Teaching Consent: More Lessons from the Wife of Bath

On this day three years ago, my first contribution to the Medieval Studies Research Blog, in which I connected the Wife of Bath’s Tale with contemporary rape culture, was published. In December 2017, the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, and the survivors of sexual violence were thrust into the media spotlight. But while the public eye was focused on the victims who came forward in record numbers, Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student who was caught raping an unconscious 22-year-old woman in 2015, was attempting to have his multiple felony sexual assault convictions overturned. With “The Silence Breakers” taking center stage, we barely noticed when Turner was trying to sneak out the back door.  

Mugshot of Brock Turner, taken by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office when he was arrested in January 2015. Turner was found guilty of three felony assault charges. Despite prosecutors’ recommendation that he be sentenced to six years in prison, Turner was sentenced to only six months in a county jail and then released after three.

Witnessing how our collective gaze fixated on victims, I felt that the Wife of Bath’s Tale had something valuable to teach us about shifting our attention to the perpetrators of sexual violence and social reformation. I still do. So today, I return to the tale to consider how we can actively create a culture of consent. Rather than concentrating on violence, I want to highlight how the tale emphasizes education as a critical component of cultural reformation. After all, it is through education that the rapist knight is reformed in the tale.

As a refresher for those who have not recently read the Wife of Bath’s Tale or who may not be familiar with the Middle English poem from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the narrative begins with the protagonist knight’s rape of a maiden whom he meets in the woods. Called to the court of Camelot for his crimes, the knight escapes King Arthur’s condemnation to death only because the queen suggests an alternative: the knight will return to the court in a year and one day to provide an answer to the question, “What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren”?[i]

Table of Contents for the Canterbury Tales included in the Ellesmere Chaucer, a fifteenth-century manuscript housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, MSS EL 26 C 9, fol. 72 r. The entry for the Wife of Bath’s Tale, listed in the sixth row descending, contains the description “Of what thyng [þat] women louen best” – or in modern English, “About the thing that women love most.”  

The task that the queen requires of the knight, in turn, requires that he receive an education – one through which he acquires information but also learns effective communication. In contrast to the knight’s singular concern with what he wants and the brutal assertion of his will over a young woman’s body, the endeavor upon which the knight embarks depends upon asking women what they want and listening to what they have to say. Over the course of the tale, the knight’s quest forces him to see that the answer to such a question is subjective. He discovers that women desire different things and, effectively, that women have wills of their own. His journey leads him to the only acceptable answer: above all things, women desire sovereignty. Returning to Arthur’s court, the knight acknowledges that women want autonomy. But his answer alone – the act of speaking the words aloud – does not suffice. Only after the knight puts his new knowledge into practice, specifically in a sexual context that compels communication with and respect for the woman in his bed, does he appear fully exonerated in the tale. In the end, the knight preserves his life and gains a wife with whom he lives happily ever after.

At this point, the fact that Chaucer may have committed rape himself deserves disclosure, since I’m striving to convey how a narrative penned by his hand that rewards a rapist can teach us about consent. But the Wife’s tale is fiction and the wife herself a fictional character; neither entity represents Chaucer the person nor reflects on his charges of raptus in 1380. It is paramount to understand that my interpretation of the tale and its teachings derive directly from the Wife’s wisdom as represented in her prologue and her tale. We should recall that the Wife is a survivor of sexual assault, and as I suggested three years back, if she has something valuable to teach us about combatting sexual violence, we must listen. According to Alisoun of Bath, education is the key to consent.

One of only two surviving medieval illuminations of the Wife of Bath, which appears in the Ellesmere Chaucer. The other appears in a fifteenth-century manuscript housed at the Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27.

Without sexual education, we replicate the conditions in which rape culture thrives. Socially, we continue to idolize hegemonic masculinity, a paradigm that rewards attributes like virility, aggression, and dominance and, by extension, conflates sex with conquest, a combination that inherently undermines consent. At the same time, we generally shy away from conversations about what women want because sexuality, especially when it pertains to women’s pleasure, remains so stigmatized. The sexual education young people currently receive in the U.S. is inconsistent across the country and largely deficient in its emphases and omissions. On the one hand, public school curriculums traditionally highlight the dangers of sexual activity, attempting to frighten adolescents with pictures of disease and stories of unintended pregnancy. On the other hand, conservative states and institutions tend to employ an abstinence-only strategy, via which they articulate a particular set of values related to sexual behavior but do not necessarily provide information about sex. By instilling young people with fear and denying them information, these approaches to sexual education are antithetical to sexual health. Moreover, the absence of sexual education models silence where sexual activity is concerned. Consent, however, depends upon successful communication.

Comprehensive sexual education provides young people information about human bodies and sexual behavior that is pertinent to their everyday lives. It is crucial not only for their personal health but also for the health of others, particularly their romantic partners both present and future. Healthy relationships cannot happen without communication, and without engaging in intentional conversations about sex, students are prevented from practicing a skill essential to personal and communal sexual well-being.

Due to the deficits and overall incongruity of sexual education across the country, many young people enter their college campuses and their adult lives without the tools that enable them to make informed decisions and communicate effectively in sexual situations. During their first year of college, students should have access to a course on human sexuality that provides a comprehensive introduction previously unavailable to them and appropriate for them as adults. But not all colleges include sexuality studies in their course offerings. My own institution, for example, does not currently offer a course on human sexuality for its undergraduate population. Yet if students are not equipped with the information and skills necessary for fostering sexual health, it impairs our ability to develop a community in which consent becomes accepted as doctrine.

The Center for Disease Control identifies education as an essential tool for preventing sexual violence

Comprehensive sexual education provides young people the information integral to navigating an omnipresent part of human experience, an aspect that affects us individually, as well as interpersonally. Conducting conversations about sex in an educational environment also establishes a visible and tangible connection between open communication and healthy sexuality. Communication, of course, cannot be separated from consent.

I want to be very clear: comprehensive sexual education need not eschew faith-based values, just as science need not exist apart from religion. Students can be taught the science surrounding sex alongside lessons about spiritual life. As Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world in which both can flourish.”

We all deserve to flourish. By foregrounding education, the Wife of Bath’s Tale begins to show us how.

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


[i] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Houghton, 1987, pp. 116-22, line 905.

Elisabeth Achler, Patron Saint of Crazy Cat Ladies

Vernacular religious literature from fifteenth-century Germany is not known for being eloquent, creative, or interesting. When I proposed a dissertation topic that heavily involved the era’s didactic literature, one of the members of my committee responded, “Are you sure you want to do that?”

Yet fifteenth-century Germans produced more vernacular literature than any other time or place in the Middle Ages, and scholars estimate seventy to eighty percent of it was religious. [1] These books, however lacking in literary splendor, were wildly popular both to read and to write; they survive from clerical and lay libraries alike.

            The context adds one more layer to the interesting (really!) German hagiography of Elisabeth Achler von Reute (1386-1420), written by her confessor Konrad Kügelin. Kügelin wins no prizes for his prosecraft, to be sure. He makes up for it with his ebulent enthusiasm for Achler’s sanctity and his obvious concern for her as a person. But most of all, he makes up for it through the often colorful stories he spins out of what was apparently a quiet and peaceful cloistered life.

Painting of Elisabeth Achler in the monastery at Ruete. Paulin Link, “The Good Beth,” Ostfildern, 1992.

            Achler was a sister in a convent founded by Augustinian friar Kügelin and loosely affiliated with the Franciscan Order. As her Leben shows, she spent most of her adult life struggling to fit the mold of a late medieval holy woman. Above all, that mantle meant self starvation. Achler was either a star or a fraud—depending on whether you asked Kügelin or asked his portrayal of the convent’s other sisters.

            Kügelin insists upon their suspicion (argwon) of Achler’s supposed miraculous inedia again and again through the Leben. He’s not reticent about the reason for the emphasis: it demonstrates Achler’s Christ-like forebearance in the face of persecution. Here, I’m going to look at two episodes depicting the sisters’ suspicion.

            The first one is actually pretty cute, or at least, it would be cute if it weren’t so sad. One day, the sister assigned to the kitchen sets up to cook several pieces of meat. But when it’s time to eat, there are only two pieces left. When one sister wonders aloud where the meat went, the cook answers, “Oh, where all the other things must go—our cat with two legs must have taken it.” [2]

Cats, Aberdeen BestiaryEngland ca1200 Aberdeen University LibraryMS 24fol23v.

            The “cat with two legs” story is short and almost sweet, even if Kügelin was attempting to portray the sisters’ suspicion instead of their support for Achler’s efforts at sanctity. A second anecdote could likewise be spun as suspicion or concern. Realizing that Achler hasn’t been eating, one sister goes off to the town of Reute to buy “little fishes” that hopefully she will like. Achler dutifully eats them—demonstrating her adherence to monastic obedience, of course. But she almost immediately throws them back up, not even slightly digested. [3]

            In both cases, Kügelin’s presentation of events can be read as suspicious sisters setting a deliberate trap with simmering meat on the stove or specially-purchased fish, or as concerned sisters desperately trying to get Achler to eat something. Rather than unravel that mystery, I’m going to take a more basic approach: Kügelin’s presentation of events can be read in the first place.

Eustachius Gabriel: Elisabeth on her death bed, accompanied by sisters and Konrad Kügelin, fresco, 1764, restored in 1875, in the Church in Reute.

            Kügelin wrote numerous drafts of Achler’s Leben, which survive in multiple manuscripts. Their relationship was examined by Karl Bihlmeyer in 1932, who showed that the cat with two legs story and the little fishes episode are both new to one of the revisions. In the oldest version, the two anecdotes have only a faint presence. Regarding the first, Kügelin notes that some beans and lentils went missing from the kitchen. That’s the beginning and end of the “action” in a long paragraph emphasizing suspicion. No simmering meat, no cute comments. In the little fishes story, similarly, there are no trips to town and no little fishes. Achler eats something one day and promptly throws it up. [4]

            Thus, Kügelin added or embellished stories from the likely first to the likely second drafts of Achler’s Leben.

            As a modern reader, I appreciate this development. As a scholar who told her concerned committee member, “Yes, I’m sure,” I also appreciate that Kügelin went against contemporary trends when he increased the entertainment value of the hagiography. He did the equivalent of writing out his sermons with great exempla already woven in.

            Unfortunately and unfairly, I have to leave you—and more to the point, me—without a snappy conclusion regarding why Kügelin believed these later additions would strengthen the case for Achler’s sainthood. But look on the bright side. Two different versions of Achler’s hagiography have been in print since 1881 and 1932. What better time to start comparing them than 2020?

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] See, for example, Karl Ruh, “Geistliche Prosa,” in Europäisches Spätmittelalter, ed. Willi Ergräber, Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft 8 (Akademie Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1980), 565; Werner Williams-Krapp, “The Erosion of a Monopoly: German Religious LIterature in the Fifteenth Century,” in The Vernacular Spirit: Essays on Medieval Religious Litearture, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Duncan Robertson, and Nancy Bradley Warren (Palgrave, 2002), 239.

[2] Anton Birlinger, ed., “Leben heiliger alemannischer Frauen I: Elisabeta Bona von Reute,” Zeitschrift für Sprache, Litteratur, und Volkskunde des Elsasses, Oberrheins und Schwabens 9 (1881): 280.

[3] Birlinger, 281.

[4] Karl Bihlmeyer, ed., “Die Schwäbishe Mystikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute (d. 1420) und die Überlieferung dihrer Vita,” in Festgabe Philipp Strauch zum 80. Geburtstage am 23. September 1932, ed. Georg Baesecke and Ferdinand Joseph Schneider (Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1932), 101-102.

Medieval Sexuality, Medical Misogyny, and the Makings of the Modern Witch

With Witch ranked the most popular costume nationwide, Frightgeist reports, “There’s a frighteningly high chance you will see a Witch costume on Halloween this year” – and these costumes will likely share some similarities. Asked to describe the physical features of a witch, we tend to list tropic characteristics like those returned through a Google search: she is old and ugly with a hooked nose and green or otherwise sallow skin. First and foremost, however, the witch is a woman.    

The iconic Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

The last known execution for witchcraft was recorded in 1782, at which time some 110,000 people had been tried and up to 60,000 had been executed – most of them women.[1] Not quite as well-known as the witch trials themselves, the Malleus maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, served not only as an extensive manual for the identification of witches but also advocated for their extermination.

But even before the publication of the Malleus in 1487, there was De secretis mulierum, or On the Secrets of Women, an immensely popular treatise composed in the late-thirteenth or early-fourteenth century that still survives in more than 80 manuscripts. Drawing from medieval medical philosophy, the Secrets branded women as evil based on their biological composition and helped lay the foundation for the figure of the witch, which resulted in the deaths of so many women.  

Specifically, the ideas about sexuality solidified through the intersections of medicine and religion situated women not merely as inferior to men but as polluted both physiologically and psychologically, via which they were eventually posited as predisposed to evil. The anatomical traits that distinguished women and men situated the sexes as binary opposites: they were a heterogenous, hierarchical pair. In conjunction with humoral theory, female softness and weakness were attributed to the body’s cool composition, while male strength and hardness were generated by their hot and dry climates.

Diagram illustrating the relationship of the four humors, depicted as radiating diagonally from the center, to the temperaments, planets, and seasons (c. 1450-1475), The Morgan Library & Museum MS B.27.

Menstrual blood and semen, according to medieval physicians, were the defining essences of woman and man and were starkly contrasted in terms of their character. Menstrual blood was seen as an excess and, therefore, as physical evidence of the defectiveness of the female body because “it marked the inability of the body to become warm enough to refine blood.”[2] The blood itself was considered toxic because it was comprised of “unrefined impurities.”[3]

Schematic diagram of a uterus, one of the earliest surviving anatomical drawings from Western Europe (c. 1250-1310), Bodleian MS Ashmole 399, f. 13v.

Although semen was thought to be a form of blood, it was blood that had been transformed into a precious substance within the testicles after traveling down the spinal cord from the brain.[4] Through its direct connection with the brain, male sexuality was associated with cognitive activity and rational, measured behavior. Women’s sexuality was posited as opposite: their bodies were considered passive, but women themselves were considered “profoundly sexual.”[5] The womb was central to the understanding of female anatomy and determined women’s passivity in contrast to men’s activity, as well as her association with the physical body. Moreover, women were characterized as open in relation to their genitalia, which subsequently indicated their openness to sexual activity and informed the idea that women were inherently lustful.[6]

In an image accompanying the first of the seduction scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1400), the Lady stands over Gawain while he lies asleep, apparently naked, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x., f. 125/129r.

Attitudes toward women’s sexuality were also influenced by Christian beliefs, which associated sex with original sin. As the descendants of Eve, women were deeply connected with desire and consistently constructed as temptresses. In effect, they disproportionately bore responsibility where temptations of the flesh were concerned. Church fathers considered men “strong, rational, and spiritual by nature,” while women were “not only soft, but carnal,” in short, they “embodied sexuality” and continuously reproduced Eve’s initial temptation of Adam.[7]

Illuminated image of The Fall of Man, depicting Adam and Eve holding fruit from the Tree of Knowledge to their mouths and a female-headed serpent entwined around the trunk between them, Ramsey Psalter leaves (c. 1300-1310), The Morgan Library & Museum MS M.302, f. 1r.

Drawing upon both biology and theology, medieval medicine synthesized the phallocentric understandings of women’s bodies and their perceived proclivity for sex and sin. While intercourse was believed to negatively alter men’s bodily composition, it was considered necessary for women, who were more likely to suffer from a lack of sexual activity. Menstrual blood was considered superfluous and conflated with pollution: its retention harmed the woman whose body failed to purge its humoral excess, and its expulsion threatened to poison others, causing illness and even death. Because their bodies were viewed as toxic, women were considered largely responsible for the transmission of diseases, especially those associated with sexual activity.

Marginal image of a leprous beggar ringing a bell from The Evesham Pontifical (c. 1400), British Library MS Lansdowne 451, f. 127r.

The Secrets then transmuted medical philosophy into overt misogyny and deemed women dangerous explicitly in relation to their sexuality. A particularly poignant passage describes the process by which women, essentially, drained and absorbed men’s life force through sex:

“The more women have sexual intercourse, the stronger they become, because they are made hot from the motion that the man makes during coitus. Further, male sperm is hot because it is of the same nature as air and when it is received by the woman it warms her entire body, so women are strengthened by this heat.”[8]

Describing menstruation as a time during which “many evils” arise, the Secrets cautions against intercourse, warning men that women are prone and prepared to deliberately cause them harm: “For when men have intercourse with these women it sometimes happens that they suffer a large wound and a serious infection of the penis because of iron that has been placed in the vagina.”[9] According to a commentary that often circulated with the manuscript, the man may not even notice that he has been wounded by the iron vindictively concealed within the vagina “because of the exceeding pleasure and sweetness of the vulva,”[10] an ominous addendum that vividly draws together desire, danger, and disease at the site of the female body.

Desire and danger similarly coalesce in Sarah Stephens’ role in The VVitch (2015). Set in Puritan New England in 1630, the film portrays the destruction of a pious family whose fear of witchcraft spreads among them like a disease.

Even body parts not in direct contact with menstrual blood could become infected during menstruation. The Secrets describes the process by which a serpent is generated following the planting of hairs from a menstruating woman,[11] a proposition that viscerally evokes women’s connection with Eve and, more pointedly, with the devil. 

A witch attempts to entice the young protagonist with a snake she removes from her handbag in The Witches (1990), based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Moments later, she places its body around her neck and then begins whispering to the creature. The 2020 remake emphasizes the connection between witches and snakes at several points in its revised plot, including the snake-like resemblance of the witches themselves.

Older women were considered especially dangerous when their periods became intermittent, even more so following menopause when they failed to discharge superfluous fluid from their bodies and became increasingly noxious as a result. A passage from the Secrets explains as follows:

“If old women who still have their periods, and certain others who do not have them regularly, look at children lying in the cradle, they transmit to them venom through their glance … One may wonder why old women, who no longer have periods, infect children in this way. It is because the retention of the menses engenders many evil humours, and these women, being old, have almost no natural heat left to consume and control this matter, especially poor women, who live off nothing but coarse meat, which greatly contributes to this phenomenon. These women are more venomous than the others.”[12]

As the passage indicates, women who ceased to menstruate and subsisted on meager means were additionally threatening, a claim that further ostracized those already existing at outer margins of class society.

Located deep in the woods but eschewing its candy coating for far scarier fare, the witch’s house in Gretel and Hansel (2020) distances her from society, a feature that pervades both folkloric and popular culture representations of the witch.  

The innate malice of women’s bodies, illustrated so poignantly in the Secrets, was a disparaging ideological assemblage disseminated throughout the late Middle Ages, which became ingrained and interpreted in a way that unequivocally connected women’s sexuality with evil. The treatise emphasizes the wickedness of women’s physiological composition and psychological character and elevates their social stigma to its medieval pinnacle, perfectly epitomized in the text’s avowal that “woman has a greater desire for coitus than a man, for something foul is drawn to the good.”[13] And of course, men were not the only ones at risk; the innocent victims often included children.

The Sanderson sisters, from Disney’s ‘Hocus Pocus’ (1993), who despite their humorous depiction draw their strength by sapping the life from children.

It is these misogynistic ideas about women’s sexuality that seeded their demonization in the years that followed, as the Secrets served as a direct source for the Malleus maleficarum. Indeed, the most famous statement from the Malleus explicitly connects witchery with ideas about women’s sexuality rooted in the medieval period: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”[14]

Women giving wax dolls to the devil, The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720, Wellcome Collection, London, U.K.

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] Britannica.com, “Salem witch trials,” 25 Oct. 2020.

[2] Joyce Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1996): 81-102, at 89.

[3] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 89.

[4] Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, translated by Matthew Adamson, Cambridge: Polity Press (1988), at 13.

[5] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 84.

[6] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 87.

[7] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 86.

[8] Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, Albany: State University of New York Press (1992), at 127.

[9] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 88.

[10] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 88.

[11] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 96.

[12] Les Admirables secrets de magie du Grand Albert et du petit Albert, MS Paris, Bibliothéque nationale, Latin 7148, fol. 2 r. 9 v., translated by Jacquart and Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, at 75.

[13] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 51.

[14] Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus maleficarum, translated by Montague Summers, New York: Dover (1971), at 47.