Medieval Sexuality

Sexuality in the Canterbury Tales: Pervasive References, Questionable Consent, and Historical Significance

By Ash Rall

Sexuality in Story: New Trend or Old Technique?

Much of modern media—movies, television shows, books and plays—focuses on the topics of relationships and sexuality. It would be tempting to say this focus is a product of our time—the result of the sexual revolution of mid-20th century. However, this trend is hardly new. For example, Michelle Foucault (1976) pointed out that when institutions (of government, medicine, science, religion, etc.) wished to condemn non-normative sexualities during the Victorian era, these institutions had to talk about how to separate and classify and categorize different sexual practices more than ever before. Though the term “Victorian morality” may conjure up the idea of a moral-era of repressed, ankle-covering prudes, this is the very same era wherein the development and proliferation of pornographic photography occurred. The first explicitly pornographic novel was published while the United States was still just a colony—Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1749 (Graham, 2013). In fact, the human practice of producing romantic or erotic fictions in various media formats goes back well before 0 B.C.E.—Ancient Rome and Greece are rife with examples of this type of verse, prose, and theatre. If you look beyond the explicitly erotic or romantic tales produced since the advent of written language, you can see that human beings have been talking about and recording their thoughts about sexuality in various times, places, and contexts for much of the existence of the written word.

Chaucer’s Late Medieval England was no exception to the very-human tendency to leave a record of current ideas about sexual and romantic life. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 14th century, around 1343. In the late 1380s he published what is now one of the most famous collections of stories in the English Language—The Canterbury Tales. Just as many story tellers before and after him, Chaucer wrote stories that are inscribed with the complexity of human lives and interpersonal interactions. His tales include motifs and themes of courtship, marriage, premarital and extramarital affairs, sexuality, ideal love (“courtly love”) and tensions between genders. Chaucer references sexual violence as well in several of his stories through his stylistic use of allusions (Wentersdorf, 2007, p. 116, 121, 123, 125-126). Of the 24 narrators that make up The Canterbury Tales (most of whom have their own prologue in addition to their tale) 18 of them speak in some capacity about sexuality. In some stories it’s a brief reference—to someone’s overindulgence in sex workers, a girls virginal and chaste behavior, or a historical figure’s failure to perform their “womanly duty”—and sometimes sexuality defines the whole story—as in several tales where a man’s lust for a specific woman is the impetus for the actions he takes. Only two of these stories imbibed with sexuality are tales by a female narrator. These stories are narrated by The Wife of Bath and the Second Nun; the only other female narrator featured in these 24 stories is The Prioress, who tells an anti-Semitic tale about virtuous (sexless) motherhood (Sturges, 1983, p. 47).

The Madonna-Whore Complex

The way the Wife of Bath and the Second Nun each orient themselves to the topic of sexuality demonstrates a (socially constructed) duality common to the experience of womanhood. I argue that these two stories (with their adjacent prologues) represent attitudes about female sexuality that still linger to this day: attitudes described by the “Madonna-Whore Dichotomy”. Through writing The Canterbury Tales Chaucer captured a snapshot of moral thought from his time period of 14th century England. In this snapshot we can see the Madonna-Whore Dyad at play. The Second Nun’s tale is the story of a Madonna like figure, whereas the Wife of Bath is a sexually-self-possessed woman that would be solidly pushed to the “Whore” side of the spectrum. It’s quite important to remember this when considering The Wife of Bath’s tale.

This term was first coined the “Madonna-whore complex” by Dr. Sigmund Freud to describe some men’s inability to maintain a sexual relationship with a woman they respect. Freud believed that these men found it impossible to think about women’s nurturing (mothering) love and women’s sexuality as characteristics they could possess in tandem; these men believe a woman can either be very nurturing or very sexual, but not both. In current sexual politics, the dichotomy describes the tendency of society to sort women into the categories “Madonna” and “Whore”; “good”, “pure”, “chaste” and “virtuous” women are like the Virgin Mary, whereas “bad”, “seductive”, “promiscuous” and sexually-self-possessed women are compared to sex workers. Four researchers at Tel Aviv University and Lawrence University, WI (2018) recently found that men who scored high on a measurement of their belief in the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy were also more likely to score high in measures of Social Dominance Orientation, Gender-Specific System Justification, Benevolent Sexism, Hostile Sexism, Sexual Objectification of Women, and Sexual Double Standards. In other words, this dichotomy is a cornerstone of Patriarchal dogma (Bareket, Kahalon, Shnabel, & Glick, 2018).

This dyadic conceptualization of female sexuality obviously still poisons the lives of women living in every Western nation on earth (and likely others, though that is not within the knowledge-set of this writer). For example, a woman’s sexual history is still used against them during sexual assault trials across the western world. Often a more active sexual past, either in one’s private life or through their career as a sex worker, will lead law enforcement officials to throw out a case before they even investigate anything. Of every 1000 rapes in the US only 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction (3.3% of reported cases, lower than conviction rates for robberies and assault-and-battery crimes) (RAINN, 2018). Only those individuals that the prosecutor can portray as the purest of victims receive justice under the current system.

Across the world victims are doubted and blamed for sexualized violence committed by another person, sexual assault cases are dropped law enforcement, and rape kits go untested because whole societies have developed the tendency to ignore women’s accounts of the bodily trespasses they have experienced. This tendency is not new, it has roots in the past. This is not to say that that patriarchy is inevitable because it has existed for so long—plenty of ideas and ways of being have dominated for ages only to be neglected for new ideas. Rather, by acknowledging the way that current practices are influenced by much older practices, we can trace the threads of these current practices back through time to figure out how they came to be. If we trace enough of these historical threads, perhaps we can find better ways of unraveling the knots they’ve turned into. For example, we can trace this tendency to ignore women’s understanding of sexual violence against themselves back through time to Chaucer’s 14th century England.

The Wife of Bath’s Parodied Pain

The Wife of Bath, the woman who scandalously wed and divorced multiple times, is the only person to speak negatively of men’s tendency to cruelty. The Wife of Bath’s story the Queen punishes a knight of King Arthur for raping a woman. His punishment is that he has one year to save his life from execution by finding the answer to the question: “What thing is it that women most desire?” (“What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren”). Right before the year is up he finds an old hag that says she will give him the answer if he agrees to marry her. This tale differs from others because, according to H. M. Leicester, Jr. (2007) “only in her version is the knight a rapist” (p. 98). He later dismisses The Wife of Bath’s account of this knight and insists that she was inserting herself into the story as the old hag, in order to tell a tale where she dominated men. However, other authors have used terms to describe sexual encounters within the tales that point to non-consensual violations. While describing the actions of the young woman in The Merchant’s Tale, K. Wentersdorf (2007) writes “…May escapes the unwelcome clutches of her repulsive husband… (p. 125), and also notes that Chaucer references with allusions the famous rapes committed by mythological figures (p. 120-121). It does seem, however, that Chaucer intended the Wife of Bath’s tale to be humorous. What a riotous idea the culmination of the story must have been to his 14th century audience—an old hag marrying a young knight?


Quantifying Discussion of Sexuality in The Canterbury Tales with Voyant

Voyant is a web-based text analysis tool that allows researchers to visualize and quantify the texts. This process can reveal trends that are difficult to spot with just a close reading of the text. In order to do my analysis I located a Middle-English electronic copy of the Tales (which I found in U of M’s Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse). I saved each narrator’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue in an individual plain text file. This makes the Voyant text analysis tool easier to work with later, allowing me to locate the tales within which words are mentioned much more quickly. When I first entered this Corpus into Voyant, most of the frequently used words that first came up were Stop Words. Usually Voyant recognizes stop words immediately, and ignores them because they aren’t very meaningful words for an analysis of themes, but because this was a Middle English text it had trouble figuring out which words were the Stop Words. I had to create my own list, which you can see below. Next, I had to figure out what it was that I wanted to look for within the text. While doing some close reading and a literature review, I found some words of interest. I added some additional words from a source used my a groupmate (, 2018). My criteria for including a word-of-interest involved assessing whether or not the term could be used to refer to sexuality or sexual violence. Sometimes this was tangentially—for example, the word “hound” has referred to a sexually licentious man, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary  and Wiktionary. Disparaging terms about women were also included (as I wanted to see how often they occur alongside words about sexuality). 

This process was mostly exploratory,  but I found it helpful to begin with some simple hypotheses. I hypothesized that the stories I have identified as containing sexual material will include more sexuality-related words than the other tales. I also hypothesized that this process will reveal additional words to add to the search-list, and will reveal patterns about sexual speech (perhaps the more informal prologues include more of this language than the more narratively structured Tales).

Voyant Summary Tool

The first thing I would like to point out using Voyant is how the lengths of the female narrators’ prologues & tales compare to the rest of the male narrators.  As you can see, the Wife of  Bath spoke for the fourth-longest of any narrator. Her tale was 11,316 words long, which is about 1/3 the length of the longest speaking narrator, and a little over 1/2 the length of the next two longest speaking characters. However, the Wife of bath also spoke in simple sentences, averaging in the bottom half of “Average Words Per Sentence” at 80.8 words per sentence. She also uses some of the simplest vocabulary; the “Vocabulary Density” of the Wife of Bath’s Tale is the 5th smallest of any narrator, at 0.289.

Unfortunately, the two other female story tellers—the Prioress and the Second Nun—are among the shortest stories within The Canterbury Tales. The Prioress speaks for 2,079 words, and the Second Nun for 4,848 words. Other than the tales of Sir Thopas and the Cook, every document which was shorter than the Prioress’ was a brief interruption of another narrator or the words of Chaucer (ie the Retraction).  The Prioress and the Second Nun’s Vocabulary Densities were, however, among the highest half of all characters. The Prioress spoke with a vocabulary density of 0.429 and the Second Nun with a vocabulary density of 0.355. These two also fell within the highest half of tale-tellers for “Average Words Per Sentence”. The Prioress spoke with an average number of 148.5 words per sentence, and the Second Nun with 146.9 words per sentence.

While the Prioress and the Second Nun have shorter tales, they it seems Chaucer was intending to make each of them more respectable narrators. This was clear to me already, as the content of their tales is more in line with prevailing moral standards of the time. However, this quantifiable information about vocabulary density and average words per sentence make it even more clear that Chaucer wrote the Wife of Bath as a less verbose, and by extension less educated and respectable, character than the other two female Pilgrims.

Visualizing Terms in The Canterbury Tales

The Terms tool below displays the frequencies of my words-of-interest. As you can see, there was quite a bit of discussion of love and sexuality. The second tool below, Bubblelines, helps us see how often words appear in a text, and allows us to see when words occur together within a tale. As I predicted, the tales in which a major piece of the plot involved sexuality showed the highest concentration and variety of my Words of Interest. The Merchant and the Wife of Bath—both characters who told long tales wherein the central plot revolves around sexuality—showed the highest instances and greatest variety of these words (110 and 95 respectively). The Clerk’s tale—about patience in marriage—showed the next highest number and variety of these words (73). The Parson spoke about penance,  and used variations of the words flessh and wyf frequently enough that it displayed the fourth most instances of these words (70). It should be noted, however, that the Parson’s tale is one of the longest in the story. The narrators with the next highest frequencies were The Knight (68), whose plot involves a three-way love affair, The Reeve (43), whose plot involves the sexual assault of a miller’s wife by a man angry at the miller, The Miller (42), the Franklin (40), and The Shipman (40) who each also tell stories about extramarital and/or three-way love affairs. The Physician’s story didn’t involve a large frequency count of these words (only 10) but it did show a wider variety of the terms than some tales (likely because this one was yet another tale where a man plots to sexually assault a woman who “belongs” to another man—this time another man’s daughter).

What Visualizations of Most Used Terms Can Tell Us About Chaucer’s Three Female Tale Tellers

Below I’ve embedded a word cloud displaying the 65 most used terms used for each narrative character. The larger the word, the more frequently it was used in the text. As you can see the Wife of Bath’s word cloud shows frequent use of binary gender and relationship words occurring in the highest frequencies—for example, “man”, “men”, “wyf”, “wyves”, “wommen”, “womman”, “housbonde”, “housbondes”, as well as “love” and “hous”.  The frequency of the word “God” is, however, a rather confusing feature. The Prioress’s tale emphasizes words about virtue and motherhood—”mooder” and “child” are among the most used words, as well as “honour”, “reverance”, “children”, “preye”, “redemptoris”, “litel”, “lady”, “hooly”, etc. This makes sense, as her tale was about virtuous mother. The Second Nun’s Tale also fits the themes of her story, though less obviously at first glance. The use of the words “man”, “men”, and “god” (as well as the first names of characters) are only slightly more frequently used than words like “good”, “love”, “seint”, “goddes”, “hevene”, “angel”, “myghte”. This falls in line with the tale’s narrative of a saintly virginal young woman.

Visualization of Most Used Terms in Wife of Bath

Visualization of Most Used Terms in The Prioress

Visualization of Most Used Terms in The Second Nun




Words of Interest

  • Venus*
  • Ravysshed
  • Brotel*
  • Flessh*
  • Hound*
  • Naked*
  • Pley*
  • Husbond*
  • Wyf*
  • Trespace*
  • Wed*
  • Wenche*
  • Lay*
  • Lew*
  • Lech*
  • Buxom*
  • Desiren*
  • Abedde*
  • Feel*
  • Touch*
  • Love*
  • Baw*
  • Bed*
  • Lip*

Stop Words

  • a
  • al
  • alle
  • an
  • and
  • as
  • at
  • be
  • been
  • but
  • by
  • day
  • doon
  • eek
  • every
  • for
  • ful
  • hadde
  • han
  • hath
  • have
  • he
  • hem
  • hir
  • hire
  • his
  • hym
  • i
  • if
  • in
  • is
  • it
  • man
  • may
  • me
  • my
  • nat
  • ne
  • no
  • now
  • of
  • on
  • or
  • oure
  • quod
  • right
  • seith
  • seyde
  • shal
  • she
  • sholde
  • so
  • swich
  • synne
  • than
  • thanne
  • that
  • the
  • thee
  • ther
  • they
  • this
  • thou
  • thus
  • thy
  • thyng
  • to
  • unto
  • upon
  • us
  • was
  • we
  • wel
  • were
  • whan
  • what
  • which
  • with
  • wol
  • wolde
  • ye
  • yet
  • youre
  • yow
  • out
  • how
  • O