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Husband of Bath illustration from Ellesmere Chaucer


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


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


And when I saw she would never cease

Reading on this cursed book all night,

All suddenly have I plucked three leaves

Out of her book, right as she read, and also

I with my fist so hit her on the cheek

That in our fire she fell down backwards. [1]


Jankyn got back up and hit his back. He fell down and then claimed that she, a battered spouse, murdered him. When Jankyn came to kiss him and apologize, he struck her again. In medieval Europe, women 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 wife making herself subordinate to her husband. Alisoun explained:


We made an agreement between our two selves.

She gave me all the control in my hand,

To have the governance of house and land,

And of her tongue, and of her hand also;

And made her burn her book immediately right then.

And when I had gotten unto me,

By mastery, all the sovereignty,

And that she said, ‘My own true husband,

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 she said, what she did, and even what she read. Political structures of oppression seldom reach that extent of personal domination.


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


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


The dame successfully declared publicly what men want. The king’s ad hoc court of justice publicly assembled:


Very many a noble husband, and many a maid,

And many a widower, because they are wise,

The king himself sitting as a justice,

Are assembled, to hear her answer;

And afterward this dame was commanded to appear.

Silence was commanded to every person,

And that the dame should tell in open court

What thing that worldly men love best.


Before that court, the dame courageously declared to the king:


“My liege gentleman, without exception,” she said,

“Men desire to have sovereignty

As well over his wife as his love,

And to be in mastery above her.

This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.

Do as you please; I am here subject to your will.”


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


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


Women’s lack of good life choices is sustained through women’s subordination to men and romantic fantasies. In despair at not having fulfilling alternatives for living her life, the dame repressed her desires, nullified her independent thinking, and surrendered her rational agency to her husband, the loathly gentleman:


“My gentleman and my love, and husband 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 gentleman carefully confirmed his wife’s total subordination to him:


“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” he said,

“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”

“Yes, certainly, husband,” she said, “I consider it best.”


Then, in the fairy tale of all fairy tales, the husband turned into a beautiful young man. Women today internalize this fairy tale with the common saying, “happy husband, 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 women most desire?” A satisfactory answer is not that women are dogs. Most women don’t desire sovereignty or mastery over others, be those others men or women. Most women 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 women most desire?” is to face the highly disproportionate number of women prisoners and ask why they are imprisoned.


Notes:


[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Husband 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 men has persisted and intensified.” Mann earnestly pondered whether Chaucer wrote “without incurring the charge of antimasculism.” Id. p. 25. For scholars today, the charge of antimasculism is as serious as the charge of murder, at least if the victim is a man. Chaucer probably wrote for noble gentlemen. 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 Husband’s text makes a case for masculism or not.


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


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


References:


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


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


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


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