By Judith M. Bennett
Hayes Robinson Lecture (Royal Holloway, University of London, 2002)
Introduction: Geoffrey Chaucer was no stranger to the queens, whores and maidens of his time. He might have been prompted to write his Legend of Good Women by Anne of Bohemia, queen of Richard II; he spent many years living and working in parts of London where whores were more common than customs officers; and he had at least one fateful encounter with a maiden, an interaction that prompted Cecilia Chaupaigne, in 1380, to release from any responsibility de raptu meo – that is, from any responsibility for her abduction, rape or both. Geoffrey Chaucer also people his stories with fictional queens, whores and maidens – the goodly queen Alceste, the sluttish Wife of Bath and the sacrificed but pure Virginia of the Physician’s Tale.
This essay sets out to throw some light not only on the queens, whores and maidens Chaucer encountered during his life but also on those he created in his poetry. But the main intent of this essay will take us on a route between the two, for an examination of the cultural spaces occupied by queens, whores and maidens allows us to rethink a fundamental modern assumption about how medieval people through about women – that is, our assumption that medieval views of women were governed by a dichotomy between ideally pure women and horribly evil ones. By looking at what queens, whores and maidens were imagined to be and to do, it becomes clear that neither the pit nor the pedestal – nor, indeed, the vast space between the two – can adequately describe what it meant to be a woman in Chaucer’s England.