[TW: rape, sexual assault, victim-blaming.]
Rape is funny.
That’s the kind of first sentence that might get me some immediate unfollows from impatient readers, but bear with me; I trust if you’ve been reading my work for a while, you’ll know that’s an introduction, not a conclusion. I’ve been thinking about this post on and off since the International Medieval Congress in Leeds this July, but I couldn’t work out how to quite put what I wanted to say into words. I haven’t managed this time, either, but perhaps this may mark a start in a conversation I think we need to have.
Lately in the popular and geek media there has been a great deal of discussion about whether or not it’s ok for comedians to make jokes about rape and whether feminists are too “sensitive” for reacting negatively to said jokes. On the FREEDOM OF SPEECH!!1! side, the most frequent argument made is that comedy is an art, and that part of the purpose of comedy is to push the limits of taboos. On the ANGRY FEMINIST side, most frequently people say that rape jokes aren’t funny because they tend to mock the victim, not the rapist; they punch down rather than up, and those jokes accordingly normalise cultures of rape. This discussion often boils down to the question of whether rape jokes are funny. On one side of the argument, there is the idea that they are funny, and those who resist that conclusion are humourless politically-correct bitches. On the other side is the idea that if you find rape jokes funny, you are lacking in empathy. As you might have guessed, my sympathies lie with Team Feminist; after all, there are plenty of studies that indicate a strong connection between sexist, violent humour and sexist, violent behaviour. I am in favour of humour that skewers powerful institutions rather than marginalised individuals. But the question of whether or not rape jokes are funny fails to get to the heart of the issue, which is about the construction of rape culture and our own complicity in that culture.
In July I went to a reading of Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale. The story, if you’re not familiar with it, is a variation on a traditional fabliau featuring a “cradle trick”. It’s essentially a story of how two young clerks, John and Aleyn, punish a greedy miller for cheating their college by cuckolding him and having sex with his daughter. The Reeve’s Tale is one of the most popular stories in The Canterbury Tales, and the live reading really brought home why: it is simultaneously thoroughly bawdy in content and incredibly elegant in execution. It is frenetic, absurd, and hilarious.
And it is about rape, or at least about sexual assault. Aleyn creeps into bed with the miller’s daughter, Malyne. ‘It was too late to cry out’, the narrator informs us, and so then they ‘were aton’. After they have had sex, Aleyn slips back into the bed he thinks he is sharing with his friend, and shares a ‘noble game’ – that he was ‘swyved the milleres doghter’. Of course, he has actually crept into bed with the miller, who reacts furiously. The reason he mistakes that bed for his own is because his friend John has moved the miller’s son’s cradle to the foot of his bed, so that when the miller’s wife tries to find her way to her bed in the dark, she locates the cradle and climbs into bed with the clerk. It is made very clear in the text that she is not complicit in this: ‘thanne hadde I foule ysped’, she says to herself when she thinks she has narrowly missed getting into the wrong bed (which is, of course, where her husband is actually sleeping). ‘So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore’, we are told, and she falls asleep, quite worn out by their exertions. Later on, Simkin the miller falls backward onto the clerk’s bed, and his wife thinks she is being attacked by one of the clerks and cries out loudly for her husband. She then assaults her husband, thinking the gleam of his bald head in the moonlight is the white of a clerk’s night cap. It is a scene rich in comic action, the slapstick effortlessly rendered. The story ends with the two clerks running away without paying for their board and lodgings, with the cake of flour the miller stole from them, and the miller left battered and bloody. The cherry on top of the cake of victory over the grasping miller, however, is that ‘His wyf is swyved, and his doghter als’. In crude terms, the miller tries to fuck over the clerks, but instead his wife and daughter are fucked. The story concludes with the satisfying note that ‘A gylour shal hymself bigyled be’: a trickster shall be tricked. As with many fabliaux, order is restored, paradoxically, through disorderly conduct.
I laughed along with the rest of the audience while I was listening to the reading, but at the same time I was thinking: what happens after this? The miller has been thoroughly shamed; how might we expect a man of his character – mean, selfish and petty – to react to such a humiliation? How will he treat his wife and daughter? These are not questions the text invites us to ask: but more curiously, these are not questions that scholars have tended to ask, either.
In fact, it can be difficult to even describe what happens to the wife and to Malyne as sexual assault. Particularly in the case of Malyne, critics point to the way she addresses Aleyn as ‘lemman’ after they have sex, tells him where her father has hidden the cake made from their stolen grain, and on his departure ‘almoost she gan to wepe’. Readers often gloss over that line earlier on about it being too late for her to protest when Aleyn gets into her bed, but Malyne would not be the first woman who lies quietly when a man forces sexual advances on her. Why, after all, is it ‘too late’ to cry out? Is it because if her family wake and find her in bed with a man, the damage to her reputation is already done? It is better, perhaps, to go along with what he wants and then hope he leaves quietly.
I can almost hear a number of Chaucer scholars scoffing at this, because there is little in the text that directly supports such a reading. Of course there isn’t: because the text is written from the perspective of a rapist.
Although a number of feminist scholars have now addressed the question of whether Chaucer was a rapist, this is a question that in Chaucer studies still remains relatively taboo, and one that most medievalists prefer to sidestep. Derek Pearsall’s Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1990) ties itself up in knots trying to extricate Chaucer. Although Pearsall refutes the common critical canard that ‘rape’ in this case meant ‘abduction’, he then comes to this entirely unsubstantiated conclusion:
The strongest likelihood, in my opinion, is that Cecily threatened to bring a charge of rape in order to force Chaucer into some compensatory settlement and that she then cooperated in the legal release. The actual offence for which she sought compensation is not necessarily the offence named in the charge that she used for leverage and did not press: there are many things that it might more probably have been than violent physical, rape, including neglect and the betrayal of promises by the man or some unilateral decision on his part to terminate an affair that he regarded as over but which the woman, in retrospect, regard as a physical violation.
Pearsall is keen to uphold Chaucer as, in the words of the Scottish poet Gavin Douglas, ‘evir (God wait) all womanis fren[d]’. It’s much more comfortable to assume that Cecily Champain was a scorned woman rather than a victim of rape. As Tison Pugh says, no one wants to think of Chaucer as a rapist. Pugh, at least, directly addresses the elephant in the room: how do we enjoy ‘great literature written by bad people’? But I disagree with Pugh that we have an ‘easy escape’ because we are not certain if Chaucer was a rapist; lack of evidence doesn’t mean we ‘need not face the uncomfortable ethical situation’, particularly not when, as Pugh writes here, we are discussing these texts with our students. I understand the impulse: as an undergraduate researching my dissertation on Thomas Malory, I didn’t want to think of the author of the Arthurian stories I’d long loved as a rapist. And so I put in an appropriate footnote and sailed on past that: because, after all, I was thinking about his text, not him, right?
Wrong. I won’t say that I was a coward when I was twenty, because I knew not only a lot less about medieval studies back then but also a lot less about the world. But now I am an educator, and I think I would be an irresponsible and, yes, cowardly teacher if I didn’t address the issue head-on. I am a feminist who believes very strongly in believing the testimony of rape victims. In our own society, false rape accusations are incredibly rare, and bringing rape cases to court is fraught with difficulty and only occasionally successful in bringing a conviction. If this is true in 2014, why on earth would I think that 634 years ago, Cecily Champaign was lying about her rape, or that because she dropped the rape case it meant the rape never happened? Of course I can’t say ‘for certain’ that Chaucer raped Cecily. Medievalists can’t really say very much at all ‘for certain’, but that normally doesn’t stop us saying it.
Does Chaucer probably being a rapist change the way we read The Reeve’s Tale? Yes and no. I want to come back to my inflammatory first sentence. Also at the Leeds IMC, my former PhD supervisor Jeremy Goldberg gave an excellent paper titled ‘Women and Sexual Violence: The Perspective from Later Medieval English Courts’. In it he argued, amongst other things, that medieval people did not conflate rape and abduction and that they had an understanding of rape as forced penetration that was very similar to our own, and that rape was used as a means of asserting seigneurial control – not over women, but over the men of their family. Women were sometimes raped, he argued, to punish men.
Suddenly the Reeve’s Tale has a context that isn’t just about university boys getting one over on a grasping miller. They are higher status men punishing a lower status man for infractions by exacting a penalty on the bodies of his wife and daughter. This is a theme that comes up repeatedly in medieval literature. Rape, in the middle ages, is very often a key component of bawdy, hilarious tales intended for both popular and elite consumption.
The question isn’t whether these stories were funny. They clearly were. They still seem funny now. Medieval society found rape funny. Our society finds rape funny. Oh, not all rape: medieval writers and readers could, for example, find Lucretia’s rape and suicide to be a sober moral lesson. But she was a virtuous, aristocratic housewife: she was the right sort of victim. Just as in our society, facebook memes circulate about the best ways for busy, virtuous women to defend themselves against rape by strangers, while photographs of naked, raped teenage girls can be circulated on the internet while people ask: well, why did she drink alcohol, make out, go to a party with those boys?
In a way it doesn’t matter if Chaucer was a rapist, because whether or not he was, he was clearly deeply entrenched in the rape culture of his time. The Reeve’s Tale demonstrates a pretty typical set of medieval attitudes toward sex, rape and women, and for all we may want to see Chaucer as exceptional, he was absolutely a man of his time. In another way, it is absolutely critical to address the issue of Chaucer being a man who raped a woman, because it forces us to think of how Chaucer may not just have been a passive recipient of the values embedded into rape culture, but also an active promoter of those values. In the Reeve’s Tale, we see a lot of the justifications for assault that are all-too-familiar to many women today. The miller’s wife has good sex with John, so his deception isn’t that big a deal; Malyne doesn’t scream, so she can’t have minded; she sweet-talks Aleyn at the end, so she must have consented. Because these all touch on issues that are still deeply taboo today, even amongst rape victims: that orgasm is possible during rape, for instance, or that emotional attachment to an abuser is a key reason why women stay in dangerous relationships. I don’t think I’m grasping at straws here: these are, I think, legitimate ways of reading the text that Chaucer provides.
But most people don’t read them that way. Because we’re encouraged to see ourselves as John and Aleyn, not Malyne and her nameless mother. Who knows what happens to them that morning? We don’t care, because we have fled with the cheeky clerks: who have had a ‘noble game’, and ‘on hir wey they gon’, never looking back.
The reeve’s tale seems hilarious. Imagine that guy. Pity. And yes, the article is pretty refreshing for everybody. A look at another perspective. Great one ! Following you for another!!
Hi, I wasn’t aware of such a past cultural value of the British history, which still exists today. Yes, it’s indeed shocking and disgusting. I guess it’s only confined to the poor and the elite, because the middle class tends not to share these views. In any case, a good approach would be to take murder jokes and injury jokes into the same context for a comparative analysis. Rape can be as “bloody” as those crimes, especially with virgins. If a person doesn’t find all three crime jokes equally funny, the probability of sexism is HIGH. Rape is comparable to murder because it may result in perpetual damage of personal reputation, which the noble treasure as their very lives.
Speaking of rape as comedy….
In the 1942 screwball comedy movie “My Sister Eileen,” two young Midwestern women travel to big, scary New York to make their fortunes. The younger, prettier one winds up on the verge of rape so many times, I lost count halfway through the movie. An apartment without a working lock that used to be a prostitute’s home office provides the plot with a constant stream of strange, unsavory men for her to deal with against her will. Yup, the screenplay was written by dudes, go figure.
That’s disconcerting enough but what really gives pause is how in every single case, it’s only by the assistance of another, nobler man who just happens to be in the neighborhood that her honor is preserved. He strides in, puffs out his chest, sends the ruffian scurrying away, and we all can relax again until the next joke. What isn’t funny, though, is that a few minutes too late and she’d be on the cold floor, screaming and bleeding from her vagina, pieces of torn dress strewn about the room while the rapist zips up his pants and grabs his hat. Yet, all these attempted violations are presented in the story as harmless cliffhangers, the unfortunate side effects of being desirable: poor little sexually rich girl. Because comedy.
Little sister Eileen’s entire role in the movie seems to be as wriggling sexual bait on a disempowered hook. She catches plenty of fish, but it’s really hit or miss in the story line whether they’re going to woo her or drag her into an alley. She’s like an inert twenty dollar bill laying on the sidewalk, hoping a good one will pick her up. And she has no recourse once it’s in motion, not even her sister can help. They both just struggle in vain against the grabbing hands and slobbering mouths while muttering apologies and excuses to their attackers that are designed to preserve their good name–after all, you can try to prevent yourself from being raped and emotionally scarred forever but for god’s sake, be a lady about it!
I don’t watch old movies anymore. I don’t have the stomach for it.
I haven’t heard of that film – thanks for sharing your thoughts on it! It can be disconcerting how tropes repeat across the centuries…
You might need a bottle of wine to watch it, but here it is on YouTube. (The 50s remake, on the other hand, is predictably whitewashed and sanitized into a musical. Can you imagine? Attempted rape set to music? Gawd.)
I don’t know how anyone could find rape jokes funny in any context, in my opinion its a crime as abhorrent as pedophilia. And I agree that there are problems with prosecuting rape cases but most states have enacted statutes that prevent the blaming of the victim as a defense.
I am totally with you on this. Well written and very interesting. Thanks for sharing!
The text and the scholars gloss over those questions for one reason – this is not a treatise on legal ramifications, it is entertainment. Look to the law, or philosophy, to sort out real world consequences, and leave entertainment where it is – in the world of fiction.
Of course, you can show whatever you want in entertainment, including murder scenes, rape scenes and extreme violence. The thing is, they aren’t meant to be funny unless they are accidents. That you unintentionally hit someone’s underbelly can be really funny, but if you do it on purpose and hit hard, then it’s not funny unless the victim is a public enemy or something. There are always exceptions. The point is, rape as it is under normal circumstances isn’t funny, but according to the author, there are many rape jokes even today. I’ve never heard them myself through. That’s why I was kind of shocked and couldn’t think properly when referencing the middle class in a very vague way.
Hm, but then a good many of us academics would be unemployed, so I don’t think we’ll do that. 😉
But seriously, the idea that “entertainment” and “real life” are somehow distinct, entirely separate categories is super problematic. We are enormously influenced by popular culture. That’s why it’s important that nowadays we get varied racial representation and gender diversity in Hollywood films, for example. None of us think we live in this week’s blockbuster; but our ideas about what is culturally normal *is* informed by our consumption of media. There’s no reason to think this wasn’t true in the late medieval period either, even if the circulation of media was on a smaller scale than today.
Reblogged this on aoyumijung17 and commented:
While literature is a repository for tales, morals and values of the human, it is also historical documentation of past eras/civilizations and must be considered in its own time, a time, unfortunately, when sometimes, as it is now, sexual repression and social hypocrisy, in addition to misogyny and just overall corrupt behavior trump respect and compassion.
Wonderful presentation. We have a guest post from Poet-Historian Harry Shaw that looks at Rape in History as a Socio-Military Weapon:
Whoops, forgot to add the title: To Hear the Lamentation of Their Women… [Historian-Poet Harry Shaw]
Great post, thanks.
This was so insightful and interesting, thank you. I haven’t really considered literature in such depth since my undergraduate degree, and this reminded me why I loved studying English Literature, and the wealth of writings around it.
Thank you for reading! One great thing about the Internet is that it’s easy now to find academics writing on all kinds of topics without having to rummage around in a university library. I like to think blogs like mine help make academia more accessible!
Thanks for the post. I think that in addition to sexual violence, people find many kinds of violence humorous. I just don’t know why people would make up a rape joke in the first place.
You’re right that violence in general can often be presented humorously. I do think sexual violence operates in a different category, though, because jokes about rape are about power dynamics, when you get down to it. Rape jokes are ultimately about subjugation – and there are unfortunately a good many people who find the idea of a woman (or a man) being “put in their place” appealing enough to joke about it.
Put a whole new spin on the story for me, I’ll admit, I’d never pondered this before. Thanks!
Different period, different culture. Different culture, different thinking. Good read by the way.
Took some courage to start with that sentence. Much respect!
The blogger’s mistake is worrying about whether or not Chaucer was a rapist. Whether or not a story teller is identifiable as guilty of an offense committed by a character in his/her story is totally immaterial. The miller schemed to steal the seed they proffered; when he took an unfair amount they left some more of a kind to their liking and to pay the miller in his own kind!
Since you clearly didn’t read the penultimate paragraph, I’ll quote part of it again here:
In a way it doesn’t matter if Chaucer was a rapist, because whether or not he was, he was clearly deeply entrenched in the rape culture of his time. The Reeve’s Tale demonstrates a pretty typical set of medieval attitudes toward sex, rape and women, and for all we may want to see Chaucer as exceptional, he was absolutely a man of his time. In another way, it is absolutely critical to address the issue of Chaucer being a man who raped a woman, because it forces us to think of how Chaucer may not just have been a passive recipient of the values embedded into rape culture, but also an active promoter of those values.
Also, if you think rape is “pay[ing] the miller in his own kind” for seed theft, then you’re buying into a pretty problematic narrative about the value of women’s bodies.
Ms. manysnowballes: If you can find a copy of The Art of Reading Poetry, by Dr. Earl Daniels, Ch. 2 will inform you of the lions in the path of a would-be poetry reader. One of them, the Lion of Substitution, considers ‘…the issue of Chaucer being a man who raped a woman’; the issue you raise of ‘…the value of a woman’s body’ can it be more than that of a man’s??
But really–back to the tale–quote me the line(s) of the violation.
It’s Dr Menysnoweballes, thanks! I appreciate your recommendation, but please check out my “About” page to see why it might be considered patronising to tell me to read a book about how to read poetry.
Ooooh. That’s a nice answer, Doctor! All my respect to you.
This was a fantastic article, clearly showing us that we cannot separate literature from its social context and that, far from diminishing the power or significance of the text, context strengthens our reading of it.
Your proposed reading of Chaucer’s tale is definitely legitimate and grounded, and very well exposed.
For those who brush it off claiming that the text is mere entertainment and that context has no bearing on a text: please. Our physical, political, and social realities shape our fictional worlds; the inverse is just as true.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for taking the time to read this!
You’ve got a good flow style
I deny that either the miller’s daughter or his wife were raped; why did they seem so to all of you? Does the text contain any outrage they expressed by word or action?
The miller’s wife is certainly a victim of ‘rape by fraud’, a legal concept that has a very long history in a wide range of legislatures. The story as told is very clear that she never doubted that she was having sex with her husband. So that’s a definite legal rape, no question.
I agree that the daughter is a more problematic case – why exactly was it ‘too late to cry out’? But Chaucer is clear that it was, and that the sex was initially enforced, even if she got to like it, or him, by the end of the night.
If we’re going to discuss classical and me devil works which contain sexual violence against women,e Marquis De Sade ought to be at the top of the list.
Well, we could, but I am a medievalist by profession and so de Sade’s work is not in my professional wheelhouse 🙂 There is certainly plenty of discussion of his work elsewhere though!
True. I’m just glad more people are speaking out on matters that matter.
Rape is rape. It’s not funny. It’s hideous. It was different back then as it was accepted that you could have any woman you want. And it was to punish men but I don’t find it comical and would have walked out. Our society is sick when people are hurt and nothing is ever done.
I think you have misinterpreted my post. I don’t find rape funny; but our society certainly does. Understanding the cultural context of humour is a key part of understanding the pervasive nature of rape culture, both in a medieval context and in the present day.
No I read that. Sorry it just hurts reading anything to do with this subject. Probably shouldn’t have read it. I agree that society has no empathy. They still think we asked for it. Anyway thanks Dr!
I don’t know if it helps, but a lot of survivors are also a lot of the people doing work on this now. I think that can be empowering. I’m sorry the post triggered difficult feelings for you. It’s painful seeing how these attitudes replicate themselves across the centuries.
When I studied The Cantebury Tales in high school, The Reeve’s Tale was skipped over. Upon reading it later I was bothered by the rape scene, yet I understood the context in which it was written. Did I laugh? Yes, but out of discomfort.
I think of Chaucer (one of my favourites, by the way) in the same way as Stephen Fry admires the work of Richard Wagner – as seen in the documentary ‘Stephen Fry: Wagner & Me’.
I was once told laughter is not a response to something funny but rather is a reaction of surprise. Laughter makes much more sense to me since.
Fabulous post. You’ve set my thinking about Chaucer in a new direction.
I recall, as an undergraduate, throwing my copy of the Franklin’s Tale across the room in a fit of fury – who was this husband to decide that his wife should value her honour above her sexual integrity?
Part of the reason I turned towards the early modern period is because the dark, sexually-threatening Chaucer I read didn’t seem to match up with the amiable Dan Chaucer that everyone else was talking about. I still don’t like to read him much. At least when we’re reading someone like Rochester or Aphra Behn we’re willing to admit that the works are problematic and the writers are complex, compromised and not entirely likeable characters.
Reblogged this on Deszy_Diamond Blogs.
Thank you for this post, Rachel. This has bothered me for decades and you summed it all up so well!
Thanks very much! I’ll be expanding this post into a longer paper for the Historicising Rape conference. Hoping it will stimulate discussion!
Thanks, Rachel! This post raised some interesting issues. I stumbled upon it when I googled Reeve’s Tale and rape,in preparation for a Chaucer reading group presentation I am leading about this tale here in North Carolina. I predict that the men (average age, 78, academics and ministers) will assume that the John and Aleyn point of view is the only important one, while the women will have a more nuanced view. Should be a good discussion. Good luck with the self-care mentioned in your latest post.
Thanks very much for this feedback, Siobhan. I would love to hear how your class goes.
One just needs to see how people laugh at eunuch jokes in Game of Thrones to understand how thoughtless people can be.
I believe it was “too late” for Malyne to cry out because by the time she was awake enough to realize facts, she had already been penetrated; she had already lost her Virginity/Maidenhood. A serious matter; which is why she almost wept when the cads left.
A truly fascinating read. I was brushing up on my Old English and Middle English and was scouring the information available about Chaucer. Not during my college- Bachelors or Masters- where I was taught the Canterbury Tales and was always told to praise the Father of English Poetry, where he was always portrayed in a favourable light, where I taught to read the Wife of Bath’s take and rejoice that the Rapist Knight is, in the end, rewarded with a beautiful and faithful wife for raping some girl just because the Knight said women want to be sovereign more than anything else. But in a tiny corner of a lengthy article I found a single line that stated he had been charged with rape and “later, the girl” lifted the charges. (I’m sure that the fact that Chaucer was a rich, famous man in favour of 3 Kings had NO EFFECT AT ALLLL on why she might have had to retract the charges). So I had to look for it myself. I found a few articles (clearly written by rape-apologists) and they felt fake. Finally, I found this. It was enlightening. Thank you.
Thanks very much for reading!
Since this thread seems to have suddenly come alive again, I have one question: is there an implication that the Miller’s wife and daughter are being punished for being a priest’s bastard and a priest’s bastard ‘s child, and not being decently ashamed of it? I may be over-thinking this, but in the lead-in to the story it’s stated that the wife and Symkyn, instead of being ashamed of this shameful illegitimacy, both took pride in her noble kindred, and that he was determined to get his daughter a husband of noble blood, because she came of ‘hooly chirches blood’. It seems to me that there’s a strong implication that these women deserve to be shamed.
It looks like Chaucer was never accused of rape:
But the thoughts on how we view comedy in art especially with horrific things or carnival pleasures is interesting.
That Reeve’s Tale “rape” sounds a lot like the “rape” in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Surprise bed visitor by night, “Oh Dr. Frankenfurter! What are you doing here?” followed eventually by “O, that feels good….mmmmm ok” after assurances the other fiancé won’t find out. This is a world away from rape in, say, “A Clockwork Orange.” One of the interesting contradictions you find when comparing Medieval vs Renaissance attitudes on this is how this subject was entertainment in the Middle Ages whereas in the morally wide-open Renaissance, chastity was honored and rape something to be abhorred, as in the rape cycle of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” with its naïve rape victims serving as warning beacons of victimhood and weak personalities. Marriage was also celebrated. C. S. Lewis wrote about how the “Romance of adultery” in medieval courtly love was replaced by the “Romance of marriage” in the Renaissance. Italian Renaissance painters made their living painting patrician married couples. Medieval marriage was a duty, carried out usually young (12 in the case of the Wife of Bath, the legal age of marriage in Mexico federally until recently), so your spouse was, well… that was something you just had to do. Your mistress or lover, that was a different story. There is a crudeness to the Dark Ages too. Shit was thrown out of castle windows, women used moss like tampons for their periods, there’s a kind of redneck ruffian laughter about all of it. The change really comes after the Black Death. Phlip Ziegler says “Modern man was formed in the crucible of the Black Death.” You read “The Decameron” by Boccaccio, men are abandoning wives, wives are abandoning their children, the human body is on open, ugly display, servants are caring for nobility, cities are emptied out, 1/3rd to half of Europe just drops dead. A harder personality comes out in the Renaissance after complete cultural disintegration. At the same time, there is a relaxing of morals culturally, people are wearing dresses and hairstyles that would’ve seemed completely ostentatious in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance turns to pagan style, but ironically it was the supposedly repressed Christian Middle Ages that were more loose. It reminds me of Erica Jong, an icon of the sexually free woman of the 70s with its “key parties”, born out of the Swinging Sixties, expressing dismay that her young granddaughters just want to settle down and get married. You can totally see it in the art, where Chaucer is so forgiving of the flesh, exonerating his characters of their foibles with laughter, whereas you will see Shakespeare and Boccaccio handle the same story (Say, Troilus and Criseyde) and totally slut-shame the woman who reneges on true love to take whatever comes down the pike better for her. The Renaissance celebrated hierarchy, the Middle Ages – as expressed in Chaucer – opposes extremism in all things. Camille Paglia put it like this:
“Chaucer’s comic persona resembles that of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, whom I seem to be alone in loathing. Chaucer’s humanism is predicated on the common man, on our shared foibles and frailties, our daily muddle. He absolves his admirers of guilt. There is no fear and
trembling in his theology. Chaucer’s conviviality is full of winks, chuckles, and nudges. The hearty warmth of it all makes my skin crawl.”
What a fascinating mini-course on Chaucer and rape culture. I much prefer the sex in J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Sex is frequent and usually enjoyed by both parties. Rape is never funny. And it doesn’t just happen to women and girls. I recommend “Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy, which describes a horrific rape of a boy. Also age is no obstacle. I have read of men raping babies, for God’s sake, and a friend of mine’s grandmother in her 70’s was raped in her own bed as part of a gang initiation. Read “The Rape of Nanking”. It’s history and it’s not funny. Read the history of rape as part of war even today in Africa. Brutal rape as part of immigrant or migrant women being forced into prostitution in the current age of sex-trafficking. It’s not new and it’s not funny.