A Woman’s Worth: Sexuality and Honor for Chaucer’s Women

When reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, readers will notice that none of these good women are granted satisfying lives or happy endings. Nearly all of them meet tragic, even gruesome, ends––these women are betrayed, abandoned, raped, and killed, which is almost always because of a man’s actions. However, few of these women show any resistance to the wicked men in their lives; they are faithful to the end. Why, then, did Chaucer consider these women “good”—wouldn’t a powerful woman fighting back against her wrong-doer be more worthy of honor? Perhaps modern-day feminist readers would find this more pleasing, but Chaucer was writing for an audience whose perceptions of women, and especially women’s sexuality, was radically different from our own. In this essay, I will argue that for Chaucer’s audience, a woman’s worth exists in direct proportion to her willingness to be sexually violated, even when facing rape. Going further, women’s honor increases the closer they remain to virginity; the farther a woman strays from perfect chastity, the less honorable her violation becomes. This is not to say that Chaucer himself subscribed to these ideas, but rather, that he utilized his poetry as a space to criticize society’s perceptions of women.

To begin, we must determine what people of Chaucer’s time would consider sexual violation, as the definition has undoubtedly changed. Most modern readers likely think of assault as any unwanted sexual advance, with rape—non-consensual intercourse—taking the spot of most heinous sexual crime. Medieval rape law was not entirely different from that of the modern era; rape still depended on the absence of female consent to a sexual act (Garrett 39). Where medieval rape law differs is in establishing whether or not a woman is consenting. The discrepancy is due largely to Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, in which he instructs young gentlemen on how to attract and keep a woman. In Book One, Ovid writes:

Though she might not give, take what isn’t given.

Perhaps she’ll struggle, and then say ‘you’re wicked’:

Struggling she still wants, herself, to be conquered.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Though you call it force, it’s force that pleases girls: what delights

Is often to have what they wanted, against their will.

She who is taken in love’s sudden onslaught

Is pleased, and finds wickedness is a tribute.

And she who might have been forced, and is unscathed,

Will be saddened, though her face pretends delight. (Translated by A.S Kline)

What Ovid is arguing, essentially, is that women enjoy rape, and will lie about not wanting a sexual encounter. This is because women desire illicit sex while simultaneously fearing damage to their reputations; when raped, a woman has the sex she wants but is not considered a sexual deviant (Garrett 42). Therefore, Ovid has turned rape into consensual sex.

Although rape may have been thought of as pleasing to women, there were situations when a woman’s rape was considered legitimate. This was usually in one of three cases: Where the woman is a wife, a widow, or a virgin (Flannery 339). If any of these cases are proven true, then “a woman’s ‘no’ indeed means ‘no,’ and [if] a man ignores that refusal, the poetic result is usually tragedy” (Garrett 39). Conversely, if a woman does not fulfill any of these requirements, then her refusal will likely be taken as deceptive consent, which may be written as a less-serious tragicomedy. Because the women who are raped in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, specifically Lucretia and Philomela, fall into one of the three above categories (wife and virgin, respectively), their rapes are tragic rather than comical, and a man is to blame.

These attitudes towards rape and consent are indicative of medieval notions of gender roles, masculinity, and femininity. In the Middle Ages, a woman’s sexual behavior was nearly the sole measure of her honor. The more sexually promiscuous a woman was, the less honorable she became (Flannery 339). A young virgin, untouched by even a man’s gaze, was therefore the most respectable of women. As Mary C. Flannery argues, a sense of shame is what characterizes feminine worth. Women were expected to be shameful of their sexuality while being conscious of their reputations (Flannery 340). As a result, women avoided all behavior that could potentially damage their social status, with sexual infidelity and promiscuity being the most feared actions. Men, on the other hand, must overcome shame and become bold in order to win recognition, even if that meant using betrayal, force, and violence (Flannery 340). Clearly, feminine and masculine honor are at odds, allowing men direct and acceptable power over women.

Honor and gender differences are clearly illustrated as a point of tension in Troilus and Criseyde. Interestingly, Troilus begins the poem with the bashfulness and fear that typically characterizes a woman’s role in courtship. Troilus’s modesty grants Criseyde power over him, thus reversing the pair’s expected gender roles. In Book Four, Pandarus advises Troilus that he must be bold and “ravysshe” Criseyde if he hopes to keep her faithful:

. . .’Frend, syn thow hast such distresse,

And syn the list myn argumentz to blame

Why nylt thiselven helpen don redresse

And with thy manhod letten al this grame?

Go ravysshe here! Ne kanstow nat, for shame?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ris up anon, and lat this wepyng be,

And kith thow art a man; for in this houre

I wol ben ded, or she shal bleven oure.’ (IV. 526-530, 537-539)

“Ravysshe” in the above passage could mean either “abduct” or “rape”; Pandarus is suggesting that Troilus take Criseyde out of Troy to avoid her becoming a political prisoner, but he also uses sexualized vocabulary. Regardless of the word’s exact meaning, Pandarus recommends abandoning grief and adopting force, whether through kidnapping or sexual assault, as the appropriate manly action (Flannery 344). Thankfully, Troilus is aware of how such an action would affect Criseyde, because if he “wolde [hire herte] openly desturbe, / It mooste be disclaundre to hire name” (IV. 563-4). This dynamic between Troilus and Criseyde does well to illustrate that when a woman’s honor is compromised, a man’s is confirmed.

How, then, does a woman’s violated honor lead Chaucer to call her “good”—it seems to suggest just the opposite. Two significant rapes in The Legend of Good Women, Lucretia and Philomela, help to provide an answer. In Chaucer’s version of Ovid’s tale, Philomela, Procne’s virginal sister, is raped by Tereus and forced into silence when he cuts out her tongue. Because “by force hath this traytour don a dede, / That he hath reft hire of hire maydenhede,” (F 2324-5) Philomela satisfies the conditions of a legitimate assault; she was an unwed virgin stripped of her maidenhood. What makes this violation honorable on Philomela’s part is that she is unable to fight back or speak for herself after Tereus mutilates her; she has no choice but to accept it. This theme of silence also plays a role in Lucretia’s story. Here it is more explicit—Lucretia is so terrified of the slander to her name her rape will cause, she faints and accepts Tarquinias’s awful deed:

At thilke tyme, and dredde so the shame,

That, what for fer of sclaunder and drede of deth,

She lost bothe at ones wit and breth,

And in a swogh she lay, and wex so ded

Men myghte smyten of hire arm or hed;

She feleth no thyng, neyther foul ne fayr. (F 1813-9)

For Tarquinias, Lucretia’s modesty is a threat to his masculinity; thus, violence is once again the appropriate means of proving his masculine honor, because “Wel wot men that a woman hath no myght” (F 1801). What complicates “The Legend of Lucrece” is that, after suffering violation and shame, Lucretia commits suicide. For Chaucer’s Christian audience, one would think Lucretia’s death would negate the honor her violation caused, but Chaucer does not dwell on it. Rather, he considers her a martyr for all she has suffered. As evident in both the rapes of Philomela and Lucretia, a good woman is one who sacrifices her personal reputation and well-being so that a man may prove his own honor.

To counteract the honorable women in The Legend of Good Women, “The Manciple’s Tale” provides an example of a dishonorable woman. In the tale, Phebus’s unnamed wife is caught cheating on her husband with a lower-ranking man. Silence appears again in this tale, but in a different form than in the legends of Philomela and Lucretia. Because of her sexual promiscuity, Phebus’s wife is not granted a name, nor the opportunity to speak or behave in any way on her own behalf (Raybin 19). In other words, she is silent because she does not deserve a voice; it is not her own self-sacrificing choice to remain silent. This woman is a sharp contrast to most of Chaucer’s other women, especially one like Criseyde, who speaks for herself often and effectively. Although his wife has already damaged her honor because of her actions, Phebus still feels the need to overcome her with violence and aggression—he kills her swiftly and ruthlessly, with no attempt on the wife’s part to save her own life. In this way, the wife’s death mirrors her silence; “she is murdered almost in passing, experiencing a death so rapid that it is sometimes treated as a morally fitting end for a nasty adulteress” (Raybin 35).

Given the above evidence, one could easily argue that Chaucer held these views of women himself. However, there is enough textual support to suggest that the opposite is true. One must keep in mind that although the narrators Chaucer writes may seem to have certain convictions, this does not necessarily mean Chaucer himself holds the same beliefs. However, in this case, substantial proof found in the text supports this idea. To begin with Troilus and Criseyde, it is incredibly significant that Criseyde is a fully-formed character, with her own inner dialogue that readers actually see. Not only that, but the poem’s narrator seems fiercely defensive of her choices and actions, despite the fact that her character becomes synonymous with feminine infidelity. In the proem to Book Four, the narrator writes, “For how Criseyde Troilus forsook— / Or at the leest, how that she was unkynde— ” (IV. 15-6). He could have condemned Criseyde outright, but instead downplays her betrayal by calling it simply “unkynde,” or unnatural.

Readers can find further evidence for Chaucer’s criticism of society’s views on women in The Legend of Good Women. Given the subject matter of the legends, the poem reads more as “Legends of Bad Men” than “Legends of Good Women”. In each legend, the narrator condemns the wrongful men openly. In Lucretia’s story, for example, the narrator writes:

Tarquinius, that art a kynges eyr,

And sholdest, as by lynage and by ryght,

Don as a lord and as a verray knyght,

Whi hastow don dispit to chivalry?

Whi hastow don this lady vilanye?

Alas, of the this was a vileyns dede! (F 1819-24).

Because Tarquinias is a noble knight and king’s heir, as the narrator explains, he should subscribe to a code of chivalry; raping Lucretia is a villainous act that clearly violates this code. To Tarquinias, violating a woman’s honor and establishing his own takes precedent over remaining true to a knight’s oath. The narrator’s calling out of Tarquinias’s transgression sheds light on the perversity of his thinking, and therefore the whole social construction of sexuality and honor. A final example of Chaucer’s support of women is the ending to “The Legend of Philomela.” Although Tereus silences Philomela by cutting out her tongue, she does not remain silent—she weaves her story and sends it to Procne, who saves her life. Perhaps in Chaucer’s eyes, this final act of autonomy and rebellion are what earns Philomela the title of “good woman,” rather than her willingness to be sexually violated.

As Scottish poet Gavin Douglas said, Chaucer was “ever wemenis friend.” This statement, of course, was meant as a criticism, but it is true regardless. From writing fully-fleshed out characters like Criseyde to condemning heartless men’s actions, Chaucer clearly has an understanding of women that surpasses the typical female representations of his time. Through examining the imbalances between feminine and masculine honor, Chaucer challenges concepts of consent and rejects the idea that a woman’s silence—and therefore sexual violation—is what makes her honorable.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Larry Dean Benson. “The Legend of Good Women.” The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 588-629. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Larry Dean Benson. “The Manciple’s Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 282-286. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Larry Dean Benson. “Troilus and Criseyde, Book IV.” The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 538-60. Print.

Flannery, Mary C. “A Bloody Shame: Chaucer’s Honourable Women.” The Review of English Studies 62.255 (2011): 337-57. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Garrett, Cynthia E. “Sexual Consent and the Art of Love in the Early Modern English Lyric.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 44.1 (2004): 37-58. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

“Ovid: The Art of Love.” Poetry in Translation. Trans. A. S. Kline. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Raybin, David. “The Death of a Silent Woman: Voice and Power in Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology (1996): 19-37. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.