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The Medieval Perception of Rape as Depicted by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Medieval Perception of Rape as Depicted by Geoffrey Chaucer Essay

Humour, introspection, and allegory aside, The Canterbury Tales stands alone as one of the greatest social commentaries in the history of the English language. Chaucer uses a collection of prologues and tales to explore the issues that lie at the very heart of medieval life. His work as a civil servant brought him into contact with every level of society, and consequently, this chameleon-like author bravely tested the waters of social tolerance with his tales of church corruption, courtly love, trade secrets, and the relationships between men and women.

Chaucer’s portrayal of the Medieval ‘ying and yang’ of the gender interface is a recurring theme. His descriptions of courtly love, interplay within the marriage, and male dominance culminating in the crime of rape are three examples that illustrate Chaucer’s desire to explore the influence of human nature on gender inequality. When reviewing the General Prologue and thirteen tales studied this term, rape is an integral part of no less than four of the works. Therefore, I have chosen to analyze the representation of rape in the General Prologue, and tales of The Summoner, The Reeve, The Wife of Bath, and The Franklin. Chaucer’s carefully crafted tales use rape to emphasize the foibles of male human nature and, ‘gentillesse’ aside, Chaucer proves that moral corruption and degradation is inherent in every level of society. Gender inequality, a norm in 14th century England, was the accepted social harbouring of possession; nevertheless, Chaucer clearly intends that rape should be seen as the selfish male desire to use sexuality as a tool of empowerment and ‘maistrye’.

It would be of limited value to look at the crime of rape in the 14th century without first discussing the importance of virginity or ‘maidenhede’. The medieval church’s advocacy of virginity and celibacy represents one facet of the medieval aesthetic ideal. There was a very real belief in the ‘perfect maiden, perfect wife’, and although St. Jerome, in his fourth century The Epistle against Jovinium, acknowledged that marriage was an acceptable outlet for sexuality, he maintained that virginity was the ‘superior state’. The issue of rape seriously compromised the image of perfection, and hence “in medieval moral theology, theologians debated the subjective guilt of the rape victim. While the general principle was that unwilling victims of rape remain, morally, virgins, early Church fathers also considered the morality of suicide to preserve virginity in the face of threatened rape” (Hallissy, 51).

The Canterbury Tales opens with the General Prologue. This short narrative not only sets the rules for the ‘tale-telling competition’, but introduces the characters by ‘degree’, physical characteristics, and reputation. Chaucer creates structural irony using the literary device of the ‘naive hero’, as Geoffrey assumes the role of the obtuse narrator-journalist. Within this role he is able to share information and character traits about his fellow pilgrims, which prove to be both enlightening and damning.

A close reading of the General Prologue gives us our first indication that not all is well with Medieval society. Chaucer introduces Huberd as “A FRERE ther was, a wantowne and a merye”( GP, 208 ). The word ‘wantowne’ can be translated as pleasure-loving, but after considering the Friar’s inappropriate attentions toward women, the alternate translation, ‘lascivious’ might be more appropriate. The ‘naive’ Geoffrey notes the Friar has a neck as white as a lily flower (GP,238), which was thought by the 14th century physiognomists to be a sign of lecherousness. Using juxtapositional irony, Chaucer darkens the profile noting, “Therto he strong was as a champion” (GP, 239). Not only is the Friar a letch, but he is as strong as a champion fighter. The implication is clear; sex by force. The Summoner, in his tale, reinforces the lecherous reputation of the Friar when he describes the Friar’s visit to the home of a sick man. On entering the home he embraces the wife in his arms ‘tightly’, and on giving her the customary kiss of peace he “chirketh as a sparwe” (ST, 1804). The sparrow, another medieval symbol of lechery, has entered the home.

Geoffrey the narrator notes of the Friar ,

He hadde maad ful many a mariage

Of yonge women at his owene cost.

Unto his ordre he was a noble post.

(GP, 212-214)

This double entendre, or reference to the ‘noble post’, would indicate the Friar was a valued supporter of his order, but the second and more sexually graphic meaning would not have been lost on even the most naive of readers. So why is he so keen to arrange the marriage of young women at his own cost? It must be assumed that the result of his seduction was directly responsible for the need for marriage. Given his position in society, and his male ‘maistrye’, the ‘many’ women indicate a disturbing trend. Like the wax coating of his “peyre of tables” (ST, 1741), his history and his conscience are wiped clean once the girls are married off.

Despite twinkling eyes and an endearing lisp, it would seem unlikely that young ladies would choose to have unprotected intercourse with an overweight, experienced, licensed beggar. To begin with, there would be no possibility for marriage with the Friar, and considering that he was a lymytour, technically without income or possessions, he would have been considered a poor bet for even the most unfortunate of maidens. However, given the Friar’s propensity for frequenting inns and taverns, it would not be unlikely that illicit opportunities might present themselves in the wee hours of the morning. In closing, one must consider that by the nature of his job, tied to the authority of the church, he would be permitted to enter most medieval homes in a ‘position of trust’. Although Friars generally travelled in pairs, the Summoner’s Tale indicates that the fellow friar was sent ahead to find a room at the inn, leaving the Friar to carry out an unchaperoned visit. The number of young women for whom he had apparently arranged marriages would indicate that this church mendicant was an opportunist at best, and, sadly albeit likely, an occasional rapist.

The Reeve’s Tale is a fabliaux. The conventions of a fabliaux require the inclusion of practical jokes and sex, but it is the representation of rape as a joke to ‘quite’ not the women, but the drunken miller, that invites examination. This tale includes not one rape but two. The rape of the daughter occurs through a surprise attack while she is asleep, and the rape of the wife occurs through misrepresentation in the dead of night. The clerks justify their attack on the women through their corruption of the laws of the land:

Som esement has lawe yshapen us,

For, John, ther is a lawe that sys thus:

That gif a man in a point be agreved,

That in another he sal be relieved.

Oure corm is stolin, sothly, it is na nay,

And we han had an il fit al this day;

Any syn I sal have neen amendement

Agayn my los, I will have esement.

By Goddes sale, it sal neen other bee!

(RT, 4179-4187)

The value placed on the women in the eyes of the scholarly clerks is important here, as the “male-dominated institutions that have in effect ‘enchanted’ men and women alike in accepting as ‘natural’ the socially imposed moral, physical, and social inferiority of women.” (Leicester, 238). In an effort to exact revenge upon the miller, the two clerks rape his wife and daughter. The women are not seen as human beings with individual rights, but as property or ‘chattel personal’ ( OED), to be stolen from the miller in revenge for his theft of grain. The value of the daughter’s presumed virginity is deemed equivalent to a sack of flour. By morning the daughter and the clerk seem to be getting along well, but that does not deter from the fact that intercourse by force and without consent constitutes rape, and the presumption of entitlement by the clerks creates the literary tension that drives the fabliaux. These acts of rape, be they crimes of opportunity, a practical joke, or true revenge, were intended to be acts of empowerment over the dishonest miller. The true damage might be better viewed through the metaphor of a misplaced modifier. In their attempt to ‘screw’ the miller, the selfish clerks had ‘disparaged’ the daughter and broken the ‘herte’ of the wife.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale paints a much darker picture of rape. A lusty bachelor from King Arthur’s court:

That on a day cam ridynge fro ryver,

And happed that, allone as he was born,

He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,

Of which mayde anon, maugree his head,

By verray force, he rafte hirs maydenhed;

(WBT 884-888)

Chaucer inverts many aspects of Medieval life in this tale. This tale not only depicts the cruel and violent act of rape, but refers to it as an act entered into “alone as he was born”; namely without the inhibited manner, courtesy, or decency expected of civilized or learned behaviour. The introduction of a knight-rapist turns courtly love and the concept of Arthurian “gentillesse” upside down. The convention of courtly love is one of romance, obedience, and male servitude, however this tale confirms there is nothing courtly about rape. In addition, despite this young knight’s high standing in society, there is nothing noble about his actions. As the wise old hag reminds him near the end of the tale,

“He nys nat gentil, be he duc or erl,

For vileyns synful dedes make a cherl.

For gentillesse nys but renomee”

Of thyne auncesters, for hire heigh bountee,

Which is a strange thying to thy persone.

Thy gentillesse cometh fro God alone.

Thanne comth oure verray gentillesse of grace;

It was no thing biquethe us with oure place.

(WBT, 1157-1164)

She is empowered by her wisdom but, as a supernatural creature, is she a woman?

Once the knight has gained his freedom, he pleads with the old woman to release him from his pledge of marriage, but the impact of his evil deed has become a lesson in life. In an ironic inversion of his earlier crime, the knight implores the old woman, “Taak al my good and lat my body go.” (WBT, 1061). He is freed from death, but has lost his freedom to choose. “Having raped a maiden, stolen her most intimate bodily property, he is suddenly faced himself with a stark reminder of just how intimate and how precious bodily property is – no amount of goods is worth the bondage of your body,” (Shoaf, 100).

Finally, this is not a story about a 14th century rape. The rape, a crime of opportunity and selfish indulgence, sets up the primary plot; a fairy-tale about the balancing of power in relationships. Rape, the ultimate symbol of mental, social, and physical gender inequality, is represented in this tale by a man and a woman, a knight and a lowly shepherdess, a lusty bachelor and a young, desperate virgin. The Wife of Bath has chosen a tale that opens with the plight of a powerless woman, but calls on the magic of the elf-queen to restore balance. In telling of her tale, The Wife of Bath has an agenda, and when the Queen decides that the ‘knight can spare his own life’ if he is able to determine “What thing is it that women moost desiren.” (WBT, 905), one cannot fail to see the multi-faceted structural irony created by this punitive sentence.

The final tale, The Franklin’s Tale, is a Breton Lai that explores the relationships between men and women, but unique to this tale is that “it is the only one to confront the experience of non-consensual sex from the woman’s point of view” ( Mann, 171) . When Dorigan’s rash promise to an ardent suitor backfires, she is forced to commit adultery in order to honour her word. She is grief stricken, as she feels trapped between death and dishonour,

Hath ther nat many a noble wyf er this,

And many a mayde, yslayn hirself, allas,

Rather than with hir body doon trespass?

(FT, 1364-1366)

In this tale, Chaucer extensively explores the medieval relationship between sexual dishonour and death. Dorigan verbalizes a convention common to suffering women, “The violence that women are unable to turn against men… they turn against themselves. Thus several of the good women commit suicide” ( Hallissy, 29). In an effort to muster the courage to ‘hirselven slee’, Dorigan recites the grisly stories of feminine martyrs who have chosen suicide over sin. Chaucer draws on the work of St. Jerome here, and comes up with a treatise of no less than fifteen suicides committed in response to actual or threatened rape. The circumstances surrounding the rapes themselves are particularly violent and gratuitous, and seem to indicate Chaucer’s wish to represent female suffering in its most extreme form. The long and heroic list of honourable women emphasizes the difficult relationship between the medieval aesthetic ideal and the powerlessness of women. When it comes to the crime of rape, “the helplessness and almost catatonic passivity of a good woman” ( Hallissy, 29) has created a rift between the social self and physical self. The medieval woman had been trapped like a mouse. The aesthetic ideal was created and perpetuated by an all-powerful church, and as that institution is controlled by men, it comes down to ‘who painted the lion’.

In conclusion, it is both relevant and important to consider Chaucer’s own history. There is documented proof that Chaucer himself was charged with raptus in 1380. The facts are ambiguous, and the critics are still unsure as to whether the term ‘raptus’ meant kidnap or rape. It does however seem convincing that Chaucer’s representation of rape likely involved much thought, and possibly a healthy dose of conscience. The Canterbury Tales depicts rape as a crime of humour, opportunity, revenge, and entitlement under the spoils of battle. It exists as a result of human nature, but being a crime only men can commit, it must be seen as a crime of male empowerment. Crime is present in every level of society; however, as Chaucer proves, “rape remains a constant touchstone for determining justice between the sexes” (Mann, 36).

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