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.

Ydw, dwi’n siarad cymraeg (Yes, I do speak Welsh), or why I do what I do

Having been asked to write the final blog post for the 2018-2019 academic year, I thought I might offer a personal reflection on my own journey as an academic and medievalist, which may, at least in some small way, be indicative of many of the journeys of my friends and colleagues. At a time when the study of the arts and humanities continues to suffer—much to the detriment of democracy at large and despite the fact that these fields enrich our lives and culture—we who work in these areas often find ourselves asking ourselves—and defending to others—why we do what we do. This becomes even more keen when you study older as well as minority languages—and if you’re a medievalist, even though everyone loves the Middle Ages.

Instagram: @drgrayfang / Via Facebook: asoiafmemes

Indeed, it’s been an eventful month for medievalists and for medieval-inspired genres in general. Between Game of Thrones and its issues with portraying women and people of color, the rampant racism medievalists in general are trying to combat, and the usual rush of writing papers for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, there’s a lot to discuss. As a professor, a researcher, a fandom nerd, a mother, and a procrastinator, I find a lot of this problematic. While I don’t have any solutions, I can at least offer my thoughts on the importance of primary research, especially primary research in its original language, and why being multilingual is important for all of us.

The Grey King by Susan Cooper.

When I was a child, I had two goals: travel to all seven continents and learn exactly why “Y maent yr mynyddoedd y canu, ac y mae’r argwyddes yn dod” meant ‘the mountains are singing, and the lady comes’ in Welsh. Fast forward a few decades, and I’ve achieved five out of seven continents, and I know enough Welsh to recognize that the grammar of “Y maent yr mynyddoedd…” is a little wonky. I’m willing to cut Susan Cooper a little slack, though, because she was the one, through her YA novel The Grey King, that set me on my weird Welsh journey anyway. I was that strange child that wanted to read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek form because I knew that it would be the “truest” version (the benefit of being a scholar, I get how problematic that goal is now.) I wanted to speak all the languages and understand all the stories—and I still do!

 

I grew up in a very white, very middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, where diversity was just a couple of towns over—not that we went there because, you know, traffic and crime rates. Because of this desire to understand beyond my knowledge, as well as the limitations of my own perspective, I show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk every semester, without fail, no matter what class I’m teaching. I’ve shown it to high school freshmen for Study Skills and upper division college students in a King Arthur class. I’ve seen the video so many times that I can recite parts of it, and it still grabs me every single time.

College was what broke my belief in a single story. A trip to France in high school cemented my hardcore drive to travel EVERYWHERE and see ALL THE THINGS, but college actually pushed me out of the nest and forced me to look multiple perspectives in the face. It dropped a pile of primary sources into my lap and told me to read and digest all of them. While my undergraduate experience didn’t teach me Welsh, it at least pushed me toward the possibility of the Middle Ages, an all-encompassing knowledge of King Arthur, and the idea that I could learn the highly accurate history of it all.

(Oh, my sweet summer child.)

Twenty years later, I am a medievalist with a specialization in the King Arthur of the medieval British Isles and France. I learned Welsh—in Wales no less—to push my ability to analyze primary texts. I used more dead languages than English in my dissertation but still call myself an English major (funny how literature departments are still organized around nation-states). I now teach writing and medieval literature at every college in Buffalo, NY (fine, only three of them, or maybe four…).

National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, taken by Kara Larson Maloney.

I have a six-year-old who can already recite the names of Arthur’s knights as well as tell you what her favorite castle is. She voraciously devours folklore from around the world and prefers Ancient Egypt and stories of Anansi to what mama studies. Her princesses and princes come from India and China and Japan, rather than just the standard Disney European variety. And she’s conquered four out of seven continents. I’m not sure which language(s) she’ll choose when she gets older, but she takes great delight in telling people that gwely means ‘bed’ in Welsh—the apex of my attempt at raising her bilingual and studying Welsh in Wales while pregnant with her. She’s grown up with parchment and chainmail, and she loves swinging around the cloth-and-wood flail she got from a castle in France two years ago. She knows that there is more than one story, and she sees many of those stories every day in her very public, very urban elementary school.

So, why Welsh? Why did a minority language in an English-colonized country become my passion? As a medievalist and Arthurian scholar, it makes sense. Arthur was Welsh. Full stop. Even if I’m not sure I believe he ever existed—since we have little-to-no extant irrefutable historical evidence—I still believe his origins come from Wales, be those the literary origins of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Welsh Triads), the “Mabinogion,” or Y Gododdin. If I study Arthurian literature and how the concept of chivalry changed across the English Channel between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, I should know Middle Welsh, as well as Latin, Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English for good measure. Plus, it’s as good an excuse as any to realize that childhood dream of being able to translate a Welsh spell from a kids’ fantasy novel.

Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, possible seat of one of King Arthur’s courts. Photo by Kara Larson Maloney.

Why Welsh? Because there’s a dedicated movement within Wales right now working on reclaiming the heritage that the English took from them, linguistically and culturally. Because there’s a rising demand for Welsh-language schools in Wales, and the number of speakers is actually growing. But also because the ability to read the Triads and other sources of archaic knowledge in their original form ensures that this information will be remembered and kept alive. And because, as the ever-eager scholar, I am always in search of that irrefutable truth for which I longed in my childhood, the Ur-text that explains why the idea of King Arthur still persists in popularity, even when sometimes partnered with giant robots from outer space in modern sci-fi fantasy.

As a medievalist, I know how fragile our material history is. Look at how many erupted into tears as Notre Dame burned last month. Think of how often we wonder about what we lost when the library at Alexandria was demolished or when the Cotton Library burned in the fire of 1731. Think of the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII or even of what codices were lost when the Vikings raided again and again in the eighth and ninth centuries. And this still happens—think of the attack on the shrines of Timbuktu in 2012.

The physicality of history is not immortal. While we find new primary sources and discover magical new insights into the past every year with our leaps forward in technology, we still lose so much. Remember when ISIS destroyed the statues at the gates of Nimrud, or when they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, or, even earlier, when the Taliban blew up the statues of Buddha. Think of every mosque and synagogue that Christians have irrevocably altered in the past thousand years, not the least of which being the Mezquita in Córdoba or the synagogues of Toledo. Our physical artifacts are all we have to help us understand who we were and why things—socially, politically, economically, etc.—are the way they are. Our primary sources, in their original languages, can help us ensure we understand as much as possible about the past, which is the only way we can understand our present moment. Serious study and serious inquiry into the past can help prevent the co-opting of cultural narratives for nefarious purposes, the way white supremacists and the alt-right have pushed for an all-white medieval Europe and erasure of people of color. Why Welsh? Because every language and every culture have something to teach us. Because diversity—in people, in languages, in nature—makes the world richer. Also because I’m obviously a nerd. Why the desire to visit all seven continents? So that I can experience, firsthand, the different stories that each culture, each region, each country presents. So that I can prevent my daughter and my students from recognizing only one story.

Bayeux Cathedral, photo by Kara Larson Maloney.

Every year for the past three years, I’ve gone into my daughter’s classroom and talked to her classmates about heroes, knights, the evolution of writing, and mummies (because mummies). I’ve given them pieces of parchment to create their own illuminations. I’ve handed them chainmail, leather helms and bracers, and answered how King Arthur died (“It’s complicated…”). It’s not just public scholarship (of which we need more!); it’s also ensuring that these stories, and that consciousness of the materiality of history, are passed on.

Lady Stormborn, Smallest Viking, photo by Kara Larson Maloney.

Because when I was eleven years old, a friend gave me the Dark is Rising sequence for my birthday, and those books inspired a lifelong love of the Middle Ages and some Welsh warlord named Arthur. Because knowing the political complexities of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s era and being able to read what was said about him in Latin and in Welsh better informs me of why he may have spun Arthur in the imperial/anti-imperial way that he did. Because all we have are fragments to help us understand past cultures, and when we preserve what we have for future generations, we preserve the very diverse voices that white supremacy is trying to kill. This is why I do what I do.

Kara Larson Maloney, Ph.D.
Canisius College

Grotesque Ghosts and Moral Reproof in Middle English Literature: The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn

The day has suddenly turned to night; King Arthur and his knights are all frightened; and Guinevere, who is accompanying the entourage, begins to cry when out of nowhere the woods ring with terrible sounds of howling and wailing and grievous lamentation. A female-seeming being approaches Sir Gawain, having risen from a lake, and

Bare was the body and blak to the bone,
Al biclagged [clotted] in clay uncomly cladde […].
On the chef [head] of the cholle [neck],
A pade [toad] pikes [bites] on the polle [skull],
With eighen [eyes] holked [sunken] ful holle [hollow]
That gloed [glowed] as the gledes [coals]. (ll. 105-106, 114-117)[1]

The apparition continues to yell and murmur and groan as if it were mad and is shrouded in some sort of unfathomable clothing, covered by toads and circled on all sides by snakes.

Gawain finds his courage and, brandishing his sword, demands that the specter give an account of herself. She concedes, saying that she was once a queen—the fairest in the land—and was wealthy and privileged beyond compare, even more so than Guinevere. But now she is dead, having lost all—her body a filthy, rotting corpse—and, she says, “God has me geven of his grace / To dre [suffer through] my paynes in this place” (ll. 140-141).

The place that she is referring to is the Tarn Wadling, a lake in Cumbria, just south-east of Carlisle by about ten miles.[2] Tarn (< ME terne, tarne) is a word that originated as a local northern English term (< ON *tarnu, tjorn, tjörn) meaning ‘a lake, pond, or pool,’ but it has since come to be used to mean specifically ‘a small mountain lake, having no significant tributaries.’[3]

Entrance to the woods surrounding the Tarn Wadling.

King Arthur and crew come upon the Tarn Wadling during a hunt in Inglewood Forest. The finery of the court—and especially of Guinevere—is described in several stanzas, much as the ghost describes the splendor she once enjoyed a number of stanzas later. After Gawain talks with her for a bit, she begs to see and speak to Guinevere. We quickly find out why, for she proclaims to Guinevere, “Lo, how delful [doleful] deth has thi dame dight [left]” (l. 160)! The spirit is her mother, and she urges Guinevere to “Muse on my mirrour” (l. 167). Death will leave her in such a fashion too if she does not give thought to her actions and the afterlife.

Arthur and Guinevere. London, British Library, MS Royal 20 D IV, f. 207r[4].
The first thing that Guinevere’s mother counsels is that, if you are rich, you should have pity on the poor, for it is in your power to do so. When you are dead, nothing will help you at that point, but “The praier of poer may purchas the pes” (l. 178). She stresses this to Guinevere and holds herself up as a counterexample. She failed, and now, she says,

“[…] I, in danger and doel, in dongone I dwelle,
Naxte [nasty] and nedefull, naked on night.
Ther folo me a ferde [troop] of fendes of helle;
They hurle me unhendely; thei harme me in hight [violently];
In bras and in brymston I bren as a belle [bonfire].
Was never wrought in this world a wofuller wight. (ll. 184-189)

While Guinevere’s mother advocates for compassion and generosity, we discover, however, that it was lust and the breaking of her marriage vows that landed her in torment. These sins bear obvious relation to Guinevere’s own life, and the author doesn’t even feel the need to clarify. Her mother is a mirror.

Guinevere and Lancelot. London, British Library, MS Additional 10293, f. 199r[5].
Nonetheless, it is interesting that what this text emphasizes the most is the need for all to have and to practice charity. Sin is bad, of course; and pride is the most hateful fault, as Guinevere’s mother explains. But the Awntyrs is not a treatise on the sins; it is a work that teaches that, of the virtues, “[…] charité is chef [paramount], and then is chaste [chastity], / And then almessedede aure [above] al other thing” (ll. 252-253). The duty of the Christian, according to the author of the Awntyrs, lies in each person’s responsibility towards every other. And this extends ad infinitum, for the prayers of those on earth are succor to the dead. The audience learns this because Guinevere promises to provide Masses for her mother’s soul, praying that Christ will bring to bliss she for whom he was crucified, he to whom she was dedicated in Baptism, though her mother stresses again that Guinevere must also provide for those living who lack food.

Before Guinevere’s mother departs, Gawain pipes in, having clearly been listening. He asks about those nobles and knights who enter other’s lands in territorial expansion, crushing under their heels the people and seizing the glory and the riches without any right. Now, if anyone is familiar with Gawain, this is rather too self-aware for his character—clearly the author is speaking here. The royal wraith responds by denouncing Arthur as too covetous a king and saying that the court should be wary. The second half of the Awntyrs deals precisely with these problems of excess and conquest, and I leave this part of the plot for readers to explore on their own.

Concerning the fifteenth-century text that has reached us, it is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324; London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B; Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91 (Thornton Manuscript); and Princeton, Princeton University Library, MS Taylor 9 (Ireland Blackburn Manuscript).

The beginning of The Awntyrs off Arthure.f. 1r of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324 (c. 1450-1475)[6]. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
The underlying dialect in the manuscripts is northern, being locatable most likely to the historic county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), which is also where the action of the narrative takes place. The work is extremely ornate, making use of both alliteration and rhyme. And as the text’s editor, Thomas Hahn, also notes, given the themes, it is quite probable that the author was a cleric, possibly residing in Carlisle. The Latin exempla tradition most certainly influenced the text, but the genius of the author was to weave his moral teaching into an exciting Arthurian tale, sweetening the medicine, as it were, with a captivating literary exterior.[7]

Be this as it may, the Tarn Wadling has always been eerie, emitting strange sounds and even once having an island appear and then disappear. It is hard to say whether it was due to a desire to bring an end to the place and quash superstitions or increase his arable land and acreage that Lord Lonsdale ordered the lake to be drained and filled in sometime during the nineteenth century.[8] Sadly, the tarn itself is no more, but the stories persist—as perhaps do the spirits.

 

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

 

[1] The edition used is the following: “The Awntyrs off Arthur.” Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. This can be found online here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-awntyrs-off-arthur. And here is an introduction: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-awyntyrs-off-arthur-introduction.

[2] You can find information about the location here: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/wood/4726/tarn-wadling/.

[3] See the entry “tarn” in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as “terne” in the Middle English Dictionary.

[4] The entire manuscript is digitized here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_20_d_iv. Dated c. 1300-1380, it contains part of the Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle. The image shows Arthur and Guinevere receiving news from a damsel.

[5] See the catalogue description with some images here: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=18463&CollID=27&NStart=10293. This manuscript contains another copy of the Lancelot, c. 1316.

[6] See images here: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/inquire/Discover/Search/#/?p=c+0,t+,rsrs+0,rsps+10,fa+,so+ox%3Asort%5Easc,scids+,pid+f03eea52-0af3-4ff7-9069-c41a4b2f6c6b,vi+6e581efc-2391-4258-b621-0f85fe45f40f. You can find more information here: http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/A_ghostly_encounter.

[7] On this, see especially David N. Klausner’s “Exempla and The Awntyrs of Arthure.” Medieval Studies 34 (1972): 307-25. Thomas Hahn provides further reading, editions with introductory material as well as scholarly articles, at the end of his introduction (see note 1).

[8] For more on the history of the Tarn Wadling, go here: https://www.cumbriacountyhistory.org.uk/tarn-wadling-background.