What the Wife of Bath Still Has to Teach Us

As a medievalist who is both interested and personally invested in the representation of women’s bodies, I am acutely aware of how our gendered ideology hearkens back to the Middle Ages. The ways in which the Canterbury Tales mirror contemporary discourse and practices around sexual violence are abundant, and though I know them well through my work with Chaucer, they remain alarming.

A sign outside a strip club near Denver, Colorado, an image that accompanied an article in The Guardian, dated December 3, 2017

Needless to say, I was hardly surprised when, in October of 2016, Sonja Drimmer and Damian Fleming described in a blog post to In the Middle the remarkable relevance of the Miller’s Tale, in which Nicholas corners an unsuspecting Alisoun and grabs her by her genitals[i]:

“And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And syde, ‘Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.’”[ii]

Used to describe Alisoun’s genitalia as “a clever or curious device or ornament,” the word “queynte” employs both of its Middle English definitions, as it is simultaneously a “punning” on a more modern derogatory term for the vaginal organs.[iii] That Alisoun “sproong as a colt dooth in the trave”[iv] to escape Nicholas’s hands on her vulva demonstrates that his fondling of her body is not only unexpected but also unwanted.[v] What Chaucer’s narrative describes is sexual assault.

A friar grabs a woman by her genitals in an image from a fourteenth-century manuscript, The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177. Specifically citing the man’s actions as lechery (“lecherie”), the French caption condemns his behavior and serves as a warning for young women, who would have been the text’s primary audience. The Wife of Bath begins her tale with an allusion to the prevalence of friars in woods like those where the maiden is raped by the knight.[vi] 
The Miller’s Tale is, of course, a fabliau, characterized by bawdy humor intended to make the audience laugh. The genre, however, should not negate the inappropriateness of Nicholas’s actions, and if it renders them humorous, it does so at women’s expense. If further evidence is needed for the genre’s proclivity for misogyny, one needs only to consider the Reeve’s Tale, which follows the Miller’s and appropriates rape as its punchline. While critics have traditionally navigated the fabliau genre with the argument that the “enthusiastically unchaste wives”[vii] escape ridicule at the narrative’s end, the portion of this approach that requires the casual dismissal of sexual assault merits reconsideration, especially because consent cannot be given retroactively. That being said, Alisoun does consent to a sexual relationship with Nicholas, but only after he has violated her. Sexual contact without consent is assault – period.

Our own cultural conversation around sexual assault hasn’t ebbed since last fall. On the contrary, its media current seems to be only gaining momentum. On Tuesday, December 6, Time magazine revealed their 2017 Person of the Year: “The Silence Breakers,” the many women, as well as some men, who have recently been compelled to share their experiences as victims of sexual harassment and assault. Primarily composed of women’s voices, the massive movement demands that the men perpetuating this violence be held accountable for their actions. Meanwhile, Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault early last year, served only three months of a grossly lenient, six-month sentence in a county jail and began the process of appealing his conviction the same week as Time’s cover release.[viii] According to the New York Times, approximately 60 pages of the 172-page appeal document emphasize the intoxication of Turner’s victim on the night he raped her.[ix] As far as Turner is concerned, the violence he committed is still not his fault, suggesting that accountability can only take us so far, and, frankly, it’s not nearly far enough.

Time cover announcing the “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year, released online December 6, 2017

Current events have inspired me to return to the Canterbury Tales, this time to the Wife of Bath. In what is an often cited conundrum of the Wife’s tale, the knight who rapes the maiden at the story’s outset is rewarded at its end, while his female victim vanishes from the narrative entirely. While some critics see the maiden’s disappearance as a problematic act of erasure, I’d like to consider what can be achieved through the Wife’s attention to the rapist, rather than his victim.

The first page of the Wife of Bath’s Tale from the Ellesmere Chaucer, a fifteenth-century manuscript housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, MSS EL 26 C 9, fol. 72 r

In a tale that focuses more on remedy than reaction, the Wife conveys how the knight should not merely be punished but, rather, reformed. To weight the punishment Arthur initially proposes against the repercussions for contemporary sexual aggressors is a telling measure, as Arthur would have the knight executed for his actions. Guinevere, however, intervenes and – after her husband agrees that she should sentence the knight “at hir wille” – challenges him instead to discover what women desire most.[x] The quest upon which the knight embarks does not lead him to an explicit answer for her question, and his failure in this endeavor is, in my opinion, precisely the point: he must learn that women have wills of their own and understand that women’s wills should not be subsumed by men’s.

At the tale’s conclusion, it is only when the knight recognizes his wife’s will as equal to his own, a reflection of his reformed character, that he is rewarded. Admittedly, when the wife tells him he may choose to have her “foul and old” but “a trewe, humble wyf,” or “yong and fair” but unfaithful, neither option is ideal.[xi] But having just concluded her speech on “gentillesse,”[xii] through which she conveys how nobility originates in one’s character and is defined through one’s actions,[xiii] it would appear that the knight accepts the meaning of her words:

“My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governance;
Cheseth youreself which may be moost pleasance
And moost honour to yow and me also.”[xiv]

Not only does the knight address his wife with kindness and respect, but he also conveys that he has internalized the lesson she has taught him by deferring to her “wise governance” and imploring her to decide what kind of woman she wishes to be. Through his deliberate suspension of his own will to accommodate his wife’s, the knight demonstrates how his character has been reformed from the narrative’s beginning when he exerts his will over his female victim’s in his sexual assault on her body. In effect, the Wife of Bath’s Tale advocates for social reformation of masculinity as a proactive solution to sexual violence, situating punishment alone as a reactive and, thus, less productive response.

As a medieval scholar, I am dedicated to the idea that there is much we can learn from our past. As a literary scholar, I believe that studying literature can facilitate much of that learning. As a woman and a feminist, I wonder what can be gained by redirecting our collective gaze onto the perpetrators of sexual violence. Perhaps the Wife of Bath, a survivor of gendered violence herself, has a lesson she can teach us – and if there’s anything that can be learned, we must listen.

Emily McLemore
University of Notre Dame

[i] Drimmer, Sonja and Damian Fleming. “Not Subtle; Not Quaint.” In the Middle, 9 Oct. 2016.

[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Miller’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Houghton, 1987, pp. 68-78, lines 3276-78.

[iii] Queynte] Middle English Dictionary, def. 1a, 2a.

[iv] Trave] an enclosure or a frame for restraining horses while they are being shod (Middle English Dictionary, def. b)

[v] Chaucer. The Miller’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, line 3282.

[vi] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 116-22, lines 865-81.

[vii] Benson, Larry D. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 8.

[viii] Stack, Liam. “Light Sentence for Brock Turner in Stanford Rape Case Draws Outrage.” New York Times, 6 Jun. 2016.

[ix] Salam, Maya. “Brock Turner is Appealing his Sexual Assault Conviction.” New York Times, 2 Dec. 2017.

[x] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, lines 894-97.

[xi] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, lines 1219-26.

[xii] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, line 1211.

[xiii] Gentillesse] nobility of birth or rank, or nobility of character or manners (Middle English Dictionary, def. 1a, 2a)

[xiv] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, lines 1230-33.

 

Chaucer and Boccaccio: Anxiety of Influence?

Trecento Italy saw the “three crowns” of literature—Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio—whose contribution to Italian and European literature was immense and lasting. The literary communication between Italy and England of that century is a fascinating topic for historians, literary scholars, and common readers. In this piece of writing, we shall take a quick look into Chaucer’s possible “indebtedness” to Boccaccio, arguably the writer who is most like Chaucer among the three crowns of Trecento Italian literature.

Among the three writers, Boccaccio was arguably the one to whom Chaucer had the most natural affinity. They might have even met personally when both were in Florence in 1378, but sadly no evidence was found to prove it. On Chaucer’s second visit to Italy, he brought back copies of Boccaccio’s two great Italian poems, the Filostrato and the Teseida, which provided source material and inspiration for Chaucer’s own writings. In the House of Fame, the poetic invocations (II. 518-22) echo Teseida and several lines from Anelida and Arcite (1-21) are quite literal translations from the same work. Twelve stanzas from Teseida are adapted in the Parliament of Fowls (211-94) and Teseida also notably provides the plot for “The Knight’s Tale.” In “The Knight’s Tale,” Arcite calls himself “Philostrate”, literally the one “vanquished by love,” echoing the title of the poem Filostrato by Boccaccio.

Although direct borrowings are hard to prove, there are similarities and parallels between Boccaccio’s Amorosa visione and Chaucer’s House of Fame, between Boccacio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. For modern readers, the latter comparison is very intriguing, not just because of the two works’ literary achievement and popularity, but also because their shared structure of “framed story” and possibly shared aim of depicting (and even healing) human society through the act of “group story-telling.” Notably, the famous Italian writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini has adapted these two works (Il Decameron 1971 and  I racconti di Canterbury 1972), along with the  A Thousand and One Nights ( Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte 1974) in his Trilogy of Life movie series, with the intention of presenting the scope of the human world and the depth of humanity on the screen. As for the literary indebtedness, “The Franklin’s Tale” is generally accepted as being inspired from the fifth story of Day Ten in the Decameron as well as by the passage on the question of love in Filocolo (IV. 31-4).

Despite the affinity, similarity, and inter-texuality, Chaucer never mentions Boccaccio by name in his works (as a contrast, Chaucer mentions both Petrarch and Dante several times), nor does he mention Boccaccio’s works explicitly, which leads to the usual suspicion that Chaucer is under “the anxiety of influence.” However, we should remember that medieval authors had a different understanding of concepts like “plagiarism,” “adaptation” or “influence.” While literary scholars and historians are still trying hard to find evidence, more efforts should be given to the parallel reading of the two works, the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales—not just because it is almost a blank field to be explored, but also because it is pure pleasure to read them side by side!

Doctors Have Always Gotten a Bad Rap

In their 2013 guide to help physicians curate their online personas, Kevin Pho, M.D., and Susan Gay tell the story of a doctor who, upon Googling herself, finds out that she shares her name with an optometrist accused of deliberately blinding patients. In the age of WebMD, Twitter, and online rankings, the challenges of managing both one’s reputation and the endless stream of misinformation permeating the web have generated new ways of talking about medicine and its practitioners. Skepticism of medical doctors, however, has been around since long before the profession was recognized as such.

The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

The standardization of technical medical training in universities was a late development in the Middle Ages, in part because many academics considered the activities of wise women and barber surgeons to fall below the study of Aristotelian natural philosophy, astrology, and religious council. Even after universities across Western Europe began teaching hands-on medical procedures, they struggled to obligate patients, including aristocratic and royal patients, to rely exclusively on those with degrees. Well into the fifteenth century, it was inconceivable to mandate that English medical professionals be university-trained. This was because, first, the institutions that gave out these credentials in England, Oxford and Cambridge, were far removed from the most populated areas like London. Second, these urban communities were far too vast to be served by the handful of medical graduates.

The works of two major fourteenth-century authors demonstrate that the skepticism and ridicule with which doctors are often treated to this day existed even as the occupation of the medical professional was still being defined. In his “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, for instance, Geoffrey Chaucer heavily satirizes his Physician, who knows little of the Bible, dresses extravagantly, and reaps financial rewards from the plague. A trained alchemist, he uses his claimed expertise in the scientific properties of gold to benefit from its economic value: “For gold in physic (medicine) is a cordial,/ Therefore he loved gold especially” (1.443-44). Like so many of Chaucer’s professional academics in the Canterbury Tales, the Physician abuses his qualifications in order to line his pockets.

William Langland’s B text of Piers Plowman anticipates the “General Prologue”’s criticism of the Physician. In the last passus, the personification Life seeks out a “phisik” to cure him of Old Age (B.20.169). The “Physician with a furred hood,” to whom Life gives gold “that gladdened his heart,” is similar to Chaucer’s Physician in that, in his greed, he takes advantage of Life’s illness. He plays a greater role in Langland’s allegorical theology when it becomes clear that his craft obscures the need for spiritual healing. The “glass helmet,” or placebo, that he offers Life is an ineffective diversion from the true purpose of Old Age: to direct Life toward virtue and cast out spiritual despair (B.20.172). Just as the Physician of the “General Prologue” has studied a long list of Greek, Arabic, and other medical sources, “but little of the Bible” (1.438), Langland’s “phisik” transgresses in that he displaces spiritual action with medical practice.

L0029312 Woman and doctor talking, Disease man
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Woman and doctor talking; text from accompanying treatise on scrolls – Woman and doctor hanging a nude woman upside down by her feet from a scaffold over a bucket for suffumigation – Disease man
Ink and Watercolour
1420? MS. 49
Wellcome Apocalypse
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Both Chaucer and Langland portray physicians who use the cachet of their expertise to exploit their patients. One of Langland’s earliest adaptors, however, demonstrates that not everyone took such a caustic view. The maker of Piers Plowman Z, takes care to specify that medical knowledge is valuable, and that at least some of its practitioners are worth consulting. In interpolated lines not present in any other version of Piers, Hunger says:

I defame not fysyk (medicine), for the science is true,
But incompetent scoundrels that cannot read a letter
Make themselves masters men for to heal.
But they are master murderers who slay men,
And no leches (doctors) but liars, Lord amend them!
In Ecclesiastes the clerk that can read
May see it there himself and then teach another:
‘Honor the doctor,’ he says, on account of the ‘need.’ (Z.7.260-267)

In this passage, the Z maker is more concerned with the intellectual hierarchy generated by medical knowledge than he is with “fysyk” itself. He criticizes those without what he deems sufficient education, he applies the logic that the misuse of medicine can be fatal in order to encourage the exclusion of the untrained, and he adds to this sense of hierarchy by immediately asserting that “the clerk that can read” should mediate the Bible for his less educated audience. This passage indicates that understanding not just of the medical material, but also of the ethical implications underpinning it, must be mediated by a professional. The Z maker’s frustration is akin to that of many of today’s physicians when their patients diagnose themselves using pharmaceutical commercials and online forums. In the case of Piers Plowman Z, this tension is amplified by the integral nature of bodily and spiritual healing in medieval culture.

Erica Machulak, Ph.D.
English Department
University of Notre Dame

References and Further Reading

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Benson, L.D. and Robinson, F.N. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987.

Chen, Pauline W. “Doctors and Their Online Reputation.” New York Times, March 21, 2013. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/doctors-and-their-online-reputation/.

Dumas, Geneviève, and Faith Wallis. “Theory and Practice in the Trial of Jean Domrémi, 1423–1427.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1999): 55–87.

Fuller, Karrie. “The Craft of the ‘Z-Maker’: Reading the Z Text’s Unique Lines in Context.” Yearbook of Langland Studies 27 (2013): 15–43.

Getz, Faye. Medicine in the English Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. “Confronting the Scribe-Poet Binary: The Z Text, Writing Office Redaction, and the Oxford Reading Circles.” In New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall, edited by Sarah Baechle, John J. Thompson, and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, 489–513. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: The B Version: Will’s Visions of Piers Plowman, Do-Well, Do-Better and Do-Best. Edited by George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson. London: Athlone Press, 1975.

McVaugh, Michael. Medicine before the Plague: Practitioners and Their Patients in the Crown of Aragon, 1285-1345. Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pho, Kevin, and Susan Gay. Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices. Phoenix, MD: Greenbranch Publishing, 2013.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Medicine & Society in Later Medieval England. Stroud, England: Alan Sutton Pub., 1995.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2013.

Rigg, A.G., and Brewer, Charlotte, eds. Piers Plowman: The Z Version. Studies and Texts 59. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983.