I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

The Medieval Perception Of Rape As Depicted By Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales, despite its humor, allegory, and introspection, is undoubtedly one of English’s greatest social commentary. Chaucer explores medieval issues through prologues, tales and other literary devices. His civil service brought him into close contact with society at all levels. Consequently, this chameleon like author bravely pushed the boundaries of social tolerance in his stories about church corruption.

Chaucer portrays the Medieval ‘ying-and-yang’ at the interface of gender as a recurring motif. Chaucer uses three examples to illustrate his desire for gender equality: His description of courtly love and the interplay of male dominance within marriages. Four of the thirteen stories studied in this term include rape. The General Prologue as well as the stories of The Summoner The Reeve The Wife of Bath The Franklin and The Franklin have been chosen for analysis. Chaucer’s well-crafted tales make use of rape to illustrate the foibles and corruption of male nature. In 14th century England gender inequality was a social norm. Chaucer intended rape to be understood as a selfish man’s desire to use his sexuality in order for him gain power and achieve’maistrye.’

It is of little use to study the crime of sexual rape during the 14th-century without examining virginity. The medieval church’s support of virginity, celibacy and other virtues is an aspect of medieval aesthetics. St. Jerome’s fourth-century The Epistle against Jovinium acknowledged that marriage is an acceptable outlet of sexuality, yet he maintained virginity as the’superior condition’. The issue was that rape undermined this image and theologians in medieval morality debated subjective guilt for the victim. Early Church Fathers considered suicide as a way to maintain virginity when threatened with rape.

The Canterbury Tales starts with the general prologue. The General Prologue not only explains the rules of the ‘tale-telling contest’ but also introduces characters according to their ‘degree’ and physical characteristics. Chaucer uses literary devices such as the naive hero, and Geoffrey plays the part of an obtuse journalist/narrator. As a journalist, Geoffrey is able share character traits and information about his fellow travellers. These are both enlightening but also damning.

Chaucer introduces Huberd as “A FRERE ther was, a wantowne and a merye” (GP, 208). Chaucer describes Huberd in the General Prologue as “A FRERE there was, a wantingowne and merye”. The word wantowne is often translated as a pleasure-lover, but considering how the Friar treats women inappropriately, the alternative translation of ‘lascivious,’ may be more accurate. Geoffrey, the ‘naive,’ notes that the Friar’s neck is as white as a flower of lily (GP,238). This was considered by 14th-century physiognomists as a sign lecherousness. Chaucer adds a dark tone to the character by using juxtapositional Irony. “Therto was he as strong as a champ” (GP 239). The Friar is not only a leech, but is also as strong as an Olympic champion fighter. The implied meaning is that of sex through force. The Summoner’s tale reinforces that the Friar is a lecherous character when it describes the visit of the Friar to a sickly man’s home. He embraces his wife “tightly” as he enters, and gives her the traditional peace kiss. The sparrow is another medieval lechery symbol that has entered into the home.

Geoffrey The Narrator Notes Of The Friar

He had been to many weddings.

The cost of yonge womans.

His ordination was noble.

(GP, 212-214)

This double entendre would suggest that the Friar, by referring to his ‘noble posts’, was a loyal supporter. However, even the naivest reader could not miss the more sexually graphic second meaning. Why does he want to marry girls at his expense? It is safe to assume that he seduced the women and made them want to marry. The’many women’ indicate an alarming trend, given his social position and his male’maistrye.’ His history and conscience are erased, just like the wax on his “peyres of tables” (ST 1741).

Even though the beggar was overweight and experienced, it is unlikely that young girls would engage in unprotected sex with him. Even the poorest of girls would not have considered the Friar a good choice, as there was no chance for marriage. As a lymytour (a person without money or property), he could never be a suitable partner for a young woman. As the Friar was known to frequent taverns and inns at early hours, it is not surprising that illicit situations could arise. It is worth noting that the job of a friar was to be a trusted person in the home of kings and queens. The Summoner’s Tale reveals that although Friars travelled in pairs most of the time, the other friar would be sent to look for a room in the inn while the Friar went on an unsupervised visit. This would indicate a church mendicant who was at least opportunistic and possibly, but not likely, a frequent rapist.

The Reeve’s Tale was written as a Fabliaux. It is a fabliaux, which means that it must include sex and practical jokes. However, the rape of the woman by the drunken miller as a joke invites scrutiny. The story includes two rapes. The rape occurs in two ways: the first is through surprise, as the girl is sleeping. And the second occurs by misrepresentation at night. The clerks attack the women because they have corrupted the laws:

Som esement has lawe yshapen us,

John, there’s a lawe in place that says:

This gif is a man agreeing to a certain point.

The other person will relieve him.

Oure corm stolin is sothly nay.

We had a l fit today.

What syns have I not amended?

Agayn mein Verlust, werde ich esement.

It will not be sold by anyone else!

(RT, 4179-4187)

The importance of this is the view of the female clerks. They are “male-dominated” institutions, which have “enchanted”, men and girls alike, into accepting socially imposed social, moral, and physical inferiority. (Leicester, 238). The clerks attempt to avenge the miller by raping his daughter and wife. They are not seen by the two clerks as individuals with rights but rather as a ‘chattel’ or property that can be taken from the miller as retribution for his grain theft. The miller values the presumed virginity of his daughter at a bag of flour. The clerk and daughter are getting along by morning, but the fact remains that rape is committed when sexual relations occur without consent and with force. These rapes were not intended as a form of revenge or a joke. They were acts of empowerment against the dishonest merchant. You can better understand the real damage by using a metaphor. The selfish clerks, in their effort to’screw up’ the miller had slandered the daughter and shattered the herte of the wife.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale presents a darker view of rape. A lusty man from the court of King Arthur:

On a particular day, a camel sped away from the ryver.

It happened that, as soon as he grew up,

He said a walkynge him biforn.

Maugree his Head,

The rafte maydenhed was railed by force.

(WBT 884-888)

In this tale Chaucer turns many Medieval aspects upside down. The story not only shows the brutal and violent act, but also describes it as a violent act committed “alone” without inhibitions, decency, or courtesy. The introduction to a knight rapist flips the courtly concept of “gentillesse”, and turns it upside down. Rape does not fit into the conventions of courtly romance. This young knight is not a noble person, and his actions are not in keeping with the high status he holds. Near the end, the old wise hag reminds the young knight of this.

“He is not a gentleman, whether he be a duc or an erl.

For vileyns the cherl is made by synful.

For gentillesse nys but renomee”

For hire: thyne aunsters, heigh bounty

This is an odd thing for a person.

The only source of your gentillesse is God.

The grace of the Lord is upon us.

Nothing biquethed us about oure location.

(WBT, 1157-1164)

She is empowered and enlightened by her knowledge, but is this woman?

The knight, now free, pleads to the old woman for her release from the marriage vows he made. However, the evil deed he committed has been turned into a life lesson. In a humorous reversal, the knight asks the woman to let his body go. (WBT 1061). He has been saved from death but his choice is gone. He is reminded of how valuable and intimate body property is after he has raped the maiden.

It is important to note that this story does not concern a 14th-century rape. The main plot is a fairy tale about power balance in relationships. This tale represents rape as the ultimate symbol for mental, physical, and social inequality. A man and woman, a knight, and a shepherdess are all represented. The Wife’s tale begins with an impoverished woman. She then turns to the magic of her elf-queen, who restores balance. The Wife is telling a story with an agenda. The Queen will allow the ‘knight’ to save his or her life, if the knight is able determine what women want. (WBT. 905).

The Franklin’s Tale – a Breton Lai – is the final tale. This Breton Lai explores male and female relationships. But it’s also unique, because this is the first tale to examine nonconsensual sex through the eyes of the woman (Mann, 171). Dorigan, whose rash promise to a suitor backfires on her, is forced into adultery to honor her word. She feels betrayed by death, and is inconsolable.

There are many noble things to be said about this.

There are many maydes that yslayn themselves, alas.

Do you prefer to trespass with your body or without it?

(FT, 1364-1366)

Chaucer explores sexual dishonor in medieval times and the relationship between death and it. Dorigan’s expression of a common practice among suffering women is “the violence that women can’t turn against men…they turn themselves against.” Hallissy (1999) says that many of these good women committed suicide. Dorigan recounts the gruesome stories of martyred women who chose suicide to sin in order to gain the courage needed to wear the ‘hirselven sleeves’. Chaucer drew on St. Jerome to create a collection of suicides committed by women in response rape. Chaucer appears to be trying to express female suffering as it is in the most extreme way possible. The list of heroic women demonstrates the tension between medieval aesthetics and women’s powerlessness. Hallissy (29), in his book “The Crime of Rape”, says that the “helplessness of almost catatonic women” has created an rift between their social selves and their physical selves. The medieval women were trapped, like mice. The church was in charge of creating and maintaining the ideal.

It is important and relevant to look at Chaucer’s history. It is well documented that Chaucer was accused of raptus by the authorities in 1380. It is unclear whether raptus means kidnap, or rape. Chaucer’s depiction of rape is convincing, but it may have been influenced by a good deal of thought and conscience. The Canterbury Tales portrays crime as one that is motivated by humour or revenge. Rape also appears to be a crime committed for the sake of fun. Human nature is the reason for its existence, but because it can only be committed by men, it should be viewed as a crime of masculine empowerment. As Chaucer demonstrates, crime is prevalent at every level of the society. However, rape remains an important factor in determining equality between men and women.


  • emmetthouse

    Emmett House is a 29 yo school teacher and blogger who is passionate about education. He has a vast amount of experience in the field and is always eager to share his insights with others. Emmett is a dedicated teacher who truly cares about his students' success. He is also an expert on using technology in the classroom, and is always looking for new ways to engage his students.

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