Reading Chaucer Reading Rape

  • Christine M. Rose
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Chaucer displays a disturbing propensity to inscribe rape in his narratives, yet often directs the readers away from reading rape to reading not-rape. Or, his work demonstrates, as Nancy Jones notes, “the puzzling way in which literary texts can open up new spaces then shut them down.”2 Chaucer’s audience discovers indeed that the rapes in his narratives are tropes for decidedly alternative purposes than highlighting violence to women. Troping (trope, from the Greek “turn”) involves a turning away from and displacement of the literal sense. The Chaucerian lines from The Reeve’s Tale above, and the quotation from E.Jane Burns that follows, point to the complex response required of feminist readers and teachers of Chaucer to instances of rape in the text. We are invited by the poetic narrator, as in The Reeve’s Tale, to see sexual violence towards women as “pley.” Here, Chaucer’s Reeve-narrator and the character of the student Aleyn perform the rape of the miller’s daughter Malyne as “pley,” as “quyting” [requiting] the miller for his social pretensions and his larceny of the students’ cornmeal. The silent “wenche,” “to late for to crie,” is turned away from and occluded by the male character’s antic actions, the fabliau’s generic expectations, and the narrator’s interpretation of “pley,” as well as by his brisk dispatch of the scene: “And shortly for to seyn, they were aton.”


Sexual Violence Rape Victim Literary Text Gender Violence Actual Rape 
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  1. 1.
    Quotations from the works of Geoffrey Chaucer are from Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987), and will be cited by line numbers parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Nancy A. Jones, online review of E. Jane Burns, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) in Bryn Mawr Medieval Review (now The Medieval Review) 94.11.5, November 29, 1994.Google Scholar
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    Elaine Tuttle Hansen’s introduction to Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), discusses the use of “Feminist Chaucer,” pp. 10–15, for example.Google Scholar
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    Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Jill Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    “Tam de raptu meo, tam [sic] de aliqua alia re vel causa.” See Margherita and Cannon. The documents on this problematic legal case are accessible in Chaucer Life Records, ed. Martin Crow and Clair Olsen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966). Cannon’s discovery of a new document (Speculum, January 1993) and his discussion of the inflammatory nature of the language “de raptu meo” relating to the Chaumpaigne case adds fuel to the fire, but little categorically to clear up the mystery of the controversy of whether or not an actual rape took place.Google Scholar
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    Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, pp. 252, 266. Lee Patterson makes this argument in a similar vein, where he notes that he, as well as two essayists, Strohm and Wallace, in his Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) volume, sees Chaucer articulating an ideology, but eschewing “in any direct and explicit form, ideological statement…. Chaucerian politics are disingenuously and uncertainly apolitical” (10).Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Christine M. Rose

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