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Chaucer, Ethics, and Gender$
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Alcuin Blamires

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199248674

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199248674.001.0001

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Sex and Lust: ‘The Merchant's Tale’, ‘The Reeve's Tale’, and other Tales

Sex and Lust: ‘The Merchant's Tale’, ‘The Reeve's Tale’, and other Tales

(p.78) 3 Sex and Lust: ‘The Merchant's Tale’, ‘The Reeve's Tale’, and other Tales
Chaucer, Ethics, and Gender

Alcuin Blamires (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

A summary of ecclesiastical views on sex introduces the observation that medieval doctrine on the ‘sexual debt’ of marriage was covertly asymmetrical — an asymmetry based on an active/passive gender binary that is reflected in Chaucer’s writings, though with exceptions including Criseyde. Chaucer represents the most outrageous proactive voluptuary fantasy as male, since it is January in the Merchant’s Tale who combines Epicurean sensuality with an idea repellent to medieval ethics: that there is ultimate ‘security’ in marital sensuality. A different doctrine is manipulated in the Reeve’s Tale. There a narrative of the theft of flour is deftly constructed around the concept that sex with the daughter or wife of another man also constitutes a category of ‘theft’. Overall, the chapter suggests that Chaucer’s representations of sex view it as much under the emotional perspective of its melancholy transience as under a formally coherent ethical perspective.

Keywords:   sexual debt, active, passive, Criseyde, Epicurean, fantasy, theft

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