Public Bodies and Psychic Domains: Rape, Consent, and Female Subjectivity in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

  • Elizabeth Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

In Book IV of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus and Troilus debate whether or not Troilus should “rape” Criseyde, using the word “rape” for nearly the first time in English literature. As Henry Ansgar Kelly and Christopher Cannon have shown, this discussion, as it unfolds, captures the ambiguous meanings of rape in the legal language of fourteenth-century England where rape (as it appears in medieval legal terminology in various forms of rapire in Latin or in its Old French forms) can refer to various events including abduction, forced coitus, or both.1 Although a host of critics (as various as John Fleming, Carolyn Dinshaw, David Aers, Jill Mann, and Louise Fradenburg) have established the significance of at least the threat of rape in the poem, what has yet to be explored fully are the ways in which the cultural formations determining how rape was understood in fourteenth-century England are foundational to the elusive and ambiguous character for which Criseyde is famous.2

Keywords

Europe Coherence Sine Arena Kelly 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    See John Fleming, “Deiphoebus Betrayed: Virgilian Decorum, Chaucerian Feminism” Chaucer Review 21, no. 2 (1986): 182–99; Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 28–64; David Aers, “Criseyde: Woman in Medieval Society” (1979), in Critical Essays in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and His Major Early Poems, ed. C. David Benson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 128–48; Jill Mann, “Troilus’ Swoon,” (1980) in Benson, 149–63; Louise Fradenburg, ‘“Our owen wo to drynke’: Loss, Gender and Chivalry in Troilus and Criseyde” in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, “Subgit to alle Poesye:” Essays in Criticism, ed. R. A. Shoaf (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), pp. 88–106.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 2; pp. 14–15.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Stephanie H. Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Mieke Bal analyzes the Book of Judges to show how patriarchy co-opts the meaning of the violated woman’s body for its own militaristic purposes. The body of the Levite’s concubine is cut into 12 pieces, which then become the motivation of the Israelite assault on the Benjamites. See Mieke Bal, Death and Dyssymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p. 127.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    See Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy of Sex,’” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157–210. This review is a response to Levi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structure of Kinship. For a recent excellent discussion of both of these, see Dinshaw, 56–64.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    The Greek text is taken from Anton Weihar’s Heimeran edition. The translation is by Richard Lattimore, The Odyssey of Homer (New York: Harper Collins, 1965). Line numbers are the same in each text and will be given in the body of the essay.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    R. D. Williams, ed. The Aeneid of Virgil: Books 1–6 (London: Macmillan, 1972). The Latin text is taken from this edition and line numbers are given in the body of my text.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Grant Showerman, ed. and trans. Ovid: Heroides and Amores (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914). The Latin text is taken from this edition and page numbers are given within the body of my text. Letter XVII, “Helen to Paris,” in Ovid’s Heroides, trans. Harold Isbell (London: Penguin Books, 1990). All quotations from this letter are taken from this edition and page numbers will be given in parentheses in the body of my text.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Book IV, 547–49. All further quotations from this poem will be taken from this edition and book and line numbers will be cited within parentheses in the body of the text.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    For preliminary discussions of the importance of the debates about clandestine marriage in this period, see R. H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974); H.A. Kelly, Love and Marriage in the Age of Chaucer (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975); J.B. Post, “Ravishment of Women and the Statutes of Westminster” in Legal Records and the Historian, ed. J. H. Baker (London: Royal Historical Society, 1978), pp. 150–64; Charles Donahue, “The Canon Law on the Formation of Marriage and Social Practice in the Later Middle Ages,” Journal of Family History (1983) 8:144–58; Michael Sheehan, Marriage, Family, and Law in Medieval Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996). For a discussion of the complexity of these issues in fourteenth-century England, see Christopher Cannon, “Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release.”Google Scholar
  12. 28.
    For examples of these contradictory views of women see Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. Alcuin Blamires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). For a general summary of commentaries on women, see my chapter “Medieval Views of Female Spirituality,” in Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990). For a summary of positive theological views on marriage, see Kelly’s book, Love and Marriage.Google Scholar
  13. 29.
    St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God: Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 1972), Book I, Chapter 16, p. 26.Google Scholar
  14. 30.
    Ibid., Book I, Chapter 19, p. 28.Google Scholar
  15. 35.
    For a discussion of the ways in which the legal principle of coverture shaped female subjectivity in late medieval England, see Elizabeth Fowler, “Civil Death and the Maiden: Agency and the Conditions of Contract in Piers Plowman,” Speculum 70 (1995): 760–92. For a discussion of “coverture” as a doctrine that becomes finalized only after the Middle Ages and that underestimates the complexity of the legal rights women did in fact enjoy in the Middle Ages, see Christopher Cannon “The Rights of Medieval English women: Crime and the Issue of Representation,” in Medieval Crime and Social Control, ed. David Wallace and Barbara Hanawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 156–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 43.
    For an overview of Renaissance debates about marriage, see Valerie Wayne’s introduction to her edition of Edmund Tilney’s The Flower of Friendship: A Renaissance Dialogue Contesting Marriage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992).Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Elizabeth Robertson

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