Women with Wit: Desire, Coercion, and Comedy in Chaucer's Middle English Fabliaux Open Access

Kingsley, Jenna Diane (2016)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/08612p208?locale=en


This thesis argues for a proto-feminist reading of Geoffrey Chaucer's fabliaux. By equating a woman's wit with agency, Chaucer comes to terms with the power he inevitably draws from his own wit and poetry. In this way, the poet aligns himself with womanly wile and suggests that a woman's wit was a powerful tool in the Middle Ages. This thesis explores female sexuality in secular law and Church doctrine by examining the medieval English court's definition of raptus and the Church's stance on virginity. In addition, my project aims to discuss common stereotypes about women in medieval England and explore truths about their everyday lives. By offering historical background on female sexuality during the Middle Ages, my thesis equips the reader with the proper framework to approach Chaucer's medieval texts. Through his portrayal of women in the Reeve's and Shipman's Tale, Chaucer suggests that if the woman in the fabliau is not the creator of a joke, she is the victim; due to her own foolishness, Chaucer suggests she is particularly deserving of her misfortune--usually sexual coercion. Though this type of sexual coercion would be labeled as rape today, one must be careful forcing a modern framework on a medieval text. Based on the medieval legal definition of raptus, I argue that Chaucer and his audience would not necessarily label all instances of the sexual trickery against these women as rape. Therefore, Chaucer is not arguing that some women are deserving of rape. Rather, he maintains a common theme in the genre of fabliau: foolish people must pay the penalty for their foolishness. Through his portrayal of Alison and May, Chaucer proves that wit--more so than sexuality or beauty--makes a woman powerful. By manipulating comedic aspects of the fabliau i.e. bawdry and irony, each woman bends her story's outcome to her will while outsmarting men and evading consequences. Additionally, by tying power to wit, Chaucer slyly pays tribute to his own poetry and the power his humor grants him. Therefore, Chaucer identifies himself as a proto-feminist by aligning himself with womanly wile.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Page 1

Chapter 1, Page 13

-Section 1: Secular Legal Environment of Raptus, Page 15

-Section 2: Church Influence on Raptus and Medieval Sexuality, Page 28

-Section 3: Reality for Medieval Women, Page 34

Chapter 2, Page 41

-Section 1: The Reeve's Tale, Page 45

-Section 2: The Shipman's Tale, Page 57

Chapter 3, Page 67

-Section 1: The Merchant's Tale, Page 67

-Section 2: The Miller's Tale, Page 75

-Section 3: The Remaining "Fabliaux," Page 84

Conclusion, Page 88

Works Cited, Page 91

About this Honors Thesis

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
  • English
Research Field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files