Wife of Bath, criminal justice & men’s subordination to women

Article by Douglas Galbi

Wife of Bath illustration from Ellesmere Chaucer

In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue within Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, Alisoun accused her husband Jankyn of murdering her. Actual murder victims never make such accusations. Alisoun concocted her accusation of murder to strike back at Jankyn and make him subordinate to her. In the subsequent Wife of Bath’s Tale, women court leaders suspended punishing a man for rape in order to promote men’s subordination to women. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale present criminal justice as a pretext for promoting men’s subordination to women.

Alisoun initiated domestic violence against her husband Jankyn. Living within gynocentric society, Jankyn found a measure of humor and enjoyment in reading literature of men’s sexed protest, including the venerable classics Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage and Valerius’s letter to his friend Rufinus. Alisoun responded violently to Jankyn’s peaceful reading:

And when I saw he would never cease
Reading on this cursed book all night,
All suddenly have I plucked three leaves
Out of his book, right as he read, and also
I with my fist so hit him on the cheek
That in our fire he fell down backwards. [1]

Jankyn got back up and hit her back. She fell down and then claimed that he, a battered spouse, murdered her. When Jankyn came to kiss her and apologize, she struck him again. In medieval Europe, men were punished as perpetrators of domestic violence and as victims of domestic violence. Peace came to their household not through criminal justice, but by the husband making himself subordinate to his wife. Alisoun explained:

We made an agreement between our two selves.
He gave me all the control in my hand,
To have the governance of house and land,
And of his tongue, and of his hand also;
And made him burn his book immediately right then.
And when I had gotten unto me,
By mastery, all the sovereignty,
And that he said, ‘My own true wife,
Do as you please the rest of all thy life;
Guard thy honor, and guard also my reputation’ —
After that day we never had an argument. [2]

Alisoun’s sovereignty over Jankyn encompassed what he said, what he did, and even what he read. Political structures of oppression seldom reach that extent of personal domination.

In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, public and personal support for women’s domination of men allowed a knight to escape punishment under law for rape. While out hunting, the knight saw a maiden walking. While most men, like most male primates, don’t rape, this knight raped that maiden. Rape of women has been considered a serious crime throughout recorded history. The Wife of Bath reported that the knight was condemned to death for raping the maiden. However, the queen and other courtly ladies intervened. They were delegated authority to decide whether the knight would be executed.

The queen declared that the knight’s punishment would be remitted if he declared satisfactorily what women most desire. The queen gave the knight up to twelve months to declare publicly what women most desire. The knight desperately searched for the saving answer. What women want has always been a vigorous topic of public discussion in gynocentric society. The knight heard many different answers. He despaired of finding the saving one. Finally, an ugly woman offered to solve the riddle for the knight if he would do whatever she requested of him. The knight agreed. The ugly woman whispered the answer to him.

The knight successfully declared publicly what women want. The queen’s ad hoc court of justice publicly assembled:

Very many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, because they are wise,
The queen herself sitting as a justice,
Are assembled, to hear his answer;
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 that worldly women love best.

Before that court, the knight courageously declared to the queen:

“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.”

The women sitting in judgment of him universally acclaimed the knight’s answer. In response to his public recognition of women’s interest in dominating men, the women exercised their dominance by freeing him from the death penalty for raping a woman.

The knight, however, was still beholden to the women who had provided the answer that saved him. She, the “loathly lady,” was low-born, ugly, old, and poor. She ordered the knight to marry her. The knight was horrified at that request. But he had given his word. Empathy and generosity can save women from oppressive terms of ill-considered agreements. Men are much less likely to benefit from such favor. The knight was forced to wed and sleep with the loathly lady. In short, under today’s understanding, he was raped.

Men’s lack of good life choices is sustained through men’s subordination to women and romantic fantasies. In despair at not having fulfilling alternatives for living his life, the knight repressed his desires, nullified his independent thinking, and surrendered his rational agency to his wife, the loathly lady:

“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.

The loathly lady carefully confirmed her husband’s total subordination to her:

“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.”

Then, in the fairytale of all fairytales, the wife turned into a beautiful young woman. Men today internalize this fairytale with the common saying, “happy wife, happy life.”[3]

The injustices of criminal justice are in part a problem of imagination. Few today can even imagine asking the question, “what do men most desire?” A satisfactory answer is not that men are dogs. Most men don’t desire sovereignty or mastery over others, be those others women or men. Most men surely desire not to be treated as criminally suspect persons, and to receive due process and equal justice under law. A good beginning to answering the question “what do men most desire?” is to face the highly disproportionate number of men prisoners and ask why they are imprisoned.

Notes:

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, ll. 788-93, modernized English from Benson (2008). Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id., ll. 812-22, 1026-30, 1037-42, 1230-33, 1236-38.

[2] Mann (2002), p. ix, expresses concern that since 1992, “this reluctance to credit Chaucer with a ‘real sympathy’ with women has persisted and intensified.” Mann earnestly pondered whether Chaucer wrote “without incurring the charge of antifeminism.” Id. p. 25. For scholars today, the charge of antifeminism is as serious as the charge of murder, at least if the victim is a woman. Chaucer probably wrote for noble ladies. See note [14] and related text in my post on the Griseldas of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer.

[3] McTaggert (2012) p. 61, n. 3, observes:

Suffice it to say that Chaucer scholarship remains undecided about whether the Wife’s text makes a case for feminism or not.

Such Chaucer scholarship should simply declare its worthlessness and shift to the more important task of appreciating Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Wife of Bath illumination from the Ellesmere Chaucer, f. 72r (probably first or second decade of the fifteenth century). MS EL 26 C 9 in Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

References:

Benson, Larry, trans. 2008. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

McTaggart, Anne. 2012. “What Women Want?: Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. 19 (1): 41-67.

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