The Canterbury Tales

A Woman's Worth: Sexuality and Honor for Chaucer's Women College

When reading Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, readers will notice that none of these good women are granted satisfying lives or happy endings. Nearly all of them meet tragic, even gruesome, ends––these women are betrayed, abandoned, raped, and killed, which is almost always because of a man's actions. However, few of these women show any resistance to the wicked men in their lives; they are faithful to the end. Why, then, did Chaucer consider these women "good"—wouldn't a powerful woman fighting back against her wrong-doer be more worthy of honor? Perhaps modern-day feminist readers would find this more pleasing, but Chaucer was writing for an audience whose perceptions of women, and especially women's sexuality, was radically different from our own. In this essay, I will argue that for Chaucer's audience, a woman's worth exists in direct proportion to her willingness to be sexually violated, even when facing rape. Going further, women's honor increases the closer they remain to virginity; the farther a woman strays from perfect chastity, the less honorable her violation becomes. This is not to say that Chaucer himself subscribed to these ideas, but rather, that he utilized his poetry as a space to criticize...

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