“Of hiest God, Asneth, blessed thu be”: Female Readers and The Storie of Asneth

Many readers may not be familiar with the figure of Asenath, though she made her debut for modern audiences in DreamWorks Animation’s film Joseph: King of Dreams (released in 2000 as the prequel to The Prince of Egypt (1998)).

Image Source: DreamWorks Animation Wiki

She is mentioned just three times in the Book of Genesis as the “daughter of Potiphera, priest of On” whom Pharaoh gave to Joseph as a wife (41:45). Before the seven years of famine came to Egypt, as predicted by Joseph, she bore two sons (41:50) who are named Manasseh and Ephraim (46:20). Asenath is thus remembered as occupying an important place in the genealogy of Israel.

Jacob’s Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:8-20). Pictured also are Asenath and Joseph. Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, MS Theol. gr. 31, f. 23r (6th Century A.D.)

Despite scant mention of her in the biblical text, however, she had quite a life outside of it. Judaic commentators were driven to explain how Jacob’s lineage could rightfully be passed through a non-Hebrew woman, and the first attempt made was among the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt, probably in Alexandria, around the time of Trajan’s rule (98-117 A.D.) (Burchard 104). Written in Greek, some scholars have placed the text among the Pseudepigrapha (though the work does not purport to have been written by anyone in particular); while others view it as an example of Midrashic tradition (Dwyer 118); and still others consider it to be a Hellenistic romance (Pervo 175; Heiserman 184-186). From the multi-cultural hub of Alexandria, the text passed through Christian hands into a myriad of Near-Eastern and European languages (Peck 2). It was quickly subsumed into Byzantine hagiography (Dwyer 118). And in the twelfth century, it was translated twice into Latin, once possibly at Canterbury, and it was this version that became the basis of a Middle English translation (Reid, “Female Initiation” 138).

The Storie of Asneth was translated into Middle English sometime during the first half of the fifteenth century in a West Midlands dialect (Peck 3). The only surviving copy we have of the text, though, is preserved in Huntington Library, MS Ellesmere 26. A. 13., copied sometime around 1450 or 1460 (Peck 9). The text can be found on ff. 116r-127r.

The Beginning of The Storie of Asneth. El 26 A 13, Egerton Family Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, f. 116r

The manuscript can be divided into three parts. The first (ff. i r-v v) is in the hand of John Shirley (c. 1366-1456), book dealer and scribe famous for his copies of Chaucer, Lydgate, Hoccleve, and Trevisa. His section contains some devotional verse and poetry by Lydgate, a few lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde with some additions from Petrarch, and some lines from John Walton’s translation of Boethius’s De consolatione Philosophiae. The second part (ff. 1r-115v) of the manuscript is in a different hand and includes a few more short poems by Lydgate but mainly consists of Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes. The third part is taken up by The Storie of Asneth, written in yet another hand (Hume 55). By all accounts, the manuscript appears to be a composite, but just when the three parts were bound together is difficult to ascertain.

The entire digitized manuscript may be viewed here.

For more information, see the Digital Scriptorium Catalog Entry.

What is most interesting is that on the verso side of f. v, Shirley fashioned a bookplate that displays the names of sisters Margaret and Beatrice Lynne as well as his own. Shirley married Margaret at some point between 1421 and 1441, so it has been posited that he gave the first section of the manuscript to the sisters as a gift (Peck 2-3). In the second part of the manuscript, there is also a reference (f. 115r) to “Aluredo Corneburgh de Camera Regis,” written, it would appear, in Shirley’s hand. Avery Cornburgh was a Yeoman of the Chamber to King Edward IV and was wed to Beatrice sometime between 1459 and 1467, likely bringing into this arrangement section two of the manuscript. Shirley and Cornburgh seem to have known one another and eventually joined themselves to the same family. It makes commensurate sense, then, that the first two parts were bound together, and it is quite possible that at this time, the third section was added, though this cannot be verified (Hume 55-56).

Huntington Library, MS Ellesmere 26. A. 13. has, then, a strong connection to two literate, book-owning women, and in fact, another name appears in the margins (f. iii v)—“Elizabeth Gaynesford,” a friend of Beatrice. Thus, the book may even have circulated among a close-knit group of female readers. The circumstances surrounding the production of the Middle English Storie of Asneth are no less interesting. In her article “Patroness of Orthodoxy: Elizabeth Berkeley, John Walton, and the Middle English Storie of Asneth, a West Midlands Devotional Text,” Heather Reid has mounted considerable evidence that points to Elizabeth Beauchamp (née Berkeley), Countess of Warwick (1386-1422) as patroness of the Middle English text, having engaged her cleric, John Walton, an Augustinian canon at Osney Abbey, as translator. We can observe a decidedly female interest in vernacular translation of this text on the other side of the Channel as well. Vincent of Beauvais included an abbreviated version of Asenath’s story in his Speculum historiale (1253), and in 1332, Jeanne de Bourgogne, wife of Philippe VI de Valois (r. 1328-1350), commissioned Jean de Vignay to translate this text into French, producing the Miroir historial (Lusignan 497-498). So what made the account of Asenath so attractive to female readers?

First of all, the narrative tells how Asenath comes to love Joseph. Born the beautiful daughter of the priest of Heliopolis, a powerful position, she is haughty and refuses all suitors. When asked by her parents if she would marry Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, who will just so happen to be paying them a visit, she balks at the idea. But when she watches him approach from her tower, she begins to feel the pangs of lovesickness. To add to the intrigue, though, Joseph spurns her, rejecting any woman who does not worship his God. Asenath is distraught and locks herself in her room, fasting and donning the sackcloth and ashes of repentance amidst her wails of lamentation. Eventually, she throws the household idols and all religious paraphernalia out the window. And after a significant period of such penance, she stands one night at her window and prays to the Hebrew God, converting, as it were, to Judaism. She is then graced with a mystical experience as a beautiful man appears to come down from Heaven, “a prince of Godis hous, and of Hys hevenly ost” (l. 420). He tells her to clean herself and change her clothes, for she will marry Joseph. Dressed afresh, Asenath demonstrates her hospitality by offering to get him some bread and wine from the cellar. He asks instead that she bring him a honeycomb, and she is upset because she knows there is none. He tells her to go check nonetheless, and lo, a honeycomb is present. Together, they share the honeycomb, about which she is told that

[…] blessed be thei that come to God in holy penance,
For thei schul ete of this comb, that bees made of Paradise,
Of the dew of rosis there, that are of gret plesance.
The angelis of God schul ete also this comb of prise,
And who that eteth of the same schal never dye in no wise. (ll. 545-549)

As soon as the “man com doun fro hevene” (l. 415) departs, Joseph returns to the house. He has received knowledge in a dream that Asenath is to be his wife, and the very next day Pharaoh marries them. We are then told: “And after Joseph knewe his wyf and sche conceived sone, / And bar Manasses and Effraim – this was here procreacion” (ll. 682-683). The remainder of the story deals with a threat upon Joseph’s life and a dramatic combat.

The full text is available here.

Asenath’s Meeting with Joseph; Asenath Locked in Her Tower; Asenath Throwing Out the Idols. Tempera on oak panel, c. 1500. Part of a series of six tondos portraying the life of Joseph. Repository: Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The text reads like a romance—ever a much-loved genre—but it is also biblically based and hagiographical in tenor. The Storie of Asneth shares similarities with accounts of heroic Old Testament women, like those found in the books of Ruth, Esther, Tobit, and Judith (West 76). And as Susan Bell notes, “Throughout the Middle Ages, following the teachings of the early Christian fathers, women were exhorted to model themselves on biblical heroines” (158). In one sense, the text could have been conceived of as an exemplum, demonstrating the “ethical virtues” of “self-discipline, penitence, humility” (Kee, “The Socio-Religious Setting” 185). Such a didactic yet romantically appealing narrative could have served well for instruction within a household (Peck 4-5). In the first section of her article “The Storie of Asneth: A Fifteenth-Century Commission and the Mystery of Its Epilogue,” Cathy Hume also demonstrates that the Middle English Storie of Asneth reflects fifteenth-century trends in hagiography and textual consumption, particularly by women, and she argues that what made the text so well received is that it presents an exemplary account of pious married life. The text shows that women can be religious and married, not forced to choose between the two, something that we know real women struggled with, like Margery Kempe. This makes figures like Asenath more imitable, a subject upon which Catherine Sanok has also had much to say. In an earlier article (“Female Initiation Rites and Women Visionaries: Mystical Marriage in the Middle English Translation of The Storie of Asneth”), Heather Reid discusses the text also in relation to accounts of women visionaries and writes a great deal about Asenath with respect to sacred marriage, chastity, and mysticism—all important topics also for this time period, as Dyan Elliott likewise attests. However, Asenath’s actual marriage to Joseph is also quite intriguing.

Asenath is an admirable young woman but so too is her relationship with Joseph, though little has been said about the spirituality of her human marriage. However, for the majority of the female lay readership of Asenath’s story, this would have been the subject of more immediacy. When Joseph comes to see Asenath after her conversion—both having received a vision from God—he “[…] streihte out his hand, and loveli gan her brace. / Thei kiste then bothe in same with cuntenance excellent” (ll. 621-622). Asenath welcomes him, as she did before, yet this time she moves to wash his feet, a gesture reminiscent of Christ towards his disciples. She tells Joseph, “I schal hem wasshe […] / Thi feet ar myn owne feet, thi handdis also with alle, / And thi soule ys my soule: thu are thn myn owen fere” (ll. 627, 630-631). While she exhibits humility towards Joseph by washing his feet, she also declares their relationship to be reciprocal: he is hers as much as she is now his. For all intents and purposes, she describes the two of them to be the biblical “duo in carne una” (Mark 10:8). This paints a rather encouraging picture of human love and marriage; indeed, it is the prelapsarian ideal in its parity. For a fifteenth-century female audience engaging with this text, this is not only enlightening and inspirational; it is also empowering. The union Asenath is establishing with Joseph is Edenic in quality, and this is something for which Joseph also seems to strive. Both are represented as exceptional human beings who achieve an extraordinary relationship, and their union is one in which God is the center. In fact, their marriage is brought about through God, once Asenath—who possesses a noteworthy degree of control over her own destiny—decides to dedicate herself to “the heyhe Lord God of Joseph, almyhti in His throne” (l. 349). And the bond produced from such a relationship is one of equal affection and regard, of selflessness and charity. The presentation of marriage in The Storie of Asneth is one in which both parties are able to honor God through their relationship with one another, a union not only approved of, but promoted by God—something that would have resonated well.

On so many counts, The Storie of Asneth would have been a captivating text for a fifteenth-century female readership. Women were in no way ignorant of the fact that they endured the insidious yoke of patriarchy in both temporal and spiritual spheres, even though Judeo-Christian theology is very clear that women’s souls are equal. It is no surprise, for instance, that Catherine of Alexandria was such a popular saint, as discussed in a blog post by Mary Helen Galluch. Asenath is less radical than Catherine, though, in her devotion. And she weds and continues the family line, marrying, as it were, piety and the lay life—much as many medieval women did.

The Birth of Ephraim. Pictured from left to right are Joseph’s attendant, Joseph, Manasseh, a midwife presenting the infant Ephraim, and Asenath. Mosaic (narthex, bay 8, dome), c. 1200-1299. Venice, Basilica di San Marco

But her example lends a dignity to the lay life, and there are a number of parallels between Asenath’s actions in the text and those of the righteous woman of Proverbs 31. While on the one hand, Asenath remains circumscribed by patriarchal society (as the woman of Proverbs 31 is also) and can be seen as something of a safe, contained model; on the other hand, her claim to be Joseph’s peer in marriage and her exemplary conduct as a human being (regardless of gendered expectations) bring her far above the level of vessel and drudge. She is not a beautiful but passive romance heroine, for she energetically shows physical charm to be of far less importance than virtuous actions and that “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

Primary Sources

“The Storie of Asneth.” Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 1-23.

Secondary Sources

Bell, Susan Groag. “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture.” Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. 149-187.

Burchard, Christoph. “The Importance of Joseph and Aseneth for the Study of the New Testament: A General Survey and a Fresh Look at the Lord’s Supper.” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 102-134.

Douglas, Rees Conrad. “Liminality and Conversion in Joseph and Aseneth.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 3 (1988): 31-42.

Dwyer, R. A. “Asenath of Egypt in Middle English.” Medium Aevum 39 (1970): 118-122.

Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “Midrash as Law and Literature.” The Geoffrey Hartman Reader. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004. 205-222.

Heiserman, Arthur R. The Novel before the Novel: Essays and Discussions about the Beginnings of Prose Fiction in the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Hume, Cathy. “The Storie of Asneth: A Fifteenth-Century Commission and the Mystery of Its Epilogue.” Medium Aevum 82 (2013): 44-65.

Kee, Howard C. “The Socio-Cultural Setting of Joseph and Aseneth.” New Testament Studies 29 (1983): 394-413.

Kee, Howard C. “The Socio-Religious Setting and Aims of ‘Joseph and Asenath.’” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 183-192.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard When Aseneth Met Joseph: A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and His Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lipsett, B. Diane. “Aseneth and the Sublime Turn.” Desiring Conversion: Hermas, Thecla, Aseneth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 86-122.

Liptzin, Sol. “Lady Asenath.” Biblical Themes in World Literature. Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1985. 62-73.

Lusignan, Serge. « Le temps de l’homme au temps de monseigneur saint Louis : le Speculum historiale et les Grandes Chroniques de France ». Vincent de Beauvais : Intentions et réceptions d’une œuvre encyclopédique au Moyen-Âge. Ville Saint-Laurent, Québec : Les Éditions Bellarmin, 1990. 495-505.

Nisse, Ruth. “‘Your Name Will No Longer Be Aseneth’: Apocrypha, Anti-Martyrdom, and Jewish Conversion in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 81 (2006): 734-753.

Peck, Russell A. Introduction. “The Storie of Asneth.” Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 1-15.

Pervo, Richard I. “Joseph and Asenath and the Greek Novel.” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 171-181.

Reid, Heather A. “Female Initiation Rites and Women Visionaries: Mystical Marriage in the Middle English Translation of The Storie of Asneth.” Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis. Ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton. Victoria, British Columbia: ELS Editions, 2009. 137-152.

Reid, Heather A. “Patroness of Orthodoxy: Elizabeth Berkeley, John Walton, and the Middle English Storie of Asneth, a West Midlands Devotional Text.” Devotional Culture in Late Medieval England and Europe: Diverse Imaginations of Christ’s Life. Ed. Stephen Kelly and Ryan Perry. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. 405-441.

Sanok, Catherine. Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Vikan, Gary. “Illustrated Manuscripts of the Romance of Joseph and Aseneth.” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 193-208.

West, S. “Joseph and Asenath: A Neglected Greek Romance.” The Classical Quarterly 24 (1974): 70-81.

 

Medieval Wanderlust and Virtual Wayfinding

Google “wanderlust” and you’ll be greeted by a barrage of images of stunning landscapes, wrinkled maps, and relatively-unoriginal tattoos. The word, now tagged over fifty million times on Instagram, denotes “an eager desire or fondness for wandering or travelling” and has clearly captured the popular imagination, earning articles on BuzzFeed and finding itself titling disappointing movies.  Though the word itself only entered the English language around the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept — according to cognitive theorists — is likely as old as humanity itself. Nancy Easterlin, in her chapter, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” argues that humans have innate needs to “travel in time and through space without getting lost” as a means for gathering resources, seeking refuge, and obtaining knowledge.1 Wayfinding, this human drive to explore and attach meaning to the world around us, establishes an important cognitive basis for our contemporary obsession with wanderlust. But what happens when our ability to navigate our environments is limited? And is this sudden cultural obsession with travel, with all of its racist and classist baggage, really a new phenomenon?

Religious pilgrimage — a journey “made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion” — may at first glance have little in common with the contemporary wanderlust fever, but in the late medieval period, faithful pilgrims often went to great lengths to traverse the known world in order to visit many of the same landmarks populating Instagram pages today. Pilgrimages were typically undertaken by groups of travelers, and these journeys could be as short as Chaucer’s famous trip from London to Canterbury or as long as medieval mystic Margery Kempe’s voyage from Lynn to Jerusalem. Records of these pilgrimages prefigure many of the critiques of present-day travel — namely, that “the experience of travel [was] exotic” and “the purview of the privileged.”2 Despite this, I wish to read pilgrimage — one of the most common types of medieval travel — as motivated not just by religious devotion, but by a human cognitive need to wander.

This reading is facilitated by accounts of medieval religious devotees who found themselves confined, enclosed, or otherwise unable to undertake the physical pilgrimages, yet nevertheless invented means to satisfy this cognitive urge. In his work with the itinerary maps of thirteenth-century Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, Daniel K. Connolly demonstrates that “cloistered monks, though discouraged from going on pilgrimages to the earthly city [of Jerusalem], could nonetheless use Matthew’s maps for an imaginative journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem.”These imagined journeys, I believe, were abetted by the map’s engagement with the same cognitive processes that human beings experience when wayfinding, or moving through physical space. This map (pictured below), depicts the Holy Land from a bird’s-eye perspective — cognitive scientists call this a “survey” perspective, in contrast to the horizontal “route” perspective experienced when actually traveling through a location.4 At first glance, this seems odd — how does this survey perspective aid imagined travel experiences, when human beings generally experience travel through a horizontal route-based perspective? The answer, in all too-human fashion, has to do with time.

Matthew Paris’ itinerary map. The physical action of unfolding the tabs on this map may have helped monks immerse themselves in the imaginative travel experience. British Library Royal MS 14 C VII, f.4r.

Spatial cognitive researchers theorize that human beings initially conceive of new environments horizontally, using route-based perception; in recall, first-time travelers imagine themselves at the center of their memories, with the environment situated around them. Over time, however, we restructure this mental image, creating survey knowledge of a location — in other words, the more time we spend in a location, the more we’re able to imagine from a bird’s-eye view. The map of Matthew Paris, as a tool for imaginative travel, reflects this cognitive restructuring. If the point of a pilgrimage is to allow a traveler to truly immerse themselves in the historical life of Christ in the world that he knew, then an imaginative traveler needed to experience the world as Christ did: through a complex, survey perspective.

Logan Quigley
Ph.D. Student
University of Notre Dame


1. Nancy Easterlin, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, ed. Lisa Zunshine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

2. Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011).

3. Daniel K. Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” Art Bulletin (81:4), 598.
Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. “Virtual Pilgrimages? Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine’s Convent, Augsburg.”…

4. Montello, et. al. “Real Environments, Virtual Environments, maps.” Human Spatial Memory, 261.

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.