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.

The “Sinful” Soldiers of the Early Ottoman Military Structure: οι ἁμαρτωλόι

This short research blog focuses on the development of the word ἁμαρτάνω “to sin” from the advent of Christianity to the late Byzantine era. The word, ἁμαρτάνω, is widely used in the Bible as it appears forty-three times. To word’s primary meaning in the Bible was to “err and sin”; however, from time to time, it was also used to signify the action of offending. ἁμαρτάνω occurs in many different forms in the New Testament as we see it in aorist first-person singular active form Ἥμαρτον” eight times, second-person singular indicative middle six times, and second-person indicative active plural form three times.[1] I will trace the different nuances in the meaning of this word in the subsequent periods, especially in the late Byzantine period. My argument is that as several Greek and non-Greek sources indicate, the word ἁμαρτάνω began having a military connotation in this period as it was applied to the Christian military units who had cooperated with the enemy forces, especially the Turks.

Inscription, in The Collection of Ancient Greek Inscriptions in the British Museum

        In Homeric times, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious connotation. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament suggests that, initially, the word was used to convey the action of “missing” i.e failure to follow rules and signify a moral deficit or immoral physical undertaking. [2] However, in the later periods (c. 400 BCE), we begin seeing a shift from legal to religious use since ἁμαρτάνω made its way to the Book of Kings in the old testament, meaning “to rebel” against the god and his order in the earth.[3] From a theological standpoint, rebelling against the will of God means to err from the true path and therefore to sin. In this way, those who had intentionally deviated from moral or religious standards came to be defined as αμαρτωλός “the sinful one” in the later Christian religious texts.[4]

Early Christian symbols on an Egyptian textile, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

        ἁμαρτάνω is mostly used to signify the action of “sin” and neglecting the commands of God with an exception of “offending” in the New Testament.[5] In the Book of Romans, for instance, we see the following structure: “γὰρ ἀνόμως ἥμαρτον ἀνόμως καὶ” which means “Indeed without law I sinned without law also[…]”.[6] Here, ἁμαρτάνω was used in the aorist, active, and indicative form. In another example, this time from the Book of Corinthians, the word is used in such a construction: “οὕτως δὲ ἁμαρτάνοντες εἰς τοὺς” meaning “thus moreover sinning against those […]” in the participle, present, active form.[7] Besides the action of sinning, ἁμαρτάνω seems to be used in a different meaning, “to offend”, in the Book of Apostles although a minor disagreement exists between various interpreters. Regarding the following phase: “Καίσαρά τι ἥμαρτον[…]” while New American Standard Bible renders the word as “committing”, the King James version translate the term as “offending”. However, the new international version disagrees with these suggestions, interpreting the whole phrase as “Caesar [in] anything sinned […]”.[8]

Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. London: Osprey, 1983.

        Besides its use in legal and religious spheres, towards the late Byzantine period, we begin seeing the word, ἁμαρτάνω, or its variants in Greek and Turkish texts in the military context. With the Turkish advance towards western Asia Minor and the Balkans in the later 13th and early 14th centuries, the local Greek-speaking people began adjusting to the newly established political reality in their respective territories by means of cooperating with their new rulers. A significant portion of the Greek population in these regions had converted to Islam, while others participated in the Ottoman military system as auxiliary units. As the later Byzantine writer Pachymeres states in his Ιστορία, the Greeks from Anatolia, “ἐπιμιξάντων καὶ Ῥωμαíων ἐξ ἀνατολῆς”, had occasionally joined the Turkish forces to raid the Byzantine territories in the hopes of acquiring material gain.[9] Besides Pachymeres, Doukas also refers to these Greek collaborators in his historical work, calling them “μιξοβαρβαροι” meaning half-Greek and half-Turks.[10] Although these authors shunned using the word, ἁμαρτωλός, several Turkish authors borrow this term from their Greek correspondents. An early Ottoman called Aşıkpaşazade reports that the founder of the Ottoman principality, Osman Gazi, had a “martolos” ( مارتلوس) by the name of Artun who acted as a spy in the Byzantine territories for the Ottomans.[11] After the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, as the land surveys indicate, the Ottomans had given landed estates to several Christian military units who were also called “martolos”.[12]

Greek Armatolos by Carl Haag (1820–1915).

         Lastly, after the mid-fourteenth century, the Ottomans also formed provincial forces in mainland Greece named “armatolos” which had a clear phonetic resemblance with the word “amartolos”. Although several scholars argued that this term had derived from a medieval loan word from Latin arma “weapon” via Greek αρματολός it is also within the boundaries of possibility that the development of that word might have originated from αμαρτωλός since the use of the latter preceded the former. During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), these αρματολός units had actively participated in military encounters against the Ottoman forces as we are able to trace their role in Greek folk songs: “συλλογιστείτε το καλά, /ότι (: γιατί) σας καίμε τα χωριά· / γρήγορα τ’ αρματολίκι,/ οτ’ ερχόμαστε σαν λύκοι” “Think well, / that [why] we burn your villages; / quickly the armatoliki, / that we come like wolves”.[13]

        In sum, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious implications during Homeric times as it was used to convey the idea of “missing” (i.e. “missing the mark”). However, in the later periods, it started appearing in the Bible as the word began to signify the act of transgression against the word of God. In the late Byzantine period, however, a derivation of this word,  ἁμαρτωλός, was used for Christians who cooperated with the enemy forces since it was thought that they rebelled against God by aligning themselves with the non-Christian adversaries. 


[1] Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Search for word: ἁμαρτάνω.

[2]Danker, Frederick W. et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Exeter: Eerdmans, 1974) 44.

[3] Ibid. 43.

[4] Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed. James Morwood and John Taylor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

[5] Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Exeter: William Eerdmen Publishing, 1985. 49.

[6] www.biblegateway.com, Romans 2:12-16.

[7] www.biblegateway.com, Corinthians 8-12.

[8] www.biblegateway.com, Acts 25:8.

[9] George Pachymeres, Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, 5 vols (Paris, 1984–2000) 4:643.18.

[10] Doukas, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks by Doukas, ed. Harry Magouilas. Detroit, 1975. 33.

[11] Aşıkpaşazade, Osmanoğulları’nın Tarihi ed. Kemal Yavuz and Yekta Saraç. İstanbul: MAS Matbaacılık, 2003. 324.

[12] Suret-i Defter-i Sancak-ı Tirhala, ed. Melek Delilbasi and Muzaffer Arikan, (Ankara: TTK, 2001) 296-334.

[13] Demetrius Petropoulos, ελληνικα δημοτικα τραγουδια Vol1 (Greek Popular Songs), (Athens: Βασικη βιβλιοθηκη, 1958): 3-65.

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.