Chaucer’s Solution for Sexual Assault

Illuminated manuscript illus. of Wife of Bath


Writing about the sexual harassers in the news, the New Yorker’s Masha Geesen recently made a point that reminds me of the Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale. Chaucer has some useful advice for us as we struggle with how to respond to everyone from Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Bill Clinton to Louis C. K., Al Franken, and Charlie Rose.

Geesen identifies our problem when she writes that

it is not possible to hold to account every man who has ever behaved disrespectfully and disgustingly toward a woman. Nor even every senator, or every comedian. And, even if it were possible to punish every single one of them, what would be accomplished? Punishment, especially when it is delayed, is not a very effective deterrent.\

In the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer provides an answer with her story of a young knight who rapes a maiden and is brought before Queen Guinevere and her court. While the women could very easily condemn him death, they instead assign him a challenge: he must find out what women most desire. If he fails, he will be executed.

Let’s put aside the question about whether an actual rapist should go free—of course he shouldn’t—and bring the issue closer to the one at hand. What should we do to the thousands of men who harass and assault every year? I suspect that the Wife of Bath and Guinevere would agree with Geesen that we can’t punish them all. Guinevere’s sentence, therefore, has real wisdom.

To understand women, the knight must listen to them as though his life depends on it, because it does. He quickly learns about the difficulty of his task as every woman gives him a different answer. This means he must expend substantialeffort to hear the desire under the words. He must imagine what the world feels like to a woman.

Only when men start engaging in such efforts can real change begin to happen. In other words, assaulters should be given educational opportunities before we throw the book at them.

bell hooks makes a version of this point in her book The Will to Change: Man, Masculinity, and Love. As hooks sees it, many men have been shamed about being soft, undergoing a form of emotional abuse. To assert their manhood, they believe they must assert their dominance over women, who stand in for their soft side. Anger and revenge undergird these power plays.

This doesn’t absolve sexual assaulters of responsibility. In fact, the knight will be punished if he can’t evolve. But the story gives him that opportunity.

What passes for the right answer will not allay the anxieties of males fearful of “a war on men.” An old crone, in return for marriage, tells the knight that women most desire “sovereignty over men.” So how, you ask, does confirming the very fears that contribute to sexual assault solve our problem? Hold on, Chaucer’s not done with us yet.

Before sharing his further insights, here’s the dramatic scene where the knight reveals his answer:

When they are come to the court, this knight
Said he had held his day, as he had promised,
And his answer was ready, as he said.
Very many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, because they are wise,
The queen herself sitting as a justice,
And afterward this knight was commanded to appear.

Silence was commanded to every person,
And that the knight should tell in open court
What thing (it is) that worldly women love best.
This knight stood not silent as does a beast,
But to his question straightway answered
With manly voice, so that all the court heard it:

“My liege lady, without exception,” he said,
“Women desire to have sovereignty
As well over her husband as her love,
And to be in mastery above him.
This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.
Do as you please; I am here subject to your will.”
In all the court there was not wife, nor maid,
Nor widow that denied what he said,
But said that he was worthy to have his life.

Sovereignty is not the real answer, however. The Wife of Bath knows that simply reversing the power imbalance will not bring about peace between the sexes. Her tale arrives at a much more satisfactory answer.

The knight, understandably, is not happy about being married to an old crone. At first she tries to reason him into happiness. If he could only look past her looks and her low station, she tells him, he would see the beautiful person underneath and be content. Not being a very deep person, however—he is a rapist, after all—he’s not persuaded.

The crone then goes to Plan B: he can either have her as she is, which, while old and ugly is also faithful, or (being in actuality a fairy) she can transform herself into a beautiful and young but also unfaithful woman. The choice is up to him.

I love how the choice puts his manhood anxieties front and center. At first glance, there appears to be no satisfactory solution: either he will be laughed at for having an old wife or for being a cuckold.

His year spent listening to women has not entirely been in vain, however, and he responds with the following:

This knight deliberates and painfully sighs,                 
But at the last he said in this manner:                 
“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,                 
 I put me in your wise governance;                 
Choose yourself which may be most pleasure                 
And most honor to you and me also.                 
I do not care which of the two,                 
For as it pleases you, is enough for me.”

His wife approves:

“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” she said,                 
“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”

“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

“Kiss me,” she said, “we are no longer angry,                 
For, by my troth, I will be to you both —                 
This is to say, yes, both fair and good.                 
I pray to God that I may die insane                 
Unless I to you be as good and true                 
As ever was wife, since the world was new.

As I read the story, Chaucer is saying the women most desire respect, They’ll settle for sovereignty if that protects them from assault, but any power imbalance turns relationships into win-lose affairs. Men and women will be most happy if they share power and share responsibility. When that happens, men will no longer see women as castrating witches but as beautiful companions.

Unfortunately, being a fairy tale, the Wife’s tale is a vision to aspire to, and her actual life is less happy. She tries to engineer a power sharing marriage with husband #5, signing over her wealth to him so that they can live what looks like a conventional marriage. He, however, is young and insecure and feels he must dominate her to be a real man.

The result is constant strife. He insists she stay home, she insists on going out. He psychologically abuses her by reading her stories of wicked wives, she tears three pages out of the book and pushes him into the fire. He beats her, rendering her permanently deaf in one ear, and she, being the forceful woman that she is, grabs her wealth back and reasserts her dominance. Having failed to educate her husband, she figures that sovereignty is better than submission. Medieval patriarchy in the end proves too much for them.

We’ve made a lot of progress since then, however. Now many of us realize that we only subject ourselves to incessant anxieties when we define our self worth by our ability to dominate women. Our insecure president presents us daily with object lessons to this effect. As hooks points out, if we see men as capable of change, we may accomplish more than we can with draconian punishments. Even Chaucer’s rapist knight makes progress.

Of course, if men can’t and refuse to change, then we must look to the sovereignty of the law to control their behavior. But it’s worth giving at least some of them a second chance and see how they respond.

Further thought: Of course, the knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale is young and just starting out in life. Whether men who have been harassing women for a lifetime are capable to evolving is another question. At least those who fess up, like Franken and Louis C.K., have more promise than those who stonewall, like Trump, Weinstein, O’Reilly, Cosby, and Moore.

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