Get the PDF: revised 1 May 2007

“Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun / To telle yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, / And whiche they weren, and of what degree.” So says Geoffrey Chaucer’s narrator in the General Prologue, and Chaucer continues to tell his readers the “condicioun” of the frame narrators by reinterpreting folk tales or prior art in ways which qualify the tellers (I 37-401). No less is true of Chaucer himself, who is qualified by the nature of his approach to the subjects of the Canterbury Tales. His era was defined by rigid normative social constructs: traditional gender and sexual identities were deeply entrenched and rarely subverted. Much is made of his manifold depictions of femininity, but I propose that despite the binding sexual identities of Chaucer’s England, his treatment of sexual alterity2—specifically femininity—was remarkably progressive when taken in the proper context. Since any discussion of the Self-Other binary deals not simply with rhetorical depictions, but principally with moral or political agency, it is crucial that modern readers read past superficial description and understand both the Boethian philosophical roots that underscore Chaucer’s work and the manner in which the politics of gendered discourse inform modern readings of the work. Only then do some of the criteria for sympathetic treatment—explicitly or implicitly—reveal themselves in the text. Specifically, an exegesis of the Man of Law’s Constance, the Clerk’s Griselda, and the Merchant’s May, as well as the rhetorical context and philosophical underpinnings of the tales themselves, will illumine Chaucer the author. Notably, Chaucer chooses tellers who are unaware that their tales serve to subvert the established order, even against the tellers’ wishes. The Man of Lawe bemoans the fate of Constance, oblivious to the broader meaning of her travails; the Clerk snidely japes at the impossibility of a woman as obedient as Griselda while concomitantly lambasting Walter’s nimiety or perhaps serving as a mouthpiece for Chaucer’s own opinion; the Merchant vents his misogynistic frustrations on the cuckolding May, unaware of his tale’s empowerment of the feminine—or, at least, its deconstruction of the normatively male.

Most feminist criticisms of the Canterbury Tales deal principally with the Wife of Bath: she is, after all, the most overtly sexualized, as well as unapologetically brash. Her untoward behavior is, in fact, almost masculine—that is to say, forward, commanding, and normative, her speech being that of someone who controls rather than submits. This interpretation becomes problematic to modern feminist readings because illustrating the sovereign female self in masculine tropes is little better than the traditional literary norm of using apparently strong female characters as qualifiers of the central male characters. In her dominance, Alisoun may have subverted the prescribed sexual order, but she reads comically—at the very least, truly conflicted. It seems doubtful that she fits Josephine Donovan’s a priori: “women have [always] been seats of consciousness and moral agents, no matter how circumscribed their spheres[.]” According to Donovan, a text which does not recognize this—as the Tales does not if only the Wife of Bath is recognized as feminist—is inherently sexist (225-26). Thus, despite any other intended aims for the Wife of Bath—a scathing word about clergy, for instance—she appears of little consequence for a feminist criticism dealing with agency rather than rhetorical treatment. In fact, as Elaine Tuttle Hansen asserts, a modern feminist reading of such a masculine, pre-modern work is deceptively easy precisely because characters like the Wife of Bath provide convincing prima facie evidence to a sympathetic Chaucer. She says that the “assumption that a literary critique of the socio-gender system and its constraining effects on masculine identity and the male writer has anything to do with a pro-woman position” is naïve. Certain other tales are able to more subtly elucidate the issues of gendered discourse without the need for explicitly pro-feminist text.

Therefore, readers must look beyond the Wife of Bath to find significant sympathy for Otherness. The Man of Law’s Constance, for example, is of principle concern to this discourse. Initial readings of the tale may elicit indignation from feminists. Such reactionary indignation is understandable: at face value, Constance is the very antithesis of the conceptual heroine. Not only is she commoditized and used for political leverage by her father; not only is she the proper, reticent sort of girl idealized by antifeminists, but her journey from country to country seems a metaphor for her very existence: she travels in a rudderless boat, unable to steer herself (II 439). Though the center of the tale’s action, Constance provides little in the way of discernible moral or political agency; rather, she is a passive æsthetic object by whose continued suffering the other characters—noticeably male—are qualified. Every event which happens for the better is attributed not to Constance, but to God/Christ/Providence3, with the poor heroine as little more than a vehicle. Such a depiction may be sympathetic to her suffering, but as Donovan argues, it is far from progressive (226-27).

The sympathetic construction of Constance is revealed only when one bears in mind the metaphysics of the mediæval Catholic church and the typological tropes that Chaucer—like most mediæval authors—included liberally. Indeed, when viewed through the lens of the Boethian philosophy to which Chaucer subscribed, Constance’s “random wanderings” are in fact a “directed and purposeful voyage” (Marzec 198). If in fact the “steerelees” ship (II 439) that provides the argument for Constance’s lack of agency is a product of divine Providence, then her depiction takes on a whole new interpretation. In the Boethian metaphysic, as all is good insofar as it has been created, freedom in its purest sense is to align one’s life with the order of creation. In other words, man has free will—in the libertarian sense—to commit self-destructive moral evil, but true liberty is achieved only in the service of that which is good—God (Boethius 17). If Constance lives in deference to the will of God, she more than anyone must be accorded metaphysical liberty, and thus the most unhindered moral or political agency of all. In fact, the typological motif that Chaucer includes throughout the Man of Law’s tale reinforces just such a notion. That Constance is aligned with Old Testament heroes—Daniel, Jonah, Moses and his people, et al—underscores the providential nature of the Christian God and Constance’s a priori faith in a grander, inevitable scheme, despite the narrator’s mournful incredulity (Marzec 202). The distance that Chaucer places between the Man of Law as narrator and himself as writer speaks to the nuance of his feminism: it is easy for modern readers, like the lawyer, to miss entirely the Boethian precept at work here, but Chaucer’s contemporaries would not have. Moreover, an unstated typological similarity speaks even more loudly of Constance’s moral agency, namely her parallel with the incarnated Christ. Constance’s reassertion of God’s will (II 282) is almost certainly taken from Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, a reluctant and suffering savior proffering his obedience to the providential Creator4. If Constance is a Christ figure, then surely all doubts of her moral agency vanish: one could no more deny agency to her than to the Son of God! In direct opposition to a reading with Donovan’s rubric, Eugene Clasby asserts, “The view of Constance as a merely passive victim rests on the assumption that her suffering is meaningless… The point at issue in the tale is precisely the meaning of her suffering as it reflects on her virtue and on the justice of God” (223). To reconcile Constance, entirely bereft of a rudder, with the Self, one need only decide which behavior is or should be normative: substantial freedom or accidental freedom. Constance as Other would be something culturally proscribed and inherently foreign, whereas clearly Chaucer has placed her in direct service to the created order of existence, essentially normative. Like the Miller’s Alisoun, Constance is what Mark Miller calls a “purely passive object” yet an “exemplar of action,” subverting traditional notions of activity by preempting doubt with instinct, wisdom, or in this case piety (57-58).

Constance is not the only silent sufferer of the Tales. Griselda, the heroine of the clerk’s tale, is similarly wise and equally quiet. As before, a prima facie reading of the Tale would leave feminists aghast: Griselda is not only subjected to the cruelest of torments for a whimsical, elusive purpose, but her character harbors an almost criminal indifference to the intolerable cruelty of her husband, and is perfectly civil and reticent. The Clerk himself decries the extent of Griselda’s passivity, though naturally in a condescendingly patriarchal way5 (IV 1177-1194).

Initially, Griselda is perhaps a model woman, even a feminist. In folktale fashion, she rose from nothing to become a powerful politician’s wife who wielded power of her own. Her constituents love her for both her beauty and her wisdom: in her husband Walter’s absence, she serves as a surrogate Solomon, arbitrating disputes with “wise and rype wordes” (IV 393-441). The cynical reader is hardly surprised, then, when Walter reins in her power, introducing the second gender conflict of the Tale. Elaine Tuttle Hansen makes much of the fact that the husband’s desire to test the womanly virtue of a wife who already excels at “masculine” virtue (indeed, the very word derives from a Latin root vir, or “man”) is significant because this narrative order distills shades of sexism from what is otherwise something of a folk tale (191).

In this case, the nature of Griselda’s torture is of little concern; however, of great interest is Griselda’s passive reaction to her torture and the way in which such passivity is subversive to the gendered hegemon.

According to Hansen, the definition of the Self-Other binary by Walter is predicated upon Griselda’s active resistance, which she does not offer. In other words, a “power differential” is necessary for dominance to take effect, and Griselda turns her husband’s force of will on its head when she recognizes his play for power and subverts it with her silence. Her apparent insouciance with regard to the putative murder of her children is troubling, almost beyond comprehension: the character of Griselda seems præternatural and non-human, which is problematic in a discussion of fair and realistic constructions of females (193-94). It would have been equally troubling even to Chaucer’s audience, who could have understood her perhaps only on the allegorical level upon which the Clerk seems to speak. Yet Griselda’s very incomprehensibility is important to our understanding of her as a sympathetic portrayal of Woman as Self. First, Griselda the impossible female is juxtaposed against traditional “virtue,” or the sort of iconic masculine excellence exemplified in most literature written from the cultural center. Secondly, Griselda as hyperbole remarks upon the general lack of political agency accorded to woman, both in literary depiction and in reality. Thirdly, Griselda’s perfectly acquiescent femininity and thus her refusal to qualify her husband’s violently hegemonic masculinity speaks to the “limits of power for masculine authority” (195). It is important to note that when Walter asks for her hand in marriage—as well as her unflinching obedience—she responds, “[A]s ye wole youreself, right so wol I,” (IV 361) effectively nullifying her own will and sharing her husband’s, an idea problematic to the marital ideal but significant in its subversion of Walter’s authority: she has ceased to be an Other and become inseparable from Walter, metaphysically speaking. According to Mark Miller, “she must find the demands of her intimate other to present no imposition […] otherwise she will have achieved, not union with Walter’s will, but a willing endurance of it” (232).

Chaucer’s translation of Petrarch’s tale has been labeled as restorative of the gender conflict inherent to the story, as well as inherently sympathetic to a female perspective (Dinshaw 153). Emma Campbell seems to think that the discursive limits of translation affect the tale’s gendered identities. Though based upon Petrarch’s tale, the clerk’s occupatio (IV 39-55) sets the stage for a significant reinterpretation of the tale; indeed, the translation from Latin to vernacular English as well as the clerk’s own urgings preempt Petrarch’s intended interpretation of the story (patently not a model for womanly behavior) in favor of a reading inherently colored by the politics of gendered discourse. Indeed, Campbell asserts that “[f]ar from condemning those women who fail to live up to the standard of patient endurance set by his female protagonist, Chaucer’s Clerk seems positively to endorse their rejection of masculine authority. Griselda’s example is set aside as an unrealistic aspiration for contemporary married women, and the ideal that she represents is superseded by an altogether different paradigm of female behavior, a paradigm inspired by the Wife of Bath and her ‘secte’ of domineering women” (209). The end of the Clerk’s Tale sees its teller sarcastically bellowing a call to arms for woman, insisting that the Griselda of Petrarch’s tale is dead and gone, and modern wives should not give clerks any occasion to write about such patient woman again. His real intention, of course, is to lament the supposed impossibility of a wife who has Griselda’s infinite patience, but when he says “Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience, / And bothe atones buryed in Ytaille” (IV 1177-1188), he is perhaps more right than he realizes. Furthermore, Chaucer—through the Clerk—embellishes Petrarch’s tale with short lamentations of Griselda’s treatment. “O nedelees was she tempted in assay! / But wedded men ne knowe no mesure, / Whan that they fynde a pacient creature” (IV 621-623). “But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit / To assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede, / And putten hire in angwyssh and in drede” (IV 460-462). As with the Man of Law, the Clerk’s various reactions to Griselda’s predicament illustrate that he is unaware of the subversion that occurs and the breadth of Griselda’s character. Indeed, though the Clerk is sardonic when he incites women to slough off the characteristic mien of femininity and take on their own governance, it is precisely that which allows women the political agency to which they aspire (IV 1191-1194). The Clerk’s alignment with the Host’s and with the Merchant’s outspoken misogyny6 also aligns him with their controversy and folly.

If Griselda’s performance as the martyred feminine ideal is truly unconventional, then it serves to destabilize the normative gender identities at play in the tale. Judith Butler’s theory of “gender trouble” ascribes debilitating gender constructs to the repetition of that identity or stereotype (176-77). Naturally, then, if Griselda’s “Otherness” is so perfectly executed as prescribed that it becomes subversive, then she—or rather Chaucer—has done yeoman work in deconstructing the sexual Self-Other binary: the moral agency inherent in Griselda’s passive resistance is a direct product of Chaucer’s sympathy for—or at least [sub]consciousness of—gendered discourse. According to M.L. Warren, the moment at which Walter cries “This is ynogh” (IV 1051) is the final revelation of Griselda’s agency, when “[her] obedience has realized itself as power.” Like Hansen, he describes Griselda’s insubordination in terms of her subordination; specifically, her “unnatural restraint” is an engine for Self-creation (10).

To summarize thus far: in both the Man of Law’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer has rendered female characters who subvert the established order of their gender by submission and silence in critically-chosen instances. Constance the Boethian is a moral agent insofar as she replicates the divine in her servitude not to men, but to God. Griselda’s submission achieves the distinctly secular goal of disallowing her cruel husband’s self-definition, which is predicated upon her suffering and resistance. Joseph Parry suggests that “[Chaucer] explores in such situations not only the power that women wield as objects of desire, but also the kind of agency that becomes available to them through, for example, their power to defer making the choice that would fix them in the structures of accountability and, therefore, of interpretation, that typically govern such literary females” (1).

Parry makes an issue of the Merchant’s May and her response to the follies of January, and the manner in which the Tale—as manipulated by Chaucer—invites its readers to parse her behavior for its intended meanings (4). The Tale’s exposition is more overtly toward in depiction than any other so far: January’s violent sexual aggression is exposed with the lines “Alas! I moot trespace / To yow, my spouse, and yow greedy offende / Er tyme come that I wil doun descende” (IV 1828-31). May’s adultery, then, is not borne from the stock traits common to most fabliaux, but an active response to her husband’s abuse. That the end of the Tale finds May the aggressor and January the chastened cuckold is of little consequence: overt physical subversions of the cultural order are commonplace; the Wife of Bath’s prologue, for instance, consists of little else. Importantly, the narrative structure—the manner in which May is initially described, as well as interjections and apostrophes by the Merchant—raises questions as to May’s accountability and the breadth of her agency. Irrespective of whether May is characterized as “good” or “bad,” the very fact that her moral agency becomes a pressing issue for the reader is critical in understanding May’s sympathetic feminine construction (Parry 19). As Hansen suggests, the “development of May might at crucial moments suggest that she has a problematic, uncontrollable selfhood that escapes the narrator’s mastery and understanding as easily as the wife escapes her husband’s most jealous attempts to control and confine her” (259).

May’s elusion of punishment for her infidelity, and her ultimate mastery over her husband by the tale’s end illustrate her reappropriation of masculine discourse—that is, characterized by the bold and assertive. The Focauldian binary of gendered discourse allows for a deeper understanding of May’s political agency, even if it is merely the appropriation of the Male and not the redefinition of the Female (Lopez 2).

When May convinces January that her tryst was solely to restore his sight—”Good woot, I did it in ful good entente” (IV 2375)—it is an appropriation of male political authority. Using de Beauvoir’s definition of the feminine, namely a differentiated “Other” whose words and agency are divorced from her body, one can easily see how May’s appropriation of the masculine assertive discourse subverts her given place in the Self-Other binary (54). When May diffuses January’s initial anger, she “glosses” his interpretation of the events—an action which not only lets her elude recrimination, but which asserts her own gloss as authoritative and relegates January’s words to the Other, the effete, the (historically) feminine (Lopez 5).

The achievement of political agency at the expense of another’s loss of it is problematic, but in the context of this fabliau, May’s discursive masculinization serves as a foil to the phallic and wanton January. So great is the figurative blindness of January (and the Merchant himself) that they fail to describe May in anything but secondary terms: what she “seemed,” what she was “lyk,” or her “look.” Hansen suggests that the Merchant’s frequent occupatio when relating—or not relating—any sort of substantial details about her implies that the sexualized and objectified May who is presented is merely a foil to the real May, specifically the one who subverts her assigned discourse and wins (so to speak) in the end (257-258). When May is finally accorded a thought or voice in her appraisal of January’s sexual skill, she borrows his own idiom of “benes,” essentially borrowing January’s masculine actuarial discourse. May’s awakening, as it were, is both a narrative device and an incidental product of the reading. Hansen insists, “For a man to marry or love a woman, or to narrate a woman, is to discover both his own lack of difference and her true difference, her private parts: to discover that she has genitals, and sexual desire, and hence, by the logic of masculine dominance and Christian thought, subjectivity that cannot be controlled” (264). The Merchant’s tale is a confrontation of gendered discourse, and it calls upon the inherent instability of the male identity because the Merchant in his narration must define Woman, or Other, with “misogynistic discourses he is drawn to and from” (267).

The Merchant may as well be a metonym for all of his contemporaries. Any mediæval feminist—if indeed such a thing existed in the purest sense of the word—wrote against a cultural center predicated upon the unquestioned moral, political, discursive, and sexual dominance of the male. Even Chaucer was a channel for the cultural pressure of his contemporaries and his forebears. Critically, however, Chaucer accomplished his storytelling in a way that does not deprive his female characters of their moral or political agency. That one has to see said agency in unusual ways suggests perhaps that he still succumbed to social pressures and differentiated his females inherently by doing so; the Other, even in Chaucer’s case, is a product of proscription, or juxtaposition with the discursively or culturally normative.

The very structure of the Canterbury Tales—that is, the guise of fictive persons and personalities in a frame narrative—is an exercise in self-examination for Chaucer, according to Hansen. Through the self-effacement of the Clerk’s performance, Chaucer “avoids […] precisely the predicament that the remaining male storytellers […] reflect: any representation of Woman seems to entail a revelation of the male speaker’s anxiety about his manliness, his status and identity. Again, this revelation goes hand in hand with a discourse that is thoroughly misogynistic, but the strategic intersection of the present, impersonated male narrator and the absent author has served to liberate Chaucer from the self-revealing, self-destructive side of the misogyny that powers the literary canon” (208).

Given the context from which Chaucer wrote, and the deep nuance of his work, he was perhaps as progressive a feminist as any of his era, centuries before his time. Such nuance includes a redefinition of moral agency itself in the Man of Law’s Tale, the passive subversion of masculine authority and Self-definition in the Clerk’s Tale, and a reappropriation of masculine discourse in the Merchant’s tale. All bely accusations of Chaucer as misogynist; to the contrary, they reveal Chaucer as a writer sympathetic to the victimized, Othered female of his age, and one who withstands even the withering scrutiny of 21st-century criticism.

Works Cited

  • Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex, Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. London: Penguin, 1999.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Campbell, Emma. “Sexual poetics and the politics of translation in the tale of Griselda.” Comparative Literature 55.3 (2003): 191-216.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
  • Clasby, Eugene. “Chaucer’s Constance: Womanly Virtue and the Heroic Life.” Chaucer Review (1979).
  • Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
  • Donovan, Josephine. “Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Criticism.” Contexts for Criticism. Ed. Donald Keesey. 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.
  • Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  • Lopez, Alan. “The Appropriation of Masculine Discourse and the Disruption of Gender Identity in Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale.” Undergraduate Research Journal III (2000). 23 Feb. 2006 <>.
  • Marzec, Marcia S. “The Man of Law’s Tale as Christian Comedy.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference 12/13 (1987-88): 197-208.
  • Miller, Mark. Philosophical Chaucer : Love, Sex, and Agency in the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Parry, Joseph D. “Interpreting female agency and responsibility in the Miller’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale.” Philological Quarterly 80.2 (2001): 133-67.
  • Warren, M.L. “Griselda’s ‘Unnatural Restraint’ as a Technology of the Self.” Online Reference Book for Mediaeval Studies Encyclopedia. 1998. 8 Mar. 2006 <>.
  1. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations of Chaucer will be taken from The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition, and will be parenthetically cited by fragment and line number.[]
  2. I refer here to alterity in the sense of being an “Other,” that is, something different and non-normative. The idea, as explicated by Simone de Beauvoir, is that the development of a “binary consciousness” is inevitable, dividing entities into either Self, or normative, or Other, or foreign.[]
  3. See lines 683-86; 473-76; 561-74[]
  4. See Matthew 26:39-42[]
  5. Specifically, the Clark’s admonishment deals largely with the proper spousal responsibilities of the husband. In other words, cruelty of Walter’s sort is even because it tarnishes prescribed masculinity, not because it is an affront to a sovereign female entity.[]
  6. See “Bihoold the murye words of the Host” (IV 1212) and The Merchant’s Prologue (IV 1213-1225), respectively[]
§1101 · April 22, 2006 · Tags: , , ·

6 Comments to “It is al another than it semeth: Chaucer and the Self-Other Binary”

  1. Who is the author of this?
    It is a really good article.

  2. I need to quote the author here I need a name.

  3. Ben says:

    That would be me, Heliologue. Also known as Ben Gunnink (my real name, which appears in the PDF version).

    If you’re interested in using it, it—like all my other blog content—is licensed under the Creative Commons. Specifically, you can republish/translate/cite it as long as you properly attribute it to me and you don’t use it commercially.

  4. Thank you very much…I believe you are a credible source, however my teacher does not. :(

    I still like your article.

  5. I’m sorry for the original post because when I first tried to access the PDF it sent me to the Doh! page where it says you screwed up with the linking or something like that. Anyways thanks for the good article and the feedback. :)

  6. Ben says:

    That doesn’t surprise me. It is, of course, a judgment call, and your teacher isn’t entirely out of line to reject an article you found on an undergrad’s blog. But in my defense, I’ll be presenting this particular paper at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies in May.

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