There was once a Kasper Hauser Comedy podcast that pretended there was a game show called “Phone Call to the Fourteenth Century.”
The premise was that the contestants would make phone calls to the people of the Middle Ages to give them advice about how to live better (“Impart as much useful knowledge as you can to a resident of the 14th century in one minute!” the fake show’s motto says). The twenty-first-century phone callers shout out humorously accurate and arbitrary advice like, “Witches aren’t real, everybody floats!” and “Don’t throw out the middle of the donut, you can sell it!” as well as various suggestions for better hygiene and nutrition.
The fourteenth century was seven hundred years ago. Obviously the world has changed, and we like to make jokes about how much worse life was back then. Yes, medieval hygiene was usually terrible. People didn’t eat many fruits and vegetables. There was no electricity; houses and streets were terribly pitch black at night. Women couldn’t own property. The lower classes lived sucky lives. So of course we think, aren’t we lucky to live in the modern age? We understand the importance of bathing and eating colorful foods; we can stay warm in the winter with central heating and cool in the summer with air conditioning.
And yet, we have inherited something from the Middle Ages, something from the beginning of time really, that we still haven’t changed.
Sexual assault happened then too. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about it all the time.
Chaucer was a poet and political operative living in London in the fourteenth century. He was born in the 1340s and married a lady-in-waiting named Philippa in 1366. They had a son a year later. In 1380, when Chaucer was about 40, he was accused of raping a woman named Cecily Champaigne. There isn’t an official record of the rape itself, but there is a record of Cecily dropping the charges against Chaucer for her rape. The witnesses to the document record were all men with positions like high-society businessmen, members of the royal court, a former mayor of London…so Chaucer was fine. He also continued to get life supplies of wine and money from the King of England as a reward for the diplomacy (purported espionage) he conducted abroad.
In The Canterbury Tales, the work that the Chaucer course in the Bates English Department focuses on, there are more than five tales that involve some sort of sexual assault or raise the issue of sexual consent. Hardly anyone today would guess that these issues appear in the tales before reading them, because we don’t always think of medieval literature or culture as something that revolves around sex politics. But Chaucer’s stories do.
One of the questions the students in the Chaucer course (disclaimer: I’m one of them) always have to ask ourselves is whether the women in the stories seem to want the sex they receive from men, who are sometimes their husbands and sometimes not.
In one case, two male students are staying the night in a family’s home, and they decide they want to have sex with the mother and the daughter of the family. Chaucer writes that the daughter didn’t even have time to scream, because the guy jumped on her so quickly. But maybe she wouldn’t have. The other guy gets into the mother’s bed while she’s in the medieval version of a bathroom, and when she gets back she has sex with him, thinking it’s her husband. But then again, Chaucer hints, maybe she knows it’s not her husband. Maybe she wants it. (Side note: All of the characters in this story are drunk at the time.)
That’s what’s tricky about the consent issue in Chaucer–he writes it in a way that makes you think he’s purposefully blurring the lines, purposefully making it as complex as a lot of sexual assault cases today, which makes you want to time travel back to the fourteenth century grab him by the collar, and ask, “Who wanted what? Did no mean no for you guys too?”
It’s almost too easy to guess what authority figures would have said if the mother and daughter had accused the men of rape. You didn’t say no, so it can’t have been rape. You know it’s pitch black in your bedroom (this is the fourteenth century), you should have made sure it was your husband. The modern reader just wishes Chaucer would tell us what he was thinking.
Aside from the fact that time traveling isn’t possible, the idea of this conversation in itself is crazy–that a person today could actually find something to talk about with Chaucer, and he would understand (although you might need a Middle English translator). You couldn’t talk to him about iPhones or Yik Yak or other creations of the modern world, but you could talk to him about rape and consent. It’s incredibly sad that a modern victim of sexual assault shares something in common with that daughter in The Canterbury Tales, because not only is it a horrible thing for any single person to go through, but it also shows us what we haven’t changed yet.
Which makes me want scream, Seriously? That’s what we’ve inherited? We could have kept a diet that was heavier on meat, or the beautiful castles without central heating, or the gorgeous books with gold-embellished pages. But we kept sexual assault.
If Chaucer lived today, I would like to think that his assault on Cecily would be more thoroughly investigated, that he would be legally punished if he were found guilty of rape, that his status with political figures wouldn’t protect him, that the men in those positions would be sensitive to the girl’s situation, that the girl opening up about her rape wouldn’t be scared to pursue justice. It’s hard to tell whether all of those issues have improved by now.
If only we could use our phone call to the fourteenth century to say, “Start changing sex culture now. Start preventing rape from happening, and start creating a clear punishment system around it, because then maybe we wouldn’t still be having as many issues as we do.”
But since we can’t get a phone call to the fourteenth century, we just have to give a louder wake-up call to the one we’re living in.