condemns him to death by law, as he learns that he is not so free to do as he wishes. It is by “cours of lawe” that such a man “sholde han lost his heed” (Chaucer 892), but Queen Guinevere sees it better fit that his sentence be to discover in a year “What thing is it that wommen most desyren” (905). This can be viewed as an additional misfortune to the knight, for his life is in the hands of a woman’s judgment, rather than in the hands of King Arthur. The knight is overwrought with displeasure, for he “may nat do al as him lyketh” (914) not only for a year but also under the constraints of law. Apollo and Guinevere are the sources of power and judgment that put the disrespectful king and knight in their places. Thus, the knight has been reduced to a traveler that must spend a year searching for what women desire, making him no less a fool (or an ass) than King Midas.

The humiliations of Midas and the knight do not end here, for after the secrets (Midas’s ears and what women want most) are revealed, then these characters reach an ultimate low. When the slave reveals Midas’s secret to the ground, it is echoed across the land by the wind, which just furthers his shame. As for the knight, when the old lady tells him that “Wommen desyren to have soveryntee / As wel over hir housbond as hir love,” (Chaucer 1039-39) this fulfills his debt and saves his life. However, the knight has promised to repay the old lady with whatever she desires, and it is indeed sovereignty: marriage. He has no choice but to marry the old woman, which makes him look like a fool of a knight for not marrying a woman of similar status and age. Confined to his promise, the knight is helpless to the powers exerted by the women around him, just as Midas is powerless to the wrath of the gods who curse him.

It is apparent that the tale of Midas has been changed, as Midas and the knight are both transformed (Midas physically and the knight mentally), but the old woman also undergoes a physical transformation. The knight listens intently to his wife’s testimony about why she is more valuable than he would believe. This long testimony is met with a great change in characterization from the knight in that when he is given the choice to either have a loyal old wife or an unfaithful young wife, he does not make this choice:

My lady and my love, and wife so dere,

I put me in yours wyse governance;

Cheseth youreself which may be most plesance

And most honour to yow and me also.

I do no fors the whether of the two;

For as yow lyketh, it suffiseth me. (Chaucer 1230-1235)

The knight is transformed from a man who disdains the inability to do as he wishes to a man who would find pleasure in his wife making a very important decision (and we are to assume, most other decisions in the marriage). He knows that sovereignty is exactly what women want, so he gives it to the wife that has earned his respect. Kittredge explains that “[s]overeignty over men is a woman’s ambition, and the knight of the Round Table, who found himself in a strange dilemma, submitted his judgment to his wife’s choice, with the happiest result” (541). The old woman becomes young and beautiful, but she is also wise beyond her years, which ensures that she would not betray him with other men. The knight’s desires no longer take precedence; he knows that his wife’s decisions will lead to his happiness because she has proven her wisdom. Such an act of submission had not been exemplified by Midas, whose narcissism only grows after every punishment. Thus, by recreating Midas in the character of the knight, Chaucer has transformed the tale into a commentary on female sovereignty.

It is apparent that Chaucer cites many sources in The Canterbury Tales, and this exemplifies his preoccupation with the power of written authority. Nevertheless, the Wife of Bath proves to be his most challenging character, for she not only cites many sources, but she interprets and manipulates them as she sees fit. Ovid’s tale of Midas was originally meant to represent the punishments that can follow from being a tyrannical and greedy ruler. Alison alters the moral of the story to represent the misogynist idea of women’s love for gossip. Still, it is almost as though Chaucer’s act of mentioning Ovid has gained enough authority for his female character to grab the audience’s attention. Male authority (which is written authority, essentially) is overturned repeatedly in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as stereotypes are manipulated simply to be disproved. It is as if written authority (in this case, citing and altering Ovid’s tale) is like the Midas touch that can transform any story into one that is equal to the worth of gold.

Works Cited

Annell, Carla. “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and John Fowles’s Quaker Maid: Tale-Telling and the Trial of Personal Experience and Written Authority.” Modern Language Review 102           (2007): 39-937. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2000.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue.” The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen        Tales and the General Prologue. Ed. V A. Kolve. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &   Company, 2005. 780-1264. Print.

Connolly, Annaliese. “”O unquenchable thirst of gold”: Lyly’s Midas and the English quest for Empire.” Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (2002): 1. Gale. Web. 13 Nov. 2000.

Kittredge, George Lyman. “The Marriage Group.” Kolve. 539-545.

Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the   Fourteenth Century. New York: Touchstone, 2008. 54-58. Print.

“The Tale of Midas.” harvard.edu. Ed. L D. Benson. N.p., 12 May. Web. 13 Nov. 2000.             <http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/wbt/ovid-mid.html&gt;.

This essay was composed by Gabby Muniz.

 

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