The Wife of Bath, Rape, and the Ethical Classroom
In March of 2013, I was teaching “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s late fourteenth-century novel Canterbury Tales. In this story, a knight, convicted of rape, is given the opportunity to save his life by going on a quest to learn what women most desire. He eventually meets an old and hideous woman, the “Loathly Lady” of many medieval stories and fairy tales, who gives him the answer—that women want mastery over their husbands—in return for his promise to do whatever she wants. What she wants is to be married to the knight, who ungraciously calls her old and ugly on their wedding night. After a lecture on true nobility, she offers him a choice: to have her beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful. He, probably seeing no escape, gives her the choice, at which point she becomes both beautiful and faithful. In short, as my students note, his reward for rape is the perfect woman. Undoubtedly, the story is problematic. Although medieval audiences would have perceived this as a comedy, it doesn’t strike many modern readers as funny (but students usually enjoy trying to figure out what the correct answers to both questions should be). In that particular March, however, a student responded in a new way: “How do we know she was really raped?” I was caught off guard, first, because the rape is unambiguously stated (“By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed,” by true force, he stole her virginity). In addition, the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial was very much in the news and on my mind that week.
The previous August, two high school students raped another student, a crime made more heinous by the fact that several friends of the rapists helped transport the victim, who was incapacitated by alcohol and at times unconscious, and photographed and videotaped the assault, later sharing those images on social media. Almost as appalling as these crimes, however, was the reaction of the general public and media. Many blamed the victim for being drunk and getting herself into the situation, while others, including major news outlets, seemed more focused on the rapists having squandered their promising futures, which were to include football scholarships and possibly professional sports careers, than on justice for the underage victim. Unfortunately, this is only one example of how rape and rape victims are frequently perceived in our culture, and I wondered if these perceptions, and indeed other pervasive misogynist attitudes toward girls and women in general, had influenced the student’s reading of the medieval text. Her question, and the ensuing heated discussion among her classmates, emphasized the narrow gap between what we do as scholars and teachers and how we engage with society at large.
Despite having taught the “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” many times and to hundreds of students, from sophomores to graduate students, I left class feeling inadequately prepared to teach the work in our specific modern context. My experience led me to organize a panel discussion at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, and, judging by the vigorous discussion of the panelists and audience members, many college teachers have similar concerns about how best to address sensitive topics like rape in the classroom.
The Wife of Bath, one of the Canterbury pilgrims and storytellers of Chaucer’s collection, is one of the most memorable of his characters. Alisoun is a flashy dresser, has a bawdy sense of humor, and has been married and widowed five times. In her prologue she describes manipulating her husbands, using her wit and her body. Her favorite husband, we learn, is the much younger Jankyn. She relates how, fed up with his “book of wicked wives,” which includes stories of the most deceitful women in history, she ripped out its pages. In response, he hits her hard enough to knock her out and deafen her in one ear, but she quickly uses this to her advantage: playing on his guilt, she persuades him to give her all the power in their marriage after which they get along beautifully. The audience is meant to perceive both the Wife and her tale in a comic light, but for a modern audience that’s easier said than done. As my student’s question and the class discussion show, a modern audience might react with skepticism or, more typically, just doesn’t find rape and domestic violence a joking matter.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is far from the only example of rape in medieval literature. Many of Chaucer’s other stories feature rape, often in comic vignettes like this one. In Old French pastourelles, the rape of a flirtatious but reluctant shepherdess by the lover knight is almost de rigueur. Even Camelot, home of the noble King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is, as Amy Vines writes, “saturated” with rape: Arthur himself is the result of Uther’s rape of Igraine, and in one of his quests he avenges the rape and murder of a maiden by the Giant of Mont St. Michel. Galahad, the most pure of knights and finder of the Holy Grail, is the result of Lancelot’s rape by Elaine (through sexual trickery not unlike that employed by Uther). It’s no surprise then that “The Wife of Bath” is set in this landscape. It is King Arthur who first sentences the rapist knight to death and Guinevere who, in an act of governance over her husband, gives him a second chance. The omnipresence of rape might seem unremarkable in a class on medieval literature because students, and the public at large, have a general sense of the era as the “Dark Ages” (a term long out of use among scholars in medieval studies), thanks in part to television shows like Game of Thrones or The Vikings, which—in addition to the stereotypical squalor and superstition that mark “the medieval”—feature frequent sexual violence. The teacher of medieval literature, already challenged by the temporal, cultural, and linguistic gulf between the modern and medieval eras, is further tasked with dispelling misconceptions while addressing controversial topics like sexual violence in ways that are academically as well as ethically sound.
Teaching and learning, particularly in higher education, have always been political acts and have become even more so in recent years. Teachers who strive for a compassionate classroom are accused of catering to “snowflakes,” a derogatory term characterizing young adults as overly sensitive and fragile, and such derision has crept into discussions of how best to address sexual violence on campus. Notably, commentator George Will claimed that victimhood is a “coveted status” which “confers privileges on college campuses.” On the contrary, being the victim of sexual assault on a college campus leads to many negative results: beyond contributing to the documented mental health crisis in higher education, victims of sexual assault have difficulty concentrating, high rates of absenteeism, and lower graduation rates. When teaching medieval rape narratives I am particularly cognizant of studies showing that more than 1 in 10 high school girls will have been physically forced to have sexual intercourse, and that in college, nearly 20 percent of women, and about 6 percent of men, will be the victims of attempted or actual sexual assault. We should care about these numbers not just because of their impact on academic success, but also because as teachers we care about the whole person regardless of whether we buy into the philosophy of in loco parentis. One does not need a formal trigger warning—which Will derisively likens to swaddling students in a “‘safe,’ ‘supportive,’ ‘unthreatening’ environment, intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant”—in order to be sensitive to student trauma. On the contrary, to ignore the personal experiences, values, and beliefs that students bring to the classroom is both academically and ethically irresponsible. Furthermore, effectively tackling difficult topics in the classroom helps students not only better engage with coursework but also successfully make connections with their lives outside of the classroom.
Evelyn Birge Vitz has criticized feminist studies of medieval rape for “being plagued by a tendency toward naïve, anachronistic, and inappropriate readings of literary works, high levels of indignation and self-pity, and a pervasive hostility to men.” In contrast, Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver argue for a conscious rereading of rape, particularly when it has been “deflected” as it is in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” where it arguably becomes merely a plot device and the knight’s physical power over a maiden corresponds to the old woman’s power over the knight at the end of the story. Indeed, one common interpretation of the ending is that the knight has learned his lesson and justice has been served. While this may be a legitimate reading, it’s not unreasonable to still feel uncomfortable. Acknowledging our discomfort can help modern readers “reclaim the physical, material bodies of women from their status as ‘figures’ and reveal ways in which violence marks the female subject both physically and psychologically.” Far from being naïve or inappropriate, such readings require us to consider both the text’s historical milieu and that of readers and critics.
In recent years, I’ve had success on this front through incorporating the modern retelling of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from the 2003 BBC series The Canterbury Tales into my classes. Although it is set in the present, both the bawdy humor and the pathos of the Middle English character come through. Students quickly determine that main character Beth Craddock cleverly blends Alisoun of Bath with the Loathly Lady. They also note the effective adaptation of Chaucer’s narrative frame of the pilgrim storytellers. The episode begins with Beth talking about her experiences in love and life for a documentary. Her life is of interest because she, with another nod to Chaucer’s stories within stories, is the star of a popular soap opera. We learn that like Alisoun, Beth has been married multiple times. When husband number five leaves her, she seeks solace in the arms of the much younger Jerome who plays opposite her in the soap opera. Like the Alisoun/Loathly Lady conflation in Beth, Jankyn and the rapist knight are intertwined in the characters of Jerome and his soap opera counterpart Gary. And just as the rape in the original Tale appears briefly, here rape is likewise mentioned fleetingly.
In this retelling, we hear about the rape as a soap opera plot-line during a story meeting involving possible story outcomes after the rape. When Beth suggests that her character Roz would not rush to condemn Gary, who has been accused of the crime, the producer protests that they shouldn’t forget that a girl really has been raped. Like the invisible rape victim in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the victim’s name is never spoken. The erasure of the crime is more complete than in Chaucer’s version in that we don’t hear what, if any, the legal repercussions are. Instead, one of the writers suggests a compromise: “What if…Roz gets him off the hook? She says to him, ‘If I get you off the hook, you have to do anything I ask’?” The payment, of course, is that Roz wants the young rapist to sleep with her. “Why,” the producer asks agitatedly, “would she want to sleep with the rapist in the first place?” “Because,” interrupts the writer, “she’s feeling old and unattractive.”
This exchange mirrors my students’ classroom discussions of Chaucer’s tale. Having already connected the Loathly Lady to the Wife of Bath, students consider new ways of understanding the relation between Alisoun’s marital experience in the Prologue and the violence in the Tale. Of course, many students consider the rape as nothing more than a means to send the knight on his quest, but those students who are bothered by the crime’s quick introduction and dismissal identify a parallel in the way that the television characters react. Despite the producer’s doubts that a woman would find a rapist attractive, dominant female voices—those of Beth, her makeup artist, and a production assistant—fully support Roz’s forgiveness of and subsequent lovemaking with Gary, the rapist. In discussing the original plan to have Roz condemn Gary’s actions, her hairdresser exclaims, “It’s so wrong!… Roz wouldn’t do that.” “She’d believe Gary,” agrees the assistant. “She’d sympathize with him. She’d get him off the hook even if he had raped Lauren.” In the course of a scene, the rape has gone from fact, as stated by the producer, to merely a possibility. Elaine Tuttle Hanson’s description of the aftermath of Chaucer’s literary rape is apropos here: “[The] apparent seriousness of the crime is thoroughly undercut by the breathless, offhand manner in which it is reported[…]: the knight is reprieved as swiftly as he was condemned, thanks to the intervention of the queen and ladies. Their response seems to confirm what the Wife alleged in her prologue, that women really love a violent man.” But what Beth’s character in the BBC retelling alleges is not that women love a violent man but that some women in search of true love will put up with a violent man.
Just as the soap opera character Roz, feeling old and unattractive, pursues a relationship with Gary, Beth, feeling unloved in the wake of her fourth failed marriage, quickly marries Jerome. And, reflecting Alisoun’s beating at the hands of Jankyn, he—in retaliation for what he sees as Beth’s controlling nature—beats Beth up. After the abuse, Beth undergoes plastic surgery, not to repair Jerome’s damage but to look younger. For some students, this shows Beth’s (and by extension, Alisoun’s) conniving nature, proof that she’s already on the prowl for husband number six. For me, however, and many students, this version suggests what I have long sensed about the Wife of Bath—part of her enduring popularity is due to her comic bluster but also her vulnerability. Are we really meant, after all, to take her words at face value? Is it possible that someone would sail through such an experience emotionally unscathed? And what of the Loathly Lady and the question of her desire to marry a rapist?
Many students are quick to point out that Beth and Jerome’s language and actions reflect those of a batterer and a battered wife. Chagrined and tear-stained, Jerome tells the police officers who arrest him, “I shouldn’t’ve hit her. See, I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I love her and I’ve always loved her.” When he learns that she has dropped the charges against him, he visits her flowers in hand and apologizes profusely: “I’m sorry. Do you hate me? You can’t hate me more than I hate myself.” When he asks his wife, “Why didn’t you press charges?” she answers, “Because I didn’t want you to hate me.” In this light, her plastic surgery is not, as some students argue, simply because she wants to look younger, retain control over her young husband, or seduce husband number six. Instead, like her soap opera counterpart Roz, Beth has been feeling old and unattractive (in fact Jerome in his drunken rage tells her that she’s “old, fat and ugly” and will die alone). Post-surgery, she tells him she’s done it for him so that she won’t look like his mother. As his medieval counterpart does, Jerome promises that he has changed, saying, “I will never piss you off again. I’ll do everything you tell me to do.” And, like Alisoun who is willing to forgive and forget, Beth clearly wants love, saying, “Promise me you won’t go away again. Promise me you’ll never leave me.”
One might suppose that Beth, and by extension Alisoun and the Loathly Lady, are simply unable to live without a man—even in the latter case one who has never expressed remorse or even acknowledged his crime. Even the premise of the original story that women most desire control in marriage is shown to be a red herring: when her rapist husband allows her to choose whether to be beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful, the Loathly Lady relinquishes all control to her husband and “obeyed hym in every thyng/ That myghte doon hym plesance or liking,” that is, she obeyed him in all things that might please him. The modern Beth, despite all her material success and power, likewise is still at the mercy of someone or something else. Chaucer wrote in a time when women’s sexuality and autonomy were circumscribed by a Church that viewed women as the offspring of Eve, sexual temptresses responsible for introducing sin into the world. Kathleen Forni notes that instead of “ecclesiastical opinions regarding female sexuality,” Beth faces something “equally pernicious: the Western cult of youthful physical beauty.”
Our own students, both male and female, are cognizant of how both opinions on female sexuality and cultural expectations operate today and likely feel these restrictions in their own lives. Perhaps my student’s question about whether the knight “really raped her” stemmed from an unrecognized or unarticulated place of uncertainty over lack of control. Suzanne Edwards suggests that “[in] making visible masculine aggression and feminine suffering, the [rape] scene [in the Wife of Bath’s Tale] makes it possible to see the pervasive social inequalities linked to gender difference.” In our supposedly post-feminist world, people often deny that such inequalities exist, and women, especially young women, may be reluctant to acknowledge them. My hope is that helping students address these concerns is a step toward preparing them for the challenges they face now and those that will come after they leave our classrooms.
Alison Gulley is Professor of English and affiliate faculty in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at Appalachian State University, where she teaches medieval literature and History of the English Language. She is author of The Displacement of the Body in Ælfric’s Lives of the Roman Virgins (Ashgate, 2014), which received the 2014 Best First Book Award from Southeastern Medieval Association, and editor of Teaching Rape in the Medieval Literature Classroom: Approaches to Difficult Texts (University of Amsterdam Press, 2018).
 Amy N. Vines, “Invisible Woman: Rape as a Chivalric Necessity in Medieval Romance,” in
Sexual Culture in the Literature of Medieval Britain , eds. Amanda Hopkins, Robert Rouse, and
Cory James Rushton (Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2014), 165.
 George Will, “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-college-become-the-victims-of-progressivism/2014/06/06/e90e73b4-eb50-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html,> June 6, 2014, accessed January 2, 2020.
 West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, 1998– 2014, <www.fris.org/
CampusSexualViolence/CampusSexViolence.html>, accessed May 19, 2015.
 “Dear Colleague Letter: Sexual Violence Background, Summary, and fast Fact,” April 4, 2011, <www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-factsheet-201104.html>, accessed Dec. 10, 2019.
 Will, ibid.
 Evelyn Birge Vitz, “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections,” Romanic Review 88 (1997), 1.
 Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silvers, eds., Rape and Representation (New York: Columbia
Press, 1991), 4.
 Elaine Tuttle Hanson, “Of his love daungerous to me: Liberation, Subversion, and Domestic Violence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath –Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays From Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Peter Beidler, (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 280-281.
 Chaucer, 122.
 Kathleen Forni, “Popular Chaucer: The BBC’s Canterbury Tales,” Parergon 25. 1 (2008), 185.
 Suzanne M. Edwards, “The Rhetoric of Rape and the Politics of Gender in the Wife of Bath’s
Tale and the 1382 Statute of Rapes,” Exemplaria 23 (2011), 4.
Published on March 10, 2020.