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.

 

Reading Sir Gawain in the Digital Age

The advent of e-books has prompted discussion about the experience of reading and its relationship to a material text. Opponents of digital books speak fondly of holding a book in hand, the ability to feel the weight of the object and physically see yourself progress through the text. There is a sense of something lost when this object changes form, when paper becomes plastic, when clicking replaces page-turning, when your sense of place in the text is measured by percentage rather than pages.

Illumination from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v

Of course, changes in the way in which we materially experience reading have been going on far longer than the recent shift to digital media. The book versions of older texts are in many ways even more distant from their original form than digital books are to their print ancestors.

While some these changes are  obvious to the readers—the illuminations, the particular handwriting, the spacing of the text on the page—editors of print editions also make choices that are less apparent. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides an interesting example of how much print can transform a medieval manuscript, as seen in the editors alterations of the bob and wheel form. In this form, the stanza ends with two short lines (the bob) followed by four rhyming lines (the wheel):

 

The editors follow this form exactly, but as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, the placement of the bob is not as regular in Gawain as modern editions would lead us to believe. Instead, the bob is written in the margin, often not directly before the wheel. Compare the following:

Modern Edition (eds. Andrew and Waldron)

Bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed,
Ne non euel on nawþer þay wysten
Bot blysse.
Þay laʒed and layked longe;
At þe last scho con hym kysse,
Hir leue fayre con scho fonge,
And went hir waye, iwysse. (1551-1557)

Manuscript

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1521-1558. Note the placement of the bob “bot blysse” two lines above the bob. British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 111v

As Kerby-Fulton argues, this fluid placement of the bob changes our understanding of certain passages, since it can often be attached to several lines and still be grammatically correct. Andrew and Waldron translate the modern version of lines 1552-3 as “nor were they aware of anything but pleasure.” In the original text, however, the placement of the bob would render the line “But he defended him so fair that no fault seemed but pleasure.”

The placement of the bob obviously has some impact upon our understanding of the poem. But what about that illusive “reading experience”? The modern editions fundamentally change this as well. Imagine, for a minute, that you are a medieval reader. When you read the bob, do you hear it exactly where it is placed? Do you hear it where the modern editor would move it to? Or do you hear it after multiple lines? Perhaps your eye floats out to it on several occasions, placing it in multiple positions and playing with its flexible meanings. Gawain, after all, is a poem of playful language and deceit, and the poet is noted for his use of puns in Pearl.

No modern edition has been printed that maintains the manuscript’s irregular placement of the bob. The solution, then, is to turn back to the manuscript: to printed facsimiles, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to digital scans of the original pages.

Jane Wageman
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of California Press, 1982.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Cornell University Press, 2007.

Gawain’s Lying Laughter

The plot of Gawain and the Green Knight centers around agreements. Gawain’s search for the green chapel begins in an attempt to fulfil his vow to exchange blows with the Green Knight.

The Green Knight leaves, holding his decapitated head; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v.

The journey leads into a second set of agreements—in the three days that he stays with Bertilak (the green knight in disguise), he and Bertilak agree to exchange whatever winnings they gain by day when they meet again at night. Although Gawain successfully exchanges winnings two out of the three nights, kissing Bertilak for each kiss Bertilak’s wife gave him, he keeps a girdle that Lady Bertilak claims protects the wearer from blows: Þer is no haþel vnder heuen tohewe hym þat myȝt (1853).

Gawain’s girdle isn’t the only powerful girdle in medieval literature. Here St. Cuthbert’s girdle cures Aelfflaed. Bede, Prose Life of Cuthbert, Durham, last quarter of the 12th century; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 48v.

Thomas D. Hill argues that Gawain’s failure to exchange the girdle is only a venial sin. He bases this argument on Augustine and Aquinas. St. Augustine says that jokes are not lies because the speaker’s disposition and tone are joking. Hill then proposes that tone and disposition must also apply to Thomas Aquinas’s much later concept of jocose lies, or lies that are told for pleasure, which Aquinas categorizes as venial sins.

Hill’s article points out that each exchange of gifts and vow to exchange them on the next day drips with the language of games, joking and laughter (283). Since the agreement to exchange winnings was made for entertainment under mirthful conditions, he suggests that Gawain’s decision to keep the girdle is a venial sin—St. Augustine argues that jokes are not lies. However, Augustine’s jokes use extralinguistic cues like tone of voice and demeanour to communicate the truth non-verbally.

Bertilak preparing to return Gawain’s blow; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x f. 125v.

This doesn’t happen with Gawain and the girdle. At the exchange where he keeps the girdle, he is mirthful. The text calls him “Sir Gawayn þe gode, þat glad watz with alle” (1925), speaks of his joye, ‘joy’, and emphasizes that he and Bertilak “maden as mery as any men moȝten” (1953). Despite this display of gladness, joy and mirth, Gawain’s disposition does nothing to communicate that he has the girdle. In fact, it conceals his oath-breaking—Gawain blends into the mirthful atmosphere that Bertilak has established at each of the previous exchanges of winnings.

Lines 1935-1971 of Gawain, in which Gawain and Bertilak exchange winnings for the last time; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero Axx f. 117r.

This is the opposite of St. Augustine’s jokes—Gawain’s non-verbal communication assists his deception of Bertilak.

Bertilak’s laughter, mirth, and games also conceal lies of omission. He withholds information that he can survive a beheading, that he is also the Green Knight, and that he’s asked his wife to tempt Gawain. Yet, he controls the atmosphere of each exchange. He challenges Gawain to a Crystmas gomen, a Christmas game, and appears in the midst of a feast (283). This decision also places the exchange of winnings in the Christmas season—he tells Gawain to come a year afterwards. While Bertilak portrays both oaths as entertainment, their apparent levity both masks and contrasts Bertilak’s darker intentions. Unlike Augustine’s jokes, the non-verbal communication and mirth of Gawain aids in deception rather than revealing the truth.

Rachel Hanks
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Univ of California Press, 1982.

Hill, Thomas D. “Gawain’s Jesting Lie: Towards an Interpretation of the Confessional Scene in Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studia Neophilologica 52, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 279–86. doi:10.1080/00393278008587778.

A medieval depiction of a feast; Speculum humanae salvationis, London, 1485-1509; British Library, Harley MS 2838, f.45r.