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Document Type

Article

Peer Reviewed

1

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Abstract

Although Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is among English literature’s most analyzed characters, scholars have been remarkably uninterested in one of her most unique traits: her deaf ear. Despite the fact that this disability is mentioned more often than any of her other physical characteristics, more even than the regularly discussed gap in her teeth, scholars have rarely spent more than a paragraph addressing the deafness, if they do so at all. This is no doubt due in part to the fact that scholars have assumed a symbolic link between the Wife’s inability to hear and her problematic scriptural exegesis, and they have been far more interested in the latter. As a result, the meaning of the deaf ear has been regularly shoehorned into interpretations of the Wife of Bath’s character that have been established and defended by other means.

The present article attempts to attend to the deaf ear on its own terms. Rather than assuming that the Wife is tragic, comic, or heroic and then fitting the deafness into this reading, my goal is to unpack what the deaf ear might tell us in its own right about the Wife or her contribution to The Canterbury Tales. When the deafness is allowed to step into the spotlight, I believe it shifts focus from the character of the Wife herself to the misogyny of the medieval clerical culture, typified by St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, that deafened her to scripture both spiritually (by allowing her access to it only through the mediation of misogynistic clergy) and physically (for it is her ex-clerical husband who deafens her with a clerical book as he is trying to educate her by means that are indicative of medieval clerical pedagogy). In other words, the deaf ear speaks to the often debated characterization of the Wife by suggesting that anything we find distasteful or upsetting about her is the fault of her misogynistic clerical teachers.

Keywords

Wife of Bath, St. Jerome, Deaf, Ear, Misogyny, Exegesis, Clerical

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