Reading Chaucer Reading Rape

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

Abstract

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.”

Keywords

Corn Straw Allas Egypt Kelly 

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Notes

  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
  3. 3.
    Stephanie Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucrece and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Jill Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) and The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Georgia Ronan Crampton (Kalamazoo: TEAMS Medieval Institute Publications, 1993).Google Scholar
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    See Anna Roberts’s collection of essays for a recent addition to this discussion: Violence Against Women in Medieval Texts (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Jane Marcus, “Liberty, Sorority, Misogyny,” quoting Hartman, in The Representation of Women in Fiction, ed. Carolyn Heilbrun and Margaret Higonnet. Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1981, no. 7 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 97.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Evelyn Birge Vitz, “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature,” Partisan Review 63, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 280–91, 280. She severely critiques Katherine Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James H. Bell, John R. von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).Google Scholar
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    Gail Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), p. 157.Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    “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
  13. 34.
    Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), p. 137: “… the temptation to offer an explanation is too strong to resist. The strongest likelihood, in my opinion, is that Cecily threatened to bring a charge of rape in order to force Chaucer into some compensatory settlement and that she then cooperated in the legal release. The actual offence for which she sought compensation is not necessarily the offence named in the charge that she used for leverage and did not press: there are many things that it might more probably have been than violent physical rape, including neglect and the betrayal of promises by the man, or some unilateral decision on his part to terminate an affair that he regarded as over but which the woman, in retrospect, regarded as a physical violation.”Google Scholar
  14. 36.
    Margherita, p. 4, n. 4; she cites D. S. Brewer, Chaucer, 3rd. ed. (London: Longman, 1973), p. 40; her other “traditional” critics are John Gardner, The Life and Times of Geoffrey Chaucer (New York: Knopf, Random House, 1977) and Donald Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987).Google Scholar
  15. 37.
    Kelly, Hanawalt, Cannon, op. cit., as well as Corrine J. Saunders, “Woman Displaced: Rape and Romance in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Arthurian Literature 12 (1995): 115–31, and John Marshall Carter, Rape in Medieval England: An Historical and Sociological Study (Lanham: University Press of America, 1985), have traced some aspects of the legal climate and rape law with which Chaucer may have been familiar.Google Scholar
  16. 47.
    Laurie A. Finke, “‘All is for to selle’: Breeding Capital in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” in Geoffrey Chaucer: The Wife of Bath, ed. Peter G. Beidler (Boston and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 180.Google Scholar
  17. 48.
    Fables Ancient and Modern, in The Poems of John Dryden, ed. James Kinsley, Vol. IV (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 1703–17.Google Scholar
  18. 51.
    It is interesting that neither time does Malyne get to “crie”: “it had been to late for to crie”; “almoost she gan wepe” [italics mine]. See also the essay by Pamela Bennett, “‘And Shortely for to Seyn they were Aton’ Chaucer’s Deflection of Rape in the Reeves and Franklin’s Tales,” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 22, no. 2C (1993): 145–62.Google Scholar
  19. 54.
    R. Howard Bloch, “Chaucer’s Maiden’s Head: the Physician’s Tale and the Poetics of Virginity,” Representations 28 (1989): 113–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 55.
    Linda Lomperis, in her essay “Unruly Bodies and Ruling Practices: Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale as a Socially Symbolic Act,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. L. Lomperis and S. Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 21–37, provides an important discussion of the political role of the body in the Phys T.Google Scholar
  21. 56.
    Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Mary Innes (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 64–67.Google Scholar
  22. 57.
    Gower uses the tale of Neptune and Cornix as his exemplum for robbery, with rape as theft of treasure. See Isabelle Mast, “Rape in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Other Related Works,” in Young Medieval Women, ed. Katherine Lewis, et al. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1999), pp. 102–32. Mast sees this contemporary of Chaucer as portraying rape victims with some sympathy (121–23). For Gower’s tale, see The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, Early English Text Society, no. 81, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1900, rpt. 1979), ll. 6204–11.Google Scholar
  23. 63.
    Sylvana Tomaselli and Roy Porter, Rape: An Historical and Social Enquiry (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 5.Google Scholar
  24. 65.
    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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