On Cuckoldry: Women, Silence, and Subjectivity in the Merchant’s Tale and the Manciple’s Tale

The Wife of Bath’s extraordinary prologue gives the reader a dose of what is sometimes missing in early male-written literature: glimpses of female subjectivity. Women in medieval literature are often silent and passive, to the extent that cuckolding is often seen as something one man (the adulterer) does to another (the husband). Eve Sedgwick argues in Between Men that in many literary representations, women are playing pieces or playing fields in struggles between male players. By default it seems, male writers cannot help but create shallow constructions of women; heroism occurs in male spheres of activity, while the wives and daughters make the background, and the female love interest becomes a trophy. Unfortunately, when women are not silent they are often monsters‹and quite often, the silent ones conceal hidden dangers. Why should women present such a threat? Why do so many pre-modern (and, unfortunately, modern) male writers approach female subjects with such trepidation, with strategies of demonization or avoidance? Analysis of the Merchant’s Tale and the Manciple’s Tale proves fruitful in exploring these questions. In the sphere of the written word, women have often been silent in the West; the small number of great female medieval writers combined with a value system that praises passivity and quiet in their sex has effectively muffled female subjectivity, and yet somehow in silencing women men have doomed themselves to uneasiness and fear. To silence someone is to cut off access to her subjectivity, and in an intimate world like marriage such a formidable barrier quickly becomes a source of apprehension; woman becomes the terrifying, the unknown, the thing that betrays. The fear of cuckoldry presents a site where many of these issues of anxiety, silence, and subjectivity converge. Fear of cuckoldry is the unavoidable price of males ignoring or denying female voices. The inaccessibility of female subjectivity, caused by a male-imposed silence (imposed by both male characters and the male poet) paradoxically becomes a great source of anxiety for men; female characters become permeated by an aura of secrecy and mystery and simultaneously become treacherous and threatening to male order.The reader catches only glimpses of May’s innermost thoughts in the Merchant’s Tale; January’s inner desires and hopes are foregrounded. A third of the tale goes by before May even makes her first appearance, and even then the narrator keeps her at a distance. Initially, the reader knows nothing of her wishes or her desires in her marriage, although the narrator does inform us that “she was feffed in his lond” (l. 1698). The material benefits of the marriage seem a likely motivation, as January is both very old and very rich, but the reader has no direct access to May’s thoughts. At the wedding, May continues to be an enigma. She is described in terms imbued with fantasy and mystery: Mayus, that sit with so benyngne a chiere,Hire to biholde it semed fayerye.Queen Ester looked nevere with swich an yeOn Assuer, so meke a ook hath she. (ll. 1742-5)To describe May as enchanting, Chaucer uses the word “fayerye,” which also means fairy. She becomes a creature of fairy tales, described by a word that refers to something fantastic, unreal. The text also compares her favorably to Queen Esther, assuring the reader that Esther never looked on her king with such an eye. The choice of Esther as a point of reference is telling; Esther’s beauty is not necessarily what readers of the Bible remember most about her. Queen Esther was a woman of secrets; she hid her Jewish heritage from the King, her husband. In likening May to Esther, the narrator seems to remind the reader of how little the text is really saying about May. The final simile that describes May’s beauty in this passage is more memorable for how little it tells than for any poetic acuteness. I may yow nat devyse al hir beautee;But thus muche of hire beautee telle I may, That she was lyk the brighte morwe of May,Fulfild of alle beautee and pleasaunce. (ll. 1746-9)The narrator begins with a disclaimer, saying that even her surface appearance must remain inaccessible to those reading the tale. This disclaimer is followed by an amazingly unhelpful simile: May is like the morrow of May. The element of cliché is not the only problem with the simile. Especially in a literary context, the reference to the month is already contained in May’s own name. The simile becomes sadistically repetitive. In text, the word “May” (the name of the woman) becomes not only the signified but the signifier; her own name, in a way, calls us to liken her to the month. Consequently, the line likening her to the month shoves one metaphor back into itself, and then this simile becomes not one of A=B but rather A=A or even A within A. If a simile’s two parts are too similar, then the simile ceases to be a simile, thus losing its poetic power to describe. Chaucer drives the point home by rhyming “May” with “may,” setting up a parallel situation between his simile and his rhyme; “may” cannot properly be said to rhyme with “May”‹they are homophones. So in describing May on the night of the wedding feast, Chaucer first creates an aura of mystery, then intimates that much may be unknown about the bride, then finally gives the reader completely undescriptive lines about May’s appearance.The inaccessibility of her interior is a near-constant feature throughout the story. May almost never speaks‹and the first time the text directly renders her words, she is lying. (ll. 2188-2206). She opens her mouth for the first time with a long-winded speech assuring January of her own virtue. In fact, every time May speaks out loud in the tale, she lies. Her true intentions must be communicated to the reader through gestures, actions, and the narrator’s very limited access to her thoughts. When May squeezes Damien’s hand, her intentions become clear to both Damien and the reader (Pearsall 4/7). May’s action of sleeping with Damien, of course, makes it fairly clearly what she wants. And her own thoughts, in a few limited glimpses, give the reader an imperfect portrait of what kind of woman May is. Her pity for Damien is the first (and last) twinge of emotion that could be called gentle:”Certyn,” thoghte she, “whom that this thyng displese,I rekke noght, for heere I hym assureTo love hym best of any creature,Though he namoore hadde than his sherte.” (ll. 1982-5)Here, the reader hears May’s interior monologue for the first time. Of course, the moment is not terribly flattering for women. The narrator goes on to praise the soft-heartedness of women; of course, this soft-heartedness must be understood ironically in the context of adultery. And, in a very real way, the reader can never quite know what May is about. She lets her wishes be known to Damien in a letter that the reader is never allowed to read (ll. 1996-7), and somehow this moment seems to encapsulate the reader’s relationship with May’s sexuality. The first great glimpse of her subjectivity comes in the wedding night bedroom scene, in which Chaucer sets up an incredible disparity between the experiences of January and May (Pearsall 4/7). We see January toiling and prancing about, revelling in his own love-making, while May keeps her own rather negative appraisal of his performance (musical and sexual) to herself: “She preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene” (l. 1854). Equally remarkable is the mindset with which January goes into the night: But in his hearte he gan hire to manaceThat he that nyght in armes wolde hire streyneHarder than evere Parys dide Eleyne.But natheless yet hadde he greet piteeThat thilke nyght offenden hire moste heAnd thoughte, “Allas! O tendre creature,Now wolde God ye myghte wel endure Al my corage, it is so sharp and keene!” (ll. 1752-9)To a modern reader especially, January’s attitude toward the wedding night is sickening. She must submit; in a way, January accounts for her subjectivity in his pity for her, but he does not consider the possibility of her sexual agency. The language is one of conquest: in his heart he begins to “manace” her, and allusions to Paris and Helen conjure up a whole world of violence, abduction, war. His only consideration of her feelings is a hope that she will physically be able to endure him; the possibility of her sexual experience of pleasure and/or desire does not seem to occur to him. And yet her appraisal of his love-making that night would seem to suggest experience (Pearsall 4/7). While there is no anxiety on January’s part, the reader and the narrator, with their total access to January’s thoughts and limited glimpses of May’s subjectivity, experiences plenty of anxiety. January’s wishes to “manace” her seem sickening perhaps, but May’s sheer inaccessibility makes her threatening in her own way. At play, in part, is a difference between the mechanics of male and female genitals. The reader always knows exactly what January is thinking; and, likewise, in bed it is never difficult to know what is on a man’s mind. His genitals betray him; his pleasure and desire become totally legible. A woman’s pleasure and desire are known to her and her alone. This disparity mirrors the disparity of knowledge in pregnancy: a woman always knows the baby is hers, and quite often can say for certain who fathered the child, but a man can never be quite sure. This inability to know what a woman enjoys in bed works itself out playfully in a rather coy omission of the narrator’s:And she obeyeth, be hire lief or looth. But lest that precious folk be with me wrooth,How that he wroghte, I dar nat to yow telle;Of wheither hire thought it paradys or helle. (ll. 1961-4)Quite simply, this passage is breathtaking. The narrator is playing with exactly those tensions between knowledge, silence, and subjectivity that underpin the terror of cuckoldry. He cannot tell us what she thinks because his audience does not want to hear about it; but, of course, we do wish to know, even if that knowledge is unsettling to us. January’s confidence is, for the audience, what makes him so pitiable‹and, for men especially, what makes us unsure of ourselves. She is silenced, according to the narrator, in deference to a value system that (in the name of decency or other supposed virtues) seeks to deny female sexuality, but in silencing her the men doom themselves to uncertainty.The Manciple’s Tale deals directly with these tensions between uncertainty, silence, and subjectivity. Like the Merchant’s Tale, the Manciple’s Tale also (arguably) deals with a triangle of two men and one woman‹although one of the men, in this case, is a bird. Phoebus and his crow can be read as good friends. Phoebus has taught the bird how to speak, and the bird is unfailingly loyal. But there is also a way that the bird becomes fantasy or a symbol of representation itself: Now hadde this Phebus in his hous a croweWhich in a cage, he fostred many a day,And taughte it speken, as men teche a jay.Whit was this crowe as is a snow-whit swan,And countrefete the speche of every manHe koude whan he sholde tell a tale. (ll. 130-5)This bird exists nowhere in reality (section, 4/22). He is a crow with white feathers, a crow who can speak. Like a lie or language that misses the mark, the crow does not refer to anything real. Significantly, he can “counterfete” speech‹especially the speech of tale-tellers. The bird’s language is tied to the act of story-telling itself, and is also described as mere mimicry or imitation. And yet this bird is the mediator between Phoebus and knowledge of his wife. From the bird, Phoebus hears the news of his wife’s adultery: “The crowe anon hym tolde, / By sadde tokenes and by wordes bolde, / How that his wyf had doon her lecherye” (ll. 257-9). The text dwells on the fact that the crow must use words and signs to communicate with his master‹”By sadde tokenes and by wordes bolde.” Incongruent combinations dwell in this line (similar to the combination represented by the crow itself), and yet these combinations of sad signs and bold words are necessary to tell Phoebus the truth. Sadness and boldness, signs and words‹the use of difficult combinations makes the act of telling Phoebus into a kind of necessary but difficult performance. Phoebus consequently seems distanced from the actual act of adultery. She does not speak for herself‹the words that constitute the news come in a strange performance from a fantastic bird.Phoebus’s wife and her subjectivity are locked away from both Phoebus and the reader. She is completely and maddeningly silent. She does not utter a single word in the entire tale, nor does she have a name. Her judgment and execution are quick, efficient, final: This Phebus gan awyward for to wryen,And thoughte his sorweful herte brast atwo.His bowe he bente, and sette therinne a flor,And in his ire his wyf thanne hath he slayn. (ll. 262-5)Phoebus begins his decent by turning away (from the truth? from facing the wife himself?) and slays her without giving her a chance to defend herself. Silencing her seems at first merciful for his own feelings, but this silence only causes more anguish and suffering. Once she is dead, he re-imagines her as faithful and curses the crow and the crow’s descendents, making the bird the second victim of his violent temper (ll. 295-6). Her silence, Phoebus’s protective measure for himself, becomes a source of great fear and anxiety. Uncertainty proves to be the terrible cost of making her subjectivity inaccessible; Phoebus’s initial fear of cuckoldry, the motivation behind his wish to keep her under guard (l. 144), inverts and becomes a fear that she may have been faithful. The two male characters of the story both become victims of Phoebus’s inability to know his wife. The inaccessibility of female subjectivity, heightened by a male-imposed silence paradoxically becomes a terrifying source of male anxiety; female characters become imbued with an aura of mystery and simultaneously become treacherous and threatening to male order. The tensions in these stories and the male apprehensions clustered around the act of cuckoldry seem to draw intensity from a conviction that somehow both knowledge and ignorance are dangerous. Silencing women, while it certainly disempowers them, also seems in a way to disempower men. Even in the act of creating literature, in which a narrator presumably has unlimited power to create worlds and subjectivities, Chaucer seems at times to be reticent when it comes to the minds of his women‹perhaps that is why the Wife of Bath remains such a fascinating and exceptional character. Many of the tales center on the exploits of men, but women function as indispensable characters in the exploration of certain apprehensions and attitudes toward knowledge and ignorance. For male characters and the audience, the women of the Canterbury Tales, even when passive and silent, are often the sources of our most enthralled fascination‹and our most unsettling fears.

Leave a Comment