Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Exploitation and Excommunication in 'The Wife of Bath's Tale.'

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Exploitation and Excommunication in 'The Wife of Bath's Tale.'

Article excerpt

What is shocking about the rape which precipitates the events of The Wife of Bath's Tale is the fact that it is apparently not expected to shock. It shocks not simply because it is reported as casually as it happened, its violence muted by an elision of the victim's trauma as complete as the knight's indifference to it:

He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn

Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,

Be verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed;

(III [D] 886-88)(1)

but because it is ultimately rewarded, not just by good luck but as a matter of deliberate judicial policy, with a lifetime of "parfit joye" (1258), which the ravisher obtains in the company of a wife who is both obedient and as beautiful "As any lady, emperice, or queene" (1246). If the tale is designed to show that women desire sovereignty, it succeeds rather in demonstrating that women serve for men's delight both by chance and by policy, with only nominal sanctions to protect them from men who demand too sudden gratification.

When due allowance has been made for the nature of the Wife's self-fulfilling fantasy,(2) one has to ask what sort of a society it is that tolerates such an attitude. This is to question both the author who chooses such a tale (Sheila Delany finds it "equally convincing as the fantasy of a courtier-poet [Chaucer] whose experience with rape [Cecilia Chaumpaigne] and betrayal [his wife and John of Gaunt] may have been uncomfortably close to hand"),(3) and the audience he expects to be moved, or alternatively undisturbed, by it.

We readily convict them of not minding enough, for rape is modern society's most notorious sign of social deviancy. This is only partly because contemporary culture expresses an exaggerated interest in the body as a site of health, fashion and sexual fascination. Rape not only shocks that interest, but represents a tyrannical assault on one of modern civilization's most cherished illusions, the so-called right to privacy. In contemporary Western societies where sexual equality is a desideratum at least theoretically enjoyed, it is a right that is claimed for both men and women, whose defence against the ever more complex web of social interdependence is the fantasy that their bodies and their wills remain at their own disposal. Nowadays every man is an island, and every other island (ironically) is collectively dedicated to maintaining all our insularities. Originally a familial and then a theological virtue, chastity has been superseded, as an ideal, by self-determination. A woman raped is no longer regarded primarily as an asset purloined from the community, or family, or God, but as a sign, transcending gender differences, that the insularity prized by both sexes is under siege. What is violated is not communal or divine values so much as personal integrity (that is, wholeness, divested of the moral connotations the word still trails from a not quite defunct past). Hence modern trials for rape contest consent, not prior claim, and convictions are harder to secure objectively, because most evidence is subjective. The modern victim is a subject, not an object.

How then do we adjust to a comic romance that plays so casually with, of all incongruous motifs, rape? It may be true, but hardly encouraging, that the Wife's tale reflects a contemporary (medieval) trivialization of rape: legally a felony punishable until the time of Edward II by castration and blinding, and later, according to the provision of the Second Statute of Westminster (1285), by "judgement of life and of member" [i.e., hanging], in social practice it was regarded only as a misdemeanor, so that rape cases were often not tried, and in those that were most rapists were acquitted by English judges.(4) Arthur's ready handing over of the guilty knight to a non-governing court for a trivial sentence seems indicative of the exploitation of an excluded group, the uncompensated female victims of medieval patriarchal society. …

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