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.
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 Taleor 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]
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 raptusin 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.
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.
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.
In the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence, patriarchal inheritance laws of the land drive a young girl’s parents to make a choice: lose their lands and leave their daughter without an inheritance or raise her as a boy. Thus, the child (aptly named Silence) grows up to become one of the greatest knights of the realm. In a society that values masculinity, the female characters in the story strive to assert their voices in a world dominated by men’s discourse. The story begins as a traditional chivalric romance, with Silence’s mother Eufemie (whose name means ‘use of good speech’ (cf. euphemism)) and father Cador struggling, in the passionate heat of their courtship, to say what they feel. When Silence reaches puberty, and Cador stresses the necessity of maintaining a masculine identity, Silence, whose body has become the locus for a battle between the personified forces of Nature and Nurture, is left with little choice but to acquiesce. Later, living quite successfully as a man and the most valued knight of King Evan’s (spelled, in various ways, Ebain in the original) court, Silence faces the unwanted sexual advances of King Evan’s wife, Eufeme (whose name means ‘alas! woman’), at which point, things begin to unravel. Unable to voice an essential, personal truth and trapped by the confines of traditional gender roles, Silence ultimately is left silent in a story that is both beautiful and devastating. In 2017, revisiting this story of a transgender protagonist, sexual harassment (and assault), that which is spoken, and those who are silenced, I knew that the time was ripe for introducing my students to Silence.
At the Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas—an all-girls college preparatory school—my Upper School students are women who similarly are trying to find and use their voices in a time (both developmentally and historically) when they are confronting fractured messaging about women’s roles in the social and political spheres. I teach Arthurian stories in British and world literature courses and in a senior seminar on King Arthur. Whenever I teach Arthuriana in my classroom, these students, who are becoming well-versed in the language of feminism, race-theory, social dynamics, and identity, consistently impress me with their ability to discuss diversity with sensitivity and passion. This year, I decided to assemble a focused reading group outside of class for students, enthusiastic volunteers from all levels in the Upper School (freshmen through seniors), to study the Roman de Silence. Like Silence, the students in our group are women growing up and trying to assert their own voices in a world that often tries to silence them. They were so proud to make their voices heard through this project.
The course was structured informally as a reading group, meeting once a week over lunch in my classroom. We had about thirty students participating in one way or another throughout the semester with a core of about a dozen who attended regularly. I initially planned for about eight meetings. We read 1,000 lines a week of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s facing-page translation, moving fairly slowly through the text. While this pace allowed us to dive more deeply into Silence during our meetings, we decided that we wanted to continue the conversation outside of class through an online discussion board using our school’s learning management system. This included topics such as “Silence’s Birth and Youth,” “Silence, the Minstrels, and Eufeme,” and (because I teach teenage girls) the spirited catch-all, “Things That Have Us Shook.”
My goal with this reading group was, in part, to take young, pre-college students and turn them on to that undeniably electric attraction so many of us feel when we study the Middle Ages. In part, I also wanted them to get fired up about how little has changed since thirteenth-century France in conversations about identity and politics. It was serendipitous, then, that a month before our first meeting, TIME magazine named the “Silence Breakers” its “Person of the Year,” celebrating women for breaking their silence in the face of sexual harassment and assault. The weekend before our first meeting, celebrities in the film and television industries at the Golden Globe Awards coordinated the launch of the #TimesUp movement (building on the momentum of the #metoo movement, which had been gaining significant traction through the winter). Women who had been silenced by their abusers and the systems that protected them were speaking out—breaking their silence, just as our Silence could not. My students were incensed and energized—you have to work in a girls’ school to understand it—it was in the air and in many of the conversations they were having with each other and begging to have with me. Silence, then, was a fitting literary entrée into the conversation.
The Roman de Silence explores some challenging topics, including sexual harassment, consent, gender dynamics (including transgender issues and the politics of gender), Nature vs. Nurture, and a problematic narrator. Because I was working with students of a wide range of ages (the kids in my group ranged from ages 14-18), I wanted to be sensitive to that dynamic. We decided it was necessary to establish a common language, most important to the students, agreeing on what gender pronouns to use in reference to Silence, the main protagonist, and Heldris, the ostensible author and narrator. One of the biggest (and coolest) challenges with the Roman de Silence is the dexterity with which Heldris moves back and forth between genders in reference to Silence, sometimes even within the same sentence. Heldris, too, is ambiguous in gender, so how were we to refer to our author/narrator? In the end, the students decided together that they would use the gender neutral “they” in reference to both, which provided a sometimes stumbling, but always insightful frame for our discussions. It matters, they learned, which pronouns we choose when referring to Silence and to Heldris.
Early in the story, Heldris establishes their authority by claiming that they will write the story in French based on their reading of a “Latin version” of unclear origin:
I’m not saying there isn’t
a good deal of fiction mingled with truth,
in order to improve the tale,
but if I am any judge of things,
I’m not putting in anything that will spoil the work,
nor will there be any less truth in it,
for truth should not be silenced. (1663-8)
So, very quickly, my students had to figure out how to hold these two things in tension: how can truth and fiction coexist? First, we have an author who is grounding themselves in textual authority (Latin, no less!). On the other hand, that author freely admits that, just as one might a bland soup, they have spiced up the tale by mixing in fiction “in order to improve” it, but in a way that will not spoil the work or make it less truthful. This metaphor of cooking (which seems to lie just below the surface of Heldris’s words) helped my students, but it also sowed the seeds of doubt for some—how reliable was this narrator? Whose side were they on?
Choosing to use the singular “they” in reference to Heldris throughout our discussions ended up highlighting (sometimes rather strikingly) the author’s problematic position of authority. When divorced from gender identifiers, assumptions students might otherwise have made about Heldris’s opinions or positions suddenly unraveled, making them much more complex (and perhaps for my students, more frustrating). One minute, Heldris seems so intimately conversant in the effects of sexual harassment on a female victim. The next, they’re condemning women wholesale for their tendency to manipulate men with their tears. When we removed our essentialist biases about how women write or men write (and where their sympathies lie as writers), we found ourselves so much less sure about how to understand Heldris’s position.
Here’s an example from the online discussion board “Things That Have Us Shook.” We had been reading about Silence’s prowess at tournaments and on the battlefield. Heldris describes Silence as “a second Alexander,” running through a heroic catalogue of their clothes and especially helmet (like the shield of Achilles). Eufeme, who at this point already has attempted to sexually assault Silence once, will soon begin plotting to do so again, despite Silence’s revulsion of her:
Student A: What does it suggest about sexuality if Silence has been raised as male for all intents and purposes and yet is not attracted to women? It seems like an extremely progressive idea that even today older generations seem to have trouble grasping.
Student A later explained in our meeting that she was trying to think through the idea that a male-presenting person, raised with all the trappings and cultural baggage of a man, might be, if not attracted to women, presumably attracted to men. For this student, this allowed for fluidity among gender and sexuality that really struck her and made her feel like Heldris was pushing some boundaries in exciting ways. Then, her peer responded thus:
Student B: I actually didn’t read it as a progressive idea, as the phrasing of the encounter between Eufeme and Silence seemed to imply that Silence was not attracted to Eufeme because they (Silence) were biologically female. In this context, the book could be interpreted as hetero-normative, because despite Silence being raised as male, their “true nature” as female means Silence cannot be attracted to women. I guess it really depends on what Heldris thinks Silence identifies as (I personally think Silence is bi-gender, but Heldris seems to be on the side of Nature).
This sparked a lively group discussion about Heldris’s “allegiances,” as the students called them. Silence is the best at combat—as a woman, they can do everything men can do (and better!), but Heldris still will make snide comments about women and point back to the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Then again, Heldris so carefully plays with Silence’s pronouns in a way that seems to suggest, in Student A’s words, “maybe Heldris chose to switch pronouns when Silence felt more in tune with one gender over the other.” This seems so sensitive and gentle that when at other points Heldris makes blanket statements about the failings of women, such statements felt particularly brutal to my students. While the students loved the debate between Nature and Nurture—so dramatic, so steeped in stereotypical gender norms, and so very relevant to cultural discussions we’re having today—they had difficulty figuring out just where Heldris fell on the debate.
We spent quite a bit of time discussing the threats and execution of both sexual and deadly violence on women’s bodies. It took us a full meeting, for example, to begin to unknot King Evan’s dismissal of Eufeme’s accusations of sexual assault against Silence (fabricated as they were). When the king says to his wife, “So let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Just think of it all as a dream, sweetheart. / Nothing happened, nothing’s wrong, nothing should come of it” (4245-7), we couldn’t help but think about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and so many others, and the many men who worked behind the scenes to enable their predation. When Heldris says of women who are trying to avenge the wrongs done to them: “When she is told to keep quiet, / she tries all the harder to make noise” (4270), we couldn’t help but hear the “Silence Breakers.” When King Evan has Silence stripped of all their clothes in front of the court, exposing King Evan’s limited understanding of truth and forcing Silence, in quiet dignity, to speak their own and then fall silent, my students mourned the loss of Silence’s ability to own and live their identity. In the end, Nature’s victory rung so terrifying (in all its objectification of Silence) that we were reminded of the recent horror film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (as though Silence had been sent to the “sunken place” and were watching their life, silently, from afar). This is part of what inspired my students to want to dramatize the story in film.
I said previously that I had planned for this group to last about eight weeks. Most of these meetings focused on close, textual analysis and consideration of other primary and secondary texts. During one meeting, I brought in a .pdf of a working draft of Regina Psaki (University of Oregon) and Bonnie Wheeler’s (Southern Methodist University) new prose translation of the Roman de Silence. Wheeler said of the translation: “Gina and I originally conceived of this project as one that would be in print but have now decided to make it open-access on-line so that it can be used in classrooms without adding to student book costs. Thus we don’t want it included in course packets, etc., for which students are charged.” They asked a few colleagues (including myself) who teach at different levels to do beta testing, and their goal is to produce a parallel text/translation, including links to important essays on the poem. If all goes well (and they find a great tech-helper), we should expect to see it available by spring 2019. In the meantime, my students were delighted to engage with (and even provide suggestions for) this fantastic translation-in-progress.
About six weeks in, my students decided that they wanted to produce a film trailer for a movie about Silence (it was a group filled with budding actors, costume designers, creative writers, and film makers) and began making plans in a Google doc for a culminating project. They spent about four weeks on this and developed a draft for a script. What was most interesting was how they thought through the rhetoric, purpose, and audience of a film trailer and struggled with what scenes to preview and how best to problematize Heldris (who would provide the extradiagetic voiceover). In the end, they ran out of time (with graduation looming on the horizon), but during our final meeting (lucky number 15), they were determined to come up with some kind of project nevertheless. Therefore, they created a Twitter handle, which this year’s students will now run. So feel free to check out @heldriscornwall on Twitter for some fun memes, surveys, retweets, and recommended reading!
 See Heldris de Cornuälle, Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992).
 The name Heldris de Cornuälle translates to Heldris of Cornwall, but it could also be Heldris of Cornouaille, the medieval name for a region in south-west Brittany, the southern part of the modern-day département of Finistère. It is probably an Arthurian-sounding nom de plume of sorts. We know nothing about the author. The language in the manuscript is a mix of Francien and Picard dialects of Old French, meaning that the manuscript was likely brought from France to Nottingham, possibly during the Hundred Years’ War (Roche-Mahdi xxiii).
 For further reading, Arthuriana has dedicated two full volumes to the Roman de Silence (7.2 and 12.1). More recently, see: Katie Keene, “‘Cherchez Eufeme’: The Evil Queen in Le Roman de Silence,” Arthuriana 14.3 (Fall 2004): 3-22; Heather Tanner, “Lords, Wives, and Vassals in the Roman de Silence,” Journal of Women’s History 24.1 (Spring 2012): 138-159; Jane Tolmie, “Silence in the Sewing Chamber: Le Roman de Silence,” French Studies 63.1 (January 2009): 14-26.
[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]
The “Knight’s Tale” is the first tale to appear in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, just after the General Prologue. In it, two imprisoned knights, Palamon and Arcite, vie for the affections of Emily, an Amazonian woman brought back to Athens by King Theseus as a spoil of war. After seeing her in the garden on a May morning, Palamon and Arcite fall madly in love with Emily, and they eventually duel to the death for her hand in marriage. Emily and her modes of expression (or lack thereof) are interesting, particularly because this tale, in more ways than one, sets the tone for the rest of the Tales. Emily is primarily relegated to a realm of silence in this text; however, she expresses herself intermittently through weeping and a singular, emotional prayer. This blog post will examine Emily’s treatment and expression in the “Knight’s Tale” in order to analyze the plight of women in the Middle Ages as presented through Chaucer’s poetry. Ultimately, it will reveal the disappointingly small distance we have traveled in terms of gender parity in the decades since Chaucer was writing. Indeed, it posits that Emily is one of the early victims whose voice deserves to be read in the context of the modern justice movement, #MeToo.
Arguably, in close contest with her beauty, the most striking characteristic of Emily in this tale is her silence. Throughout this tale, the knights speak amply of her beauty, “that fairer was to sene / Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene / And fresher than the May with floures newe, / For with the rose colour stroof hire hewe,” and of their desire to wed her. However, she is stunningly quiet on this subject, with one private exception of prayer, which will be examined later (Chaucer 65; lines 1035-38). Indeed, Theseus states, “I speke as for my suster Emelye,” when he announces the prospect of a duel to Palamon and Arcite (Chaucer 76; line 1833). Emily is always in the background, being talked about, but never talked to. Her silence can be interpreted, especially for modern readers, as a symbol of women’s oppression in the Middle Ages. Although, ironically, Emily is the driver for the entire tale, it is only as a tool for the knights to manipulate and fight over in order to prove the supremacy of their masculinity and honor. She has no agency, and this is mirrored in the silencing of her voice.
Although Emily’s silence is the most symbolic indicator of her lack of agency in the text, her powerful appeal to Diana before the battle also illustrates her and other women’s powerlessness. She laments, “I / Desire to ben a mayden al my lyf. / … And noght to ben a wyf and be with / childe” (Chaucer 84; lines 2305-10). Further, she pleads with Diana, “Bihoold, goddesse of clene chastitee, / The bitter teeris that on my chekes falle! / Syn thou art mayde and kepere of us alle, / My maydenhede thou kepe and wel conserve. / And whil I lyve, a mayde I wol thee serve” (Chaucer 84; lines 2326-30). Emily’s true feelings are only revealed in the sanctity and privacy of prayer, and even when she is her most vulnerable self, her desires and needs are cast in the wind in favor of what the knights of the tale desire (and, it would seem, what the gods command). Shortly after she cries in anguish, begging Diana to spare her from marriage, Diana appears unto her and tells her that she must be wed. This interaction begs the question, to what extent does Fortune play a role in this text, and to what extent are the outcomes predetermined? Both gods and Fortune appear in this text and affect the events that unfold, introducing questions of the role of agency in the lives of mankind, and especially women in the Middle Ages. Do women have any agency, or are they doomed to live as slaves to men and their desires? Emily’s prayer is a powerful glimpse into the emotional underpinnings of marriage and agency for women during this time period.
A third and final mode of expression illustrated in this text is weeping, which Emily does periodically throughout the text. There are two categories of weeping that take place in the “Knight’s Tale”: weeping over a man or men, and weeping in prayer. At the start of the tale, upon Theseus’ return, a “compaignye of ladyes” (Chaucer 63; line 898) weeps: “swich a cry and swich a wo they make, / That in this world nys creature lyvynge / That herde swich another waymentynge” (Chaucer 63; lines 900-03). Similarly, when Arcite dies, Emily “weepe bothe eve and morwe” (Chaucer 91; line 2821). In juxtaposition with the silence that dominates the majority of this tale, the weeping that punctuates the remaining spaces paints Emily as an emotional, rather than stoic, figure. Her emotions are compartmentalized – either she is entirely silent or highly emotional. In this way, Chaucer oversimplifies Emily, and, arguably, all women, through these extremes. Perhaps the only time Emily weeps and talks, thus complicating this binary, is when she is praying to Diana. In her uncertainty, she “for the feere thus hast she cried / And weepe that it was pitee for to heere” (Chaucer 84; lines 2344-45). The weeping that is peppered throughout this text speaks, in conjunction with the overwhelming silence, to the plight of women in the Middle Ages. Their lives are almost entirely controlled by men, particularly in Emily’s case. And so, she weeps, remains silent, and passionately pleas with Diana, only to be denied both understanding and her desires. Emily’s rather binary expression of emotion indicates that women have little choice, if any, over their lives, and emphasizes the roles of Fate and Fortune in place of the agency of women.
In sum, Emily’s modes of expression – silence, weeping, and prayer – offer a glimpse of the struggle of a medieval woman; however, this tale is entirely relevant to modern women, too. Even still, over six hundred years later, women experience misogynistic attempts to control their bodies and fates. One need not look far to discover this truth – no farther than Twitter, in fact, where the hashtag #MeToo has documented thousands of instances of abuse and entitlement on the part of men seeking control over women. In popular culture, too, there are examples of men dueling over a woman everywhere – The Bachelorette, as one example, not to mention the plethora of young adult fiction that employs a similar structure. Chaucer’s depiction of women in the Middle Ages is concerning and, of course, a more literal illustration of silencing women; however, the underlying implications of male control and domination plague our society to this very day.
University of Notre Dame
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, ed. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2012.
Featured Image: Emily Gathering Flowers, 1882, by Mary Eliza Haweis, Chaucer for Children