Transcript: 294. Isabel Davis on Sexuality and Marriage in Chaucer

Peter is joined by Isabel Davis to discuss marriage, sex and chastity in Chaucer, focusing on the Wife of Bath's speech.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: Chaucer is an exciting subject, which I guess people might not expect to hear about on a History of Philosophy series. And so we'll talk maybe a bit later about why it might be an idea to include him. But let's first just make sure the listener knows what we're talking about. So I guess pretty much everyone has heard of Geoffrey Chaucer. He lived in the 14th century, he died in 1400, and he's the author of the Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories which are put into the mouths of pilgrims who are having a competition, basically, who can tell the best story as they go on this pilgrimage together. And one of the things that actually people do talk about quite a lot with the Canterbury Tales and Chaucer's other works is this theme that we're going to be concentrating on, which is sexuality, marriage, intimacy, and so on. And so I was wondering if you could start by telling us about which aspects or parts of the Canterbury Tales are most relevant here, and maybe also what other things Chaucer wrote that you might want to consider.

Isabel Davis: Sure. I mean, before Chaucer was the author of the Canterbury Tales, he had written his great romance, Troilus and Criseyde, which is very much about the erotic and intimate life. It's not really focused as much on marriage. And where we might think about marriage is much more in the Canterbury Tales, and that's where he thinks about that relationship in particular. 

Peter Adamson: So he's capable of thinking about erotic relationships within or outside of marriage, and he distinguishes the two things. 

Isabel Davis: That's right. I mean, there are critics who would like to see Troilus and Criseyde's relationship as a marriage-like relationship or as a clandestine marriage, but that's not completely explicit in the text. It's a poem which is thinking more broadly about love and sexuality and the place of the sexual life, perhaps outside of the bonds of marriage even. 

Peter Adamson: And I suppose that there's a long tradition leading up to Chaucer already, or maybe not a long tradition, but there is a tradition of works on love and romance leading up to Chaucer. So for example, you have the Romance of the Rose, which is a text that he reads and influences him. And so these are other texts that may talk about romance or the erotic without necessarily erasing the topic of marriage as such. Is that right? 

Isabel Davis: Exactly right. So he's writing in the tradition of romance writing, which includes the Romance of the Remote Rose, which as you say is a landmark text. And actually, although parts of the Romance of the Rose discuss marriage, it's not one of its principal topics and it doesn't talk about marriage in a particularly positive way. So that's something which we might think about the way that Chaucer builds into his work, even where he might be responding to something like the Romance of the Rose. 

Peter Adamson: What does Chaucer tell us about the historical situation regarding marriage in his day? You just mentioned, for example, clandestine marriage. So that might be a nice case of what are the sort of social phenomena that we can learn about by reading a text like the works of Chaucer. 

Isabel Davis: Yeah, I mean, how we use literature like Chaucer's work as historical evidence is obviously a knotty problem and we need to use it alongside other corroborating historical records. And one body of record that we might look to is the ecclesiastical courts. And they really deal with cases about marriage, and most marriage litigation in the Middle Ages is not as it is today about dissolving marriages, mostly about whether marriages are in fact valid, whether they've been made, whether the right contract has been made. And although lots of people like today wanted to formalize their marriage contracts, and they would go actually to the doors of the church rather than perhaps inside the church to have a service. And whilst they might invite their friends and family to witness that service, that wasn't absolutely necessary for the making of a medieval marriage. So if two people exchanged words of present consent, even in a private household, that was regarded as a valid marriage. Of course, you've got an extra problem if you want to enforce that contract, you would need witnesses in order to enforce it. But there are lots of cases in the medieval consistory courts or ecclesiastical courts, church courts, in which people are trying to enforce contracts and they have to present witness testimony. A typical case might be that a young girl who's pregnant says that she agreed to sleep with her lover if he married her. And of course, he has an alibi for the day where this contract was supposedly made. Perhaps he was buying a horse in another town or the interesting incidental historical details in those records. But that was a possible way of making marriage. And Chaucer includes actually an example of this in the legend of good women when he rewrites the story of Dido and he strengthens the vows which are made between Dido and Aeneas in a cave in the middle of nowhere. So to the extent where I think contemporaries would have understood that relationship to be marriage-like or perhaps even a valid marriage, critics are slightly divided on it. But most critics agree that Dido is right to think that she has a contract of some kind. 

Peter Adamson: It's interesting. I think that this all raises the possibility that you could be married in the eyes of God without being legally married. I mean, if you were, say, you were in a room together, just the husband-to-be and the wife-to-be, you exchange marriage vows. Okay, now God thinks of you as married, but you can't enforce it later on. 

Isabel Davis: You've got to answer to your conscience, of course. But it was designed, I suppose, this idea is what makes a valid marriage, lots of theologians argued it was the consent of two hearts. And that's partly to accommodate the question of the holy family, like in what way Mary and Joseph married. 

Peter Adamson: Because it was unconsummated. 

Isabel Davis: It's unconsummated. So you can't say that consummation forms marriage. What makes that marriage valid? The consent of two hearts. So the question of consent actually is very important to lots of writing about marriage and how far we can find that in literature is an interesting question. And I mean, people, even very young people may well have known their rights in terms of the making of marriage. They couldn't necessarily be coerced into marriages that were recommended to them by their families and other communities. If they didn't consent, the church would often and sometimes uphold their rights, in the face of strong community pressure, to not marry the person they didn't want to or perhaps to marry the person they did want to. 

Peter Adamson: Actually, I think here we're already seeing, we haven't really even gotten to Chaucer yet, so we should do that. But we're already seeing why this topic is philosophically interesting because you have questions about does just intending to do something make it the case? What role does consent play in ethical obligations to other people? What do other people have to do in order to verify that the right kind of relationship exists between these two people? And it's actually something that's come up in the podcast before, that we have this sort of interplay between legal texts and philosophical texts, and now in this case, literary texts with Chaucer. So let's turn then to Chaucer and in particular, the most striking text from the Canterbury Tales, which touches on these questions, which is the story of the Wife of Bath, or rather the Prologue that comes before the story that the Wife of Bath tells. So this is a very vivid portrait of marriage from the point of view of the wife in the marriage, or actually in the marriages, because she has several marriages, five, right? And the kind of discussion that she provides is, I guess, pretty clearly supposed to be funny. And that might make someone wonder whether she's just being held up as a kind of object of ridicule or mockery. So I think it's a very easy text to read as just a kind of misogynist attack on women or on marriage or the way women think about marriage, because she talks about marriage often as a kind of exchange where she was trying to get something out of the men, and she talks about how she tries to manipulate them and what she did and didn't manage to get out of each of her husbands. So presumably, you don't think that that reductive reading is right, because otherwise there's not going to be very much for us to talk about. So how do you think that we should read the Prologue? 

Isabel Davis: I think that's a very difficult question. This is what occupies critical attention on the Wife of Bath's Prologue and exactly how to read it. Of course, she says that she speaks from experience about marriage, and yet a lot of what she says clearly is quotation from a long tradition of misogynist writing. Exactly what we're supposed to be laughing at in her Prologue is a really difficult question to answer. One of the things that complicates the reductive portrait that you drew there about her, just as the brunt of a misogynist joke, is that she actually tells a story of her conversion from nagging wife into somebody who has a more sophisticated companionate relationship with her fifth husband. To achieve that, she comes through a period of domestic violence too. So it's a very strange tale in fact, a Prologue which charts a number of different kinds of marriages. Of course, there's another reductive reading of her, which is that she is that voice, that authentic female voice and a poke in the eye for the medieval ecclesiastical men whose writing she tries to resist. 

Peter Adamson: So that would also actually be pretty much the reverse reading. It's not that we're mocking her, it's that Chaucer is sort of using her voice to speak on behalf of women and complain about their lot essentially. 

Isabel Davis: That's right and that he actually achieved some authenticity there. Of course, we've got to find something in between, a reading in between those two poles. I mean, I think there are things that we're supposed to take seriously about what the Wife of Bath says about the ethics of marriage, but it is really complicated by the laughter. One of the jokes has to be that she's supposed to be speaking to us and yet so much of what she says seems to come out of written traditions, long-written traditions.

Peter Adamson: And we're supposed to pick up on that as the reader. 

Isabel Davis: That's right. I mean, she talks about her fifth husband has an anthology of misogynist writing which he reads out to her night after night. And some of the contents of that anthology, she actually quotes from herself when she's saying, these are things I actually said to my previous husbands. These are the ways that I nagged them. These are words which we find written in the sources that she cites from that book. So how do we read that; what is Chaucer saying? Is he saying that tragically she has internalized the material which describes her as fallen and inadequate? And is it a tragic portrait in that respect? Or is there something more cynical which we're laughing at there? 

Peter Adamson: I was wondering when you just said that the Wife has fallen, that might seem surprising. Of course, in a sense, everybody's fallen, right? Because of original sin. But there seems to be a stronger sense in which the Wife of Bath has fallen, in that she, in her married life, seems to be failing to live up to some kind of ethical standard or ideal. And I was wondering whether if the Wife of Bath is being criticized, or at least maybe her original approach to marriage is being criticized in favor of a later approach, is the problem that she doesn't see married life in the right way? Or is it that Chaucer is trying to say that married life in itself is somehow substandard because a better life would be a life of chastity and virginity? 

Isabel Davis: I think there are two things in the Wife of Bath's Prologue. There's her practice, and there's some of the theory which she expounds. And she's quite technical and theological, in fact, in some of that theory. And I think, in my reading, that lots of her theory is actually relatively correct, or it is a possible reading which some of her contemporaries would have concurred with. But she seems unable to live up to some of those theories. And in particular, she tells us, for example, that while she's married to her fourth husband, she has an affair with her husband's apprentice. And that wouldn't have been recommended, of course, by any moral or theological commentator, or recommended as a good way to live. So she seems to be able to say some things which are correct, and yet she can't actually live up to them herself. 

Peter Adamson: And is she being presented as doing these things in full knowledge that they're wrong? I mean, she sort of looks back on herself and says, oh, and there I was, guiltily going about my business and doing things I knew to be a sin. 

Isabel Davis: That's right. I mean, the Prologue is styled as a confession in that way, and that she's confessing to the mistakes of the past. She actually talks even about that episode of adultery, about the way that she lied to the husband and said, oh, there's nothing going on with your apprentice. But she tells us quite plainly that that wasn't true. So we see her confessing her past sins. And part of that is about trying to claim a new way of being a wife that she found in her fifth husband, Jankyn, with that husband. She described falling in love, in fact, in quite affecting ways. 

Peter Adamson: So actually, it sounds to me like there's maybe three levels here. There's the Wife of Bath's actual practice, which already doesn't live up to her own ideal. And then there's her ideal, which is an ideal of married life. And then there's maybe, potentially, a higher ideal, which would be an ideal of a chaste life. So the life lived by saints or in a monastic setting, of course, which is a clear possible contrast to the life that the Wife of Bath lives. And so is Chaucer then aligning his own attitudes with those of the Wife of Bath, in the sense that he's telling us that the ideal life to live is a married life, but a good married life, where you don't cheat on your spouse, for example? Or is he trying to say something negative about marriage, at least to the point that he wants to show us that actually a life of, say, monastic purity would actually be preferable? 

Isabel Davis: It's very hard for Chaucer ever to say exactly what he believes, because he puts so much of what he says about anything into the voice of other characters. And so the Wife of Bath, for example, talks about chastity, and she acknowledges that it's a superlative ethical option. But she just says, that am not I. That's not me. And I suppose one of the arguments that she's making there is ethical perfection might be an ideal for all sorts of people, but not for everybody. We could think about that in modern life, that we see lots of magazines in which we see people's perfect lives and perfect bodies and all the rest of it. But we don't all aspire to achieve that in our own lives, that we go about with our imperfect bodies, and we accept that that's part of the way of living. The Canterbury Tales does have some things to say about virginity, and there are two tales in particular. So the Physician's Tale and the Second Nun's Tale. The Second Nun's Tale on the whole is perhaps a bit more positive about virginity and tries to think about it as replicating perhaps some of the affections that are provided by marriage. So St. Cecilia in that tale is married, but she lives a chaste life. But the Physician's Tale is a darker and more complicated tale about a father who kills his virginal daughter in order to avoid her being raped. And the physician himself is a man who does try to lead a perfect bodily life. He has a strict health regimen, and he understands the medical authorities and tries to live by those rules. And so he has an idea about the intact body. But because the tale is so problematic, I mean, is it better to be murdered than to be raped? Not all the pilgrims, for example, might agree with that. And not sure the Wife of Bath would necessarily agree with that. And the readers sympathize with this drastic action, which is taken to apparently protect this girl. It's not entirely clear. Chaucer isn't the kind of writer who will step in and give you a clear summary of how you're supposed to think about things. 

Peter Adamson: He's like Plato in this respect. 

Isabel Davis: So let me just go back to the Wife of Bath and her Prologue just for one more moment, because I think something else is worth mentioning is that this fifth marriage with Jankyn actually has a disturbing scene of domestic abuse, as we would call it now. And in a way, it even kind of grows out of this sequence where he's reading to her from this misogynistic compendium, this book that he's got. So it's like he starts out by abusing her by reading to her. And then he continues by abusing her by beating her up. And, so again, I wonder what that tells us about contemporary attitudes towards violence towards women. And maybe also what Chaucer may or may not be trying to tell us about violence between men and women. So for example, he could be saying that violence and sexuality are somehow inextricably intertwined. And of course, if that's what he's saying, that would suggest that he does have a pretty negative view of marriage. 

Peter Adamson: It's a really interesting question, partly because we must, at any level, must think about the Canterbury Tales as a contemporary social comment, as a satire, contemporary satire. So he's interested in questions about women, marriage, domestic violence, widows perhaps, as their own subject for themselves. But at the same time, as we said before, he's also dealing with long traditions of writing and thinking about the way that these things have been discussed before. And I think that the episode of domestic violence, as real as it seems to us reading it, is not only interested in contemporary violence within marriage, but it's also a literary allusion. And from a particular episode of the Romance of the Rose, that 13th-century romance that you mentioned before. And in that poem, a character called the Jealous Husband not only abuses his wife psychologically with the misogynist texts, which Chaucer is also tackling in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, but he also beats his wife. One of the questions that that raises is how far there's a continuum between misogynist writing and real physical violence against women. And the episode of domestic violence is very sad in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, but also oddly very funny. She tells it as a joke against herself. She talks about swinging the first punch. She talks about being incredibly histrionic. She pretends to be dead. And when he comes closer to her, feeling sorry that he might have killed her, she then uses that as an opportunity to punch him again. 

Peter Adamson: Take that, Jankyn. 

Isabel Davis: That's right. But she does say, you know, that about the book, before they fall to blows, she tears some pages out of the book that he's continually reading to her. And for that, she says, he smote me until I was deaf. And this is a very important detail in the Wife of Bath’s portrait. We hear about it three times. She tells us twice herself that she was beaten until she was deaf. And also the narrator tells us in the general Prologue that the Wife of Bath is deaf. I think this is a very sad, still point in her narrative. And it's very difficult to move around, because even though she talks about herself being partly to blame for the violence, for giving as good as she gets, nonetheless, she's been beaten until she's disabled. And what that means is something which critics talk a lot about. In what ways might we read that metaphorically? How much might she be metaphorically deaf? Does it mean that she's unable to hear about how to live that good ethical life, for example? Is she unable to hear Scripture? 

Peter Adamson: Or is she unable to keep hearing the misogynist diatribe? 

Isabel Davis: Quite. Yeah, maybe there comes a point where this continuum is so inevitable that you're unable, in fact, to hear this ideological attack. 

Peter Adamson: The other strange thing about this, by the way, is that this episode, disturbing though it is, then sort of ushers in the happy ending because Jankyn regrets what he's done. And then from then on, they kind of achieve marital bliss together. 

Isabel Davis: That's right. And she also expresses regret about her behavior in that incident. And it seems that that companionate love match that they arrive at is forged in violence. She says she loves the man most of all who beat her most severely. And so it's both tragic and strangely comic at the same time. But one way of reading the Wife of Bath's Prologue might be to think about it allegorically, about because Jankyn is actually a cleric, he must be, if we're thinking about it as a literal marriage, in minor orders in order to be able to have a wife. But if we read it allegorically that this is about a woman, and how she is married to clergy, and perhaps clerical misogyny more broadly, we could say that she is made deaf by a violent relationship. The struggle between woman and clerical misogyny is inevitably a violent one. And one way that the tale might be read is about how the church might make accommodation for women or might come to terms with women, how that marriage might be made more affectionate. So that may be one way to think about her deafness too, that she's made deaf by a clergy that have become distracted by misogyny and unable now to do its pastoral duty by women, perhaps, or lay people more broadly.

Peter Adamson: I think another feature of it that at least convinced me, not knowing very much about this sort of literature, I have to admit, but something that struck me about it is just that Chaucer is doing such a good job inhabiting the voice of this woman. He's really imagined himself into her point of view, which is itself a kind of act of ethical identification. And you might say, oh well, big deal, he's a literary author, he has to do that, that's part of the game. But I think he must be consciously reflecting on that, precisely because there's all of these sort of self-conscious reflections on the literary tradition that he's drawing on, and he even puts in a text which is anti-woman into the Prologue. And so it seems to me that this is a really nice case, I think, where you have a literary text that's approaching what we can recognize as philosophical themes. So in this case, something like ethical identification, chastity, which is something we've talked about a lot. But in a way that no philosophical text could achieve. And so, just in conclusion, I wanted to ask you more generally, what you think we can get out of this kind of literature, say as historians of philosophy, or if we're interested in mostly in philosophical themes in the medieval period, then what would we miss out on if we don't read authors like Chaucer? 

Isabel Davis: I think one of the reasons why looking at somebody like Chaucer is really useful for thinking about ethical debates more broadly is because he's not an exception to his time. He's indicative, and he fits in with what other people think and are writing about or debating. And he's implicated in wider questions of ethics. So if we're thinking about celibacy, for example, and whether it's a good idea to have a celibate priestly caste, we might think about his engagement with perhaps Franciscan debates or Wycliffite debates about the right kind of perfect living, whether being Christ-like or imitating Christ is the best way forward. And of course, Franciscans have a different answer to that than perhaps Wycliffites do. 

Peter Adamson: By Wycliffite, you mean followers of John Wycliffe, right? 

Isabel Davis: That's right, yes;  in Wycliffite thinking, the question about having a celibate priesthood is very much up for discussion. And the followers of Wycliffe are also trying to think about incorporating the idea of women – that they might even be able to preach, for example, or to take part in the church in a different way, that they might have that capacity. So these things are becoming very important philosophical discussions at the same time that Chaucer is writing. To go back to something you were saying about the ethics of identification and writing in the voice of somebody else. This is an important literary question which Chaucer is taking from texts like the Romance of the Rose and other writers, female writers, like for example Christine de Pizan, are also thinking that problem through. So Christine de Pizan, for example, asks the question about the Romance of the Rose, about why so many of the characters speak in a misogynist voice, even when it doesn't fit allegorically with what they're supposed to represent. And people who defend the Rose, this is in the early 15th century, really say to her, you don't understand what a character is, what a persona is, and this isn't the author speaking, but she keeps returning to this problem, well why so many of them? Why when it's not allegorically fit, why is there this predominance? And so she's really asking that question about how fair it is to try to speak in a woman's voice. So the notorious character perhaps in the Romance of the Rose is the character of the Old Woman, who is one kind of model for the Wife of Bath, in fact, and she gives the most scurrilous, discreditable advice. The Wife of Bath, we can read her in that way, it's very easy to discredit her because she's completely outrageous. But should we throw everything that she says out, or are there aspects of what she says which might be actually validated by other people in her historical moment? 


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