The Wife of Bath vs. Military Rapes

Wife of Bath

Last Monday Frank Bruni of The New York Times, looking at our never-ending stories of sexual assault, pessimistically wondered whether men have “some ineradicable predatory streak.” He concluded, however, that the tendencies are more cultural than biological and found solace in the idea that the culture can be fixed. In that hope, he would have an ally in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.

Here’s Bruni:

 Steubenville. The Naval Academy. Vanderbilt University. The stories of young men sexually assaulting young women seem never to stop, despite all the education we’ve had and all the progress we’ve supposedly made, and there are times when I find myself darkly wondering if there’s some ineradicable predatory streak in the male subset of our species.

Looking for solutions, Bruni turned to psychology professor Chris Kilmartin, author of The Masculine Self and one who has advised the armed services in how to prevent sexual violence. At present Kilmartin is at the Air Force Academy and previously he helped write a training film for the the Army and worked on a Naval Academy curriculum.

Kilmartin sees the problem as “movies, manners and a set of mores, magnified in the worlds of the military and sports, that assign different roles and different worth to men and women.” The good news, according to Bruni, is that Martin believes that even our most macho organizations are not beyond hope:

The armed services are a special challenge, because they’re all about aggression, summoning and cultivating Attila the Hun and then asking him to play Sir Walter Raleigh as well.

But Kilmartin said that that’s a resolvable tension, if men are conditioned to show the same self-control toward women that they do, successfully, in following myriad military regulations; if they’re encouraged to call out sexist behavior; and if, above all, commanders monitor their own conduct, never signaling that women are second-class citizens.

I don’t know that assigning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath Tale to male cadets would make much of a difference, but the story makes some useful suggestions.

Alison begins her tale with an account of a young Camelot knight who rapes a maiden. He is brought up before Queen Guinevere, who has the power to sentence him to death. Instead, she gives him a year’s reprieve. In that year, he must find out what women most desire. If he discovers the answer, he will be spared. If not, he will lose his head.

The knight travels all over England talking to women, and each one gives him a different answer. On the last day before returning to Camelot, he encounters an old hag who is, in reality, the queen of the fairies in disguise. She tells him that she has the answer but that, in return for her telling him, he must promise to do whatever she requests. He has no choice and must agree.

The answer is “sovereignty.” The knight delivers the answer to Guinivere and gets a reprieve:

My lige lady, generally, quod he,
Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over his housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.
Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille.
In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne mayde,

Ne wydwe, that contraried that he sayde,
But seyden he was worthy han his lyf.

Along with his “lyf,” however, he also gets a wife, which is what the old hag demands. He is appalled and wails away in his marriage bed. She tries to convince him that outward appearance isn’t everything and that she has a beautiful soul, but her eloquent argument fails to convince. Finally, she offers him a choice. He can have her as she is at present—ugly, old and poor but, on the plus side, absolutely loyal. Or she, being a fairy, can transform herself into a young, beautiful, but also unfaithful maiden. What’s it to be?

As it turns out, he comes up with exactly the right answer. He lets her decide:

I put me in youre wise governance;
Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance,
And moost honour to yow and me also.
I do no fors the wheither of the two;
For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.

When she determines that she has heard aright, that he is giving her the sovereignty to make the decision, she gives him what he most desires: a young beautiful wife who will always be true:

Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie, quod she,
Syn I may chese and governe as me lest?
Ye, certes, wyf, quod he, I holde it best.
Kys me, quod she, we be no lenger wrothe;
For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe,
This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.

When I teach the Wife of Bath’s tale, I tell my students that they shouldn’t be deceived by the old woman’s original answer. Sovereignty isn’t what women want most. The real answer can be found in the very nature of the task that Guinevere has set for the knight and that has led him to his marriage bed declaration. If the queen has forced him to journey the whole country over listening to women—listening as if his life depended on it (and it does)—it is because what women most desire is to be listened to. Or as Aretha Franklin would put it, what women most desire is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The knight truly listens to his wife and, as a result, reciprocity results.

The Wife of Bath knows that executing the rapist is not going to solve society’s problem with predatory men. Instead, they need intensive training in how the other gender thinks and feels. If they get that, then true companionship can replace the war of the sexes.

Chaucer came up with the solution (albeit only in story form) six hundred years ago. Now consultants like Kilmartin are training men to think of women as more than “second class citizens.”

Of course, Queen Guinevere gets the knight to embark on his educational quest by threatening death. What motivation can our society provide?

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