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)


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


Fourteenth Century Rape Victim Public Body Early Modern Period Court Record 
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  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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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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