Added: October 1, 2016 – Last updated: October 1, 2016


Author: Jenna D(iane) Kingsley

Title: Women with Wit

Subtitle: Desire, Coercion, and Comedy in Chaucer's Middle English Fabliaux

Thesis: Honors Thesis, Emory University

Advisor: James Morey

Year: 2016

Pages: 101pp.

Language: English

Keywords: Medieval History: 14th Century | European History: English History | Representations: Literary Texts / Geoffrey Chaucer


Link: Emory University's Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository (Free Access)



»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.« (Source: Thesis)


  Introduction (p. 1)
    The French Fabliaux (p. 3)
    The Middle English Fabliaux (p. 5)
      Chaucer's Fabliaux (p. 6)
    Irony and Bawdry in Chaucer (p. 9)
    Women in Chaucer's Life (p. 11)
  Chapter 1: Women, Sex, and Sexual Violence in Medieval England (p. 13)
    Introduction (p. 13)
    Section 1: Secular Legal Environment of Raptus (p. 15)
      Influences on Medieval English Law (p. 16)
        Early Middle Ages: Roman Law (p. 16)
        Early and High Middle Ages: Anglo-Saxon Law (p. 18)
        High Middle Ages: Anglo-Norman Law (p. 19)
      Medieval English Law (p. 20)
        High Middle Ages (p. 20)
        Late Middle Ages (p. 24)
      The Raptus Case of 1380: Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne (p. 25)
    Section 2: Church Influence on Raptus and Medieval Sexuality (p. 28)
    Section 3: Reality for Medieval Women (p. 34)
  Chapter 2: Raptus in Chaucer's Fabliaux (p. 41)
      Introduction (p. 41)
        The Modern Framework (p. 42)
    Section 1: The Reeve's Tale (p. 45)
      Introduction to the Reeve's Tale (p. 45)
      Men with Wit: John and Alan (p. 47)
      The Reeve's Influence on His Tale (p. 51)
      Sex as Revenge (p. 52)
    Section 2: The Shipman's Tale (p. 57)
      Introduction to the Shipman's Tale (p. 57)
      Raptus in the Shipman's Tale (p. 61)
      Characters with wit-and those without (p. 62)
    Conclusion (p. 66)
  Chapter 3: May and Alison as Women with Wit (p. 67)
    Introduction (p. 67)
    Section 1: The Merchant's Tale (p. 67)
      Introduction to the Merchant's Tale (p. 67)
      Raptus in the Merchant's Tale (p. 70)
      Wit in the Merchant's Tale (p. 71)
    Section 2: The Miller's Tale (p. 75)
      Introduction to the Miller's Tale (p. 75)
      Raptus and sexism in the Miller's Tale (p. 79)
      Characters with Wit: Alison, Nicholas, and Absolon (p. 80)
    Section 3: The Remaining "Fabliaux" (p. 84)
      The Wife of Bath as a Powerful Female Figure (p. 84)
      The Cook's Tale: Informed Speculation (p. 86)
    Conclusion (p. 86)
  Conclusion (p. 88)
  Works Cited (p. 91)

Wikipedia: History of Europe: History of England / England in the Late Middle Ages | Literature: English literature / Middle English literature | 14th-century English writers: Geoffrey Chaucer / The Canterbury Tales, The Merchant's Tale, The Miller's Tale, The Reeve's Tale, The Shipman's Tale