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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  • This is a fabulous post, which I’ll share w/ students this next school year when I teach “The Canterbury Tales.” Our discussion of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” generates excellent comments from students about whether or not the Wife argues women want to control men or simply get respect from them. I really like the way you bring forward listening, which is something I’ll definitely emphasize more in the future.

    BTW, I like to introduce the Wife’s tale w/ a clip from the movie “What Women Want.” It works really well w/ high school students, most of whom really enjoy the wife’s tale.

  • Robin Bates

    I like the idea of using the clip from What Women Want, Glenda. I should add one thing, which is why the Wife of Bath would say she wants sovereignty–and why she may even believe this–when she really wants mutual respect. I think that 14th century marriages could only think in terms of sovereign (man)-subject (woman). So Alison thinks she wants what men have. But when she gets sovereignty in our own life (marriage #5 with young Janekin), she realizes something precious is missing and tries to engineer a marriage with more reciprocity. It does work, given the prejudices of the time (he thinks that, to be a man, he must control his woman), so she wrests back control. But she imagines a different outcome in her tale–and that outcome involves getting sovereignty and then relinquishing it. This is the only language that she has in medieval Europe for communicating a 21st century ideal.

    Isn’t it remarkable that Chaucer could listen to women of his age so deeply as to figure this out?

  • It’s really kind of you to write such a thoughtful and lengthy response to my comment given the grief you and your family are currently experiencing.

    When my school was on semesters rather than trimesters, I like to use an assignment from edsitement: “How Would the Wife of Bath Debate Church Fathers?” I don’t have time for it now; however, it’s an excellent opportunity to bridge informational texts w/ imaginative ones. I think reading the Wife’s tale w/out knowing her prologue makes understanding her story difficult, so at a minimum I provide an interactive summary of the prologue to students.

  • Robin Bates

    I actually find it a relief to talk about literature at this time, Glenda You are absolutely right that the tale becomes much, much richer if one sees it through the vantage point of the prologue. My students debate whether the Wife is a feminist and there is a strong case to be made on both sides: either that the tale is a reactionary fantasy (only by being young and beautiful can one be happy) or that it’s a strong stance for female autonomy.

    With regard to the debate with the church fathers, I see it through the lens of her personality as well. I think she knows that her fellow pilgrims are condemning her for her multiple marriages and her overt sexuality and also that she wants to be part of their club. So she tries to impress them with her learning–and although she makes some pretty good points, for the most past she’s all over the map and not impressing anyone. And midway through her argument she sees that they are laughing at her and switches tactics, deciding to play to the hilt their stereotype of the predatory widow. Somewhat like Mae West or Madonna, she figures the best defense is going on the attack. (Unlike the prioress, who tries to play the dainty lady.) As a result, she titillates some (the pardoner, the summoner), and while she outrages the friar, he’s such a hypocrite (he preys on vulnerable young women) that he has no standing (other than the church’s suspicion of women) to fight back. She is such a luminescent bigger-than-life character that by her very vitality she exposes the thinness of church theology, even if some of her arguments are off the wall. (My favorite: Christ was white bread, I’m brown bread, but with brown bread Christ fed the multitudes and so I’m doing Christ-like work with my overt sexuality.) The friar doesn’t stand a chance against her torrent of words and twisted logic.

  • Kathy Fine-Dare

    I will find ways to repost this lovely piece more broadly, but it will be an explicit reading in my anthropology course on Native American Gender Issues so that we may contemplate the important notion of sovereignty in terms that go beyond (and more deeply within) the cultural collective. I am saddened to learn obliquely through earlier posts that your family is going through hard times, Robin, and hope tht your readers can do what you do for us, find something in literature to move us beyond walls of hopelessness and pain.

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