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.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Two Shrews: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as an Inversion of The Taming of the Shrew

[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 Wife of Bath, a proto-feminist who argues for feminine power and agency, appears to undermine the patriarchy at every turn, yet the way that this ideology plays out in her tale is incomplete and problematic. In Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, a Knight is sent on a quest to find out what women truly desire above all else. On his long journey, after questioning each woman he meets, he discovers the answer: “Wommen desiren have sovereynetee / As wel over hir husband as hir love / And for to be in maistrie hym above” (Chaucer 165). The Knight is applauded for his thoughtful answer, and every woman in the court agrees with him. Thus, the Knight’s life is spared.

But it is often forgotten why the Knight was sent on this life-or-death mission in the first place. He is given this impossible task as a punishment for a crime, and if he fails to come up with the correct answer, he will pay with his life. This crime occurs as follows:

And happed that allone as he was born,
He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,
By verray force birafte hire maydenhed. (Chaucer 163)

He rapes a woman, and yet Queen Guinevere and the ladies of the court beg King Arthur to spare the Knight’s life. Why do the women want to spare a man who poses such a threat? Perhaps they would rather pursue rehabilitation than revenge and meaningless violence, but the success of this rehabilitation remains ambiguous.

The Knight asks every woman what they desire the most, and an extremely ugly old hag claims that she has the answer. In return for the correct answer, the disgusted Knight promises to marry her. On his wedding night, the old lady asks the Knight to make a choice: should she remain old and ugly in appearance, but be a faithful wife to him, or should she be young and beautiful, but unfaithful? He responds: “As yow liketh, it suffiseth me” (Chaucer 168). Although the Knight allows his wife to choose, granting her bodily sovereignty, his response does not necessarily spring from his newfound respect for women and knowledge of what they desire.

The Knight meets the “Loothly and oold” lady. 

The Knight was so distressed by his wife’s “so loothly and so oold” appearance at the time of their engagement that there is little question that if the choice were between his wife being constantly beautiful or constantly ugly, he would not hesitate to decide for her (Chaucer 166). It is possible that he does not give her sovereignty out of respect, but out of despair. Thus, a rapist is rewarded with a beautiful and obedient wife without having paid for his wrongdoing or learning from it, and a tale that seems set out to propound a female-first agenda undermines itself by expounding male entitlement, which raises interesting questions about whether or not this tale was intended to be proto-feminist at all. Many feminists today might blindly applaud this tale for promoting a feminist vision of the world without realizing the male entitlement and endorsement of rape culture latent throughout the story. Megan Valley elaborates on this theme of how the Wife of Bath is pseudo-feminist rather than proto-feminist in her post entitled: “How the Wife of Bath Gone Girl’d Us.”

Unlike “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew appears to be intended as a kind of wife-beating romp which undermines any idea of female sovereignty. Many feminists today would reject this play as blatantly unfeminist, which is understandable if one considers the clip of the “Punch” scene below, which is from Sam Taylor’s film adaptation of the play, as a summary of the play as a whole:

If this is how we are to read The Taming of the Shrew, surely this play offers nothing to modern audiences, who often view it “barbarous, offensive, and misogynistic” (Costa). And yet, it continues to draw audiences, who must be either “secret sadists,” or else the production must offer a deeper reading of gender relations than readily appears (Costa).

Katherine’s final speech usually punctuates the arguments of those who would see Taming as the ultimate how-to guide for misogyny. Katherine, once headstrong and bold, now appears meek and docile, blathering on and on with lines such as:

But now I see our [women’s] lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare…
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:

In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease. (Shakespeare ln 189-195)

Katherine literally and figuratively places herself below her husband, almost as his servant. Though it may seem that Petruchio has tamed this shrew completely, in many ways, the taming can be subverted.

If we examine the word “shrew” in this context, the Oxford English Dictionary would define it as “a person, esp.(now only) a woman given to railing or scolding or other perverse or malignant behaviour; frequently a scolding or turbulent wife” (OED). At the conclusion of the play, Katherine lectures and scolds the two other wives in a speech over 40 lines long. In this light, it seems like she remains “a woman given to railing or scolding” rather than being tamed (OED). Additionally, the final speech can be given ironically or sarcastically, with the power dynamics shifting, as occurs in Mary Pickford’s portrayal of Katherine, whose famous wink indicates that her flowery speech is mere lip-service (Wink at 1:18):

Thus, the play can actively work against its appearance of misogyny, and even when it is portrayed as misogynistic, this appearance is so very repugnant that it undermines its own rhetoric. (For no audience can bear to watch Katherine be utterly battered and abused for 2 hours!) A middle ground is also possible, in which Petruchio does not stomp all over Katherine, but both of them undergo a pedagogical journey which ends somewhere in the middle: not with Katherine worshiping at her husband’s foot, but with them taking hands as equals, partners in the next chapter of their life (Speech begins at 23:40; Meeting in the middle begins at 27:00):

In the pedagogical journey in The Taming of the Shrew, either Petruchio or Katherine could be the shrew, because both are undergoing an education, which ultimately brings them closer together. The Wife of Bath’s Tale also includes a pedagogical journey, that of the Knight, who is supposed to learn to respect women. Though the education of Petruchio and Katherine unveils surprising lessons for them, subverting the misogynistic expectation laid out by the surface-level structure of the play, the Knight’s education reveals that the feminist lessons he was supposed to learn never take root. Thus, the Knight is never tamed, and the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” refuses to conform entirely to the proto-feminist message of sovereignty which it appears to promote. Both stories subvert the expectations that feminist readers bring to them, refusing to conform entirely to a misogynistic or proto-feminist message.

Mary Elsa Henrichs
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2012.

Costa, Maddy. “The Taming of the Shrew: ‘This Is Not a Woman Being Crushed’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Jan. 2012, www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jan/17/taming-of-the-shrew-rsc.

“Kiss Me, Petruchio, Part 2.” Youtube, uploaded by Ken Thorton, 30 December 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI9ogFdHWQQ.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew, from Folger Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2 April, 2018.

“Punch & Judy Shrew.” Youtube, uploaded by GoodmanDull, 2 September 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7vIQB60GjQ.

“The Taming of the Shrew Film Clip.” Youtube, uploaded by CSTONEUK, 25 September 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz9MfjuBB70.

Undergrad Wednesdays – How the Wife of Bath Gone Girl’d Us

[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.]

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a potential medieval husband’s worst nightmare: this Canterbury Tales pilgrim is bawdy, aggressively forward with her sexuality, power-hungry, and perhaps most offensively of all, average looking, at best. So terrifying are her confessions of sexual manipulation, that the Pardoner even interupts her Prologue with claims that he is now questioning his own impending marriage: “I was about to wed a wife, alas! / Why should I pay so dearly for it with my flesh?” (166–67, my translation). The Wife of Bath appears to be perpetuating negative portrayals of women; at the same time, she also appears to be satirizing men’s fears and anxieties about their wives and, by extension, all of womankind. Her extremely colorful (read: dirty and borderline-absurdist) humor could render her possibly anti-feminist tendencies to be ironic, along with her ability to engage with clerical knowledge, refusal to conform to restrictive expectations of women’s sexuality, and, ultimately, her ability to gain sovereignty, have been cited by many scholars to argue that the Wife of Bath is a proto-feminist. And certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that she is—see, for instance, Jessica Ping’s “Big Reputation,” which argues for reading the Wife of Bath as a Taylor Swift–type, who is herself an extremely problematic figure for many modern feminists.

Regardless, for many modern readers, it can be difficult to fully distinguish these subversions of feminine expectations from a reading that understands her as a woman who fulfills all of the medieval man’s worst fears about women. Many readers are caught in a web of interpretations: is the Wife of Bath proto-feminist for wanting control in her marriages? Pseudofeminist for being promiscuous and having five husbands? Or, ironically pseudofeminist to the point of coming back around to feminist? The lack of clarity surrounding whether the Wife of Bath is normative or revolutionary makes it an extremely relevant text for contemporary fourth-wave feminism, which has seen young women, in particular, re-embrace typically “feminine” things that had previously been cast aside in a revolt against feminine expectations.

The character Amy Dunne—of the novel and film Gone Girl—also presents a complicated tension between perpetuation and deconstruction of feminist and anti-feminist tropes. Granted, Amy’s subversion of feminine tropes are far bloodier and terrifying than the Wife of Bath’s, but the plurality of possible readings are the same. Amy herself deconstructs the idea of the “Cool Girl”—the idealized woman she tried so hard to be—in a now-infamous monologue that appears in both the novel and the film:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. (Flynn 222)

Amy, by casting off her “Cool Girl” veneer, becomes a far darker version of the Wife of Bath: she, too, seeks to sexually manipulate the men in her life—via false rape accusations and pregnancies—and commandeer total power by fulfilling every anxiety, every fear that the contemporary man has about women. Chaucer’s medieval everyman fears their wife siphoning their money; Flynn’s contemporary everyman fears “crazy bitches” who ruin their lives with statistically improbable rape accusations and have complete financial power over them because they’ve been emasculated by their inability to be the breadwinner. Gone Girl’s author, Gillian Flynn, has been accused of misogyny because of her portrayal of Amy’s evilness: she lies about being raped on multiple occasions, goes to unbelievable lengths to manipulate the men in her life, and makes the typical “femme fatale” seem lighthearted and playful. Frankly, Amy’s a “psychotic bitch,” but does that make her antifeminist? Or is allowing a feminine character to revel in simply being a “psychotic bitch” without a necessarily political agenda feminist in its own right?

Both Gone Girl and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue are successful in how they tease out complicated questions of femininity and its place in society. What are the boundaries between a good woman, a good feminist, and a good character? These are the questions that force the reader to reconsider their own expectations for and conceptions of gender, which can create a feminist narrative, even if the characters end up not being so. Whether or not a character is feminist might even be an arbitrary question; while much of the discourse surrounding Amy Dunne is centered on feminism, this video from Vanity Fair analyzes her character from a psychological standpoint, with no mention of whether she’s “feminist” or not.

Regardless of Chaucer’s intention when crafting the Wife of Bath’s character as well as his other female characters, a clever modern reader can see she is an embodiment of the most stereotypical fears of men (see Tess Kaiser’s “Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-Feminsim” to explore the question of feminism and pseudo-feminism in The Clerk’s Tale]. In her Prologue, the wife of Bath says “I had [my husbands] wholly in my hand / and since they had given me all their land, / Why should I take heed to please them, / Unless it were for my profit and pleasure?” (Chaucer 211–14, my translation). The Wife of Bath, claiming to use her husbands for their assets and control them with sex, plays off the same core of insecurity that Amy does: sexuality and power dynamics within marriage. The manifestations are different, but there is still some universal commentary about the nature of men—and, almost necessarily, the nature of women—that’s being made by how they toy with and fuel those fears.

Above all, the Wife of Bath and Amy are threatening because they are coded as typically masculine: they’re strong, and complicated, and clever, and crave power. Whether it’s feminist to defy gender norms or anti-feminist to suggest that the only strong woman is a masculine woman is precisely Flynn’s point; whatever Chaucer’s intention was, a modern reading of a medieval character is clearly inspirational to imagined gender relations. The strength of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Gone Girl is that neither of them are clear-cut; the reader is forced to confront their own opinions about gender.

Megan Valley
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview editions, 2012.

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York, Broadway Books, 2012.