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!

Pythoness – No, not a big female snake

On some first Sunday of Lent in the early fifteenth century, Robert Rypon, the subprior of Durham Cathedral Priory, took the opportunity of a sermon dedicated to the First Commandment to speak about magic – more specifically, to roundly condemn it as a type of idolatry and blasphemy. It is a remarkable sermon that has caught the attention of a few scholars before for its thorough discussion of magic: more than half of the sermon is dedicated to describing sorcery (sortilegium), a sin which Rypon, displaying the same academic and punctilious mode of thought evidenced in his other surviving sermons, breaks down into no less than ten different types or “species.” [1]

Among the types of magic he enumerates is fortune-telling or divination, a sorcery the devil can work through himself or “through living men” (presumably in contradistinction to omens conveyed through spirits or ghosts). Rypon claims with a tone of authority that these diviners or soothsayers are properly called “phitonissae” or “phitones,” [2] in modern English “pythonesses.” The word stands out on the manuscript page for its peculiarity, and raises the question of where the Durham monk learned it. Its story provides a micro case study of the reception and appropriation of the classical tradition by medieval writers.

Rypon’s immediate source seems to be the seventh-century Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, which provides much of the grist and theoretical framework for the rest of his tirade against sorcery. Isidore rightly notes that the term (pythonissae – the spelling is corrupted by Rypon’s time) was originally applied to the female priestesses or oracles of Pythian Apollo at Delphi, [3] a cultic site that owed its original name, Pytho, to the legend that Apollo slew a great python there. By late antiquity, however, the title was already being used for diviners in general, often ones who owed their powers to some unidentified spirit that possessed them. In his Vulgate translation, Jerome described the Witch of Endor as “mulier habens pythonem in Aendor” (a woman in Endor having a divining spirit; 1 Sam. 28:7) and a pythoness (pythonissam; 1 Chron. 10:13). Indeed, Jerome uses the word multiple times throughout the Vulgate (e.g., Lev. 20:27; Deut. 18:11; Isa. 8:19; Acts 16:16) to describe diviners and soothsayers, female and male, and no doubt this was another avenue through which Rypon learned it.

The historiated initial for the entry “divinacionum” shows a soothsayer foretelling the future with the aid of demons. From the Omne Bonum, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia compiled in London. London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, fol. 535v.

Rypon’s original definition of phitonissae makes no mention of ancient Greek oracles, but does closely align with the pythonesses of Jerome and Isidore – people who, by virtue of their possession by spirits or some other (diabolical) magic, can tell the future. However, Rypon then expands the definition of the word, moving well beyond the late antique tradition into the realm of medieval European folklore. Rypon describes (claiming it is well-known) how pythonesses also place threads, ropes, or bridles into the mouths of sleeping people; their victims then believe they have been transformed into horses, and the pythonesses ride them. The same pythonesses are said to be able to travel to Bordeaux in one night (riding the people-horses? it is unclear), and return to England drunk on wine.

In Rypon’s description we hear echoes of common medieval stories, tales of night-riding or night-flying women and nocturnal bacchanals. Phitonissa has come much closer to a general synonym for “witch,” subsuming magical practitioners and activities that would have been unrecognizable to Jerome and Isidore (at least in the context of a pythoness), certainly to an ancient Greek writer. This broader definition was not invented by Rypon. Chaucer, writing a few years earlier, spoke in The House of Fame of “Phitonesses, charmeresses, / Olde wicches, sorceresses”– none of whom tell the future, but rather use magic to create illusions or make people sick (ll. 1259-1270). Despite knowing the word’s original meaning from Isidore, Rypon embraced the expanded definition then current in medieval England without comment, adding detailed and specific local gossip or folklore to an already elastic word.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, by about the seventeenth century, “pythoness” and “pythonissa” had begun to be reclaimed for classical antiquity. Writers like Byron could speak of a pythoness and actually mean an oracle of Apollo, not a witch. It became an alternative title to the more common “Pythia.” But not before taking on a variety of new meanings in the Middle Ages. The word’s journey from ancient Greece to medieval England is a salutary reminder about the place of the classical tradition in medieval learning and culture – something to be learned and revered, to be sure, but also something to be recycled, refashioned, and reused.

Sam Rostad
University of Notre Dame

[1] London, British Library, MS Harley 4984, fols. 33r-34v. For some of the scholarship on it see G. R. Owst, “Sortilegium in the English Homiletic Literature of the Fourteenth Century,” in Studies Presented to Sir Hilary Jenkinson, ed, J. Conway Davies (London: Oxford University Press, 1957) and Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).

[2] It is not entirely clear whether Rypon here is making a masculine form of a normally female Latin word, the –es being the masculine plural ending, or if he is giving the Middle English term in the singular, i.e. “phitones[s].” But given Jerome’s use of a masculine form (“pythones”; Isa. 19:3), I lean toward the former.

[3] Stephen A. Barney, et al., trans., The “Etymologies” of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), 182.