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Sex & Sexuality in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

In Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales,' the themes of sex and sexuality are developed in several of the characters' stories. In this lesson, we will look at how sex and sexuality are treated in 'The Canterbury Tales.'

Background

Sex and sexuality are major themes explored in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a collection of twenty-four stories which follows a group of twenty-nine pilgrims who are undertaking a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett at Canterbury in the hope of receiving his blessing. Sex and sexuality are encountered through the perspectives of the narrator, the Wife of Bath, the Miller, and other characters. In this lesson, we will examine their stories to see how sex and sexuality are treated in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Young Women Are Hard to Control

The Miller's Tale tells the story of John and his wife Alisoun, a woman who is considerably younger than he is. The story revolves around Alisoun and Nicholas, a young clerk with whom she has an affair. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Alisoun's sexuality is a topic of concern for John because he fears that he will not be able to satisfy her youthful spirit.

Chaucer writes, ''For she was wylde and yong, and he was old/ And demed hymself been lyk a cokewold.'' John thinks that Alisoun's wild youth will cause her to cheat on him, and he will be embarrassed by her actions since they will make him a cuckold (cokewold), a man who has been sexually betrayed by his wife. Since Alisoun does in fact cheat on John, the Miller is showing that a young woman's sexual needs cannot be met by an older man. She cannot help herself because it is in her nature.

Women Hold the Power

Throughout the Miller's Tale, Chaucer describes sexual tension and the power of lust in terms that suggest a woman holds the power in sexual and courtly relationships. For example, Chaucer writes,''This Nicholas gan mercy for to crye,/ And spak so faire, and profred him so faste,/ That she hir love him graunted atte laste.'' Nicholas is finally ''granted'' the chance to have sex with Alisoun, which implies that she was in control of the affair. The same notion of sex occurs when Nicholas is described as hopeless with love. The only cure for his love-sickness is for a woman to allow him to have sex with her.

In The Miller's Tale, men have a clear disadvantage in the world of extramarital love and sex, because it is solely determined by female desires. The idea that women hold sexual power over men, this time inside of marriage, is also apparent in the Wife of Bath's dialogue. For example, in the prologue to her Tale she says, ''I wol persevere, I nam nat precious./ In wyfhode I wol use myn instrument (her sexuality)/ As frely as my Makere hath it sent,'' in order to get what she wants.

A Healthy Sex Life Is Promoted

However, of all of the characters in the Canterbury Tales, it is also the Wife of Bath who talks the most about maintaining a healthy sex life. The Wife of Bath, who has outlived five husbands, is forthright and bears a progressive set of ideas about female sexuality. For example, she says, ''But wel I woot expres, withoute lye,/ God bad us for to wexe and multiplye:/ That gentil text can I wel understonde.'' Ultimately, she refers to the Bible to explain that women should engage in sex frequently because God bids people to reproduce.

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