[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.

The Reeve's Tale by Elisabeth Frink (1970)
The Reeve’s Tale by Elisabeth Frink (1970)

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.