Difference and the Difference it Makes: Sex and Gender in Chaucer’s Poetry

Difference and the Difference it Makes: Sex and Gender in Chaucer’s Poetry

By Sheila Delany

Florilegium, Vol.10 (1988-91)

Introduction: “My indecision is final,” the movie magnate Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, and I find the malapropism suitably expressive of Chaucer’s attitude toward sexual difference. My concern is not simply to decide whether Chaucer was or was not “woman’s friend” (as the Scots poet Gavin Douglas put it in the early sixteenth century), but to look at the systems within which a late-mediaeval courtly writer was permitted to be woman’s friend, and the systems within which he was not so permitted. My argument will be that Chaucer both “is and is not” the friend of woman. Some of you will recognize the phrase I borrow from Salman Rushdie, who in turn borrows it from ancient Arabic storytelling. I use it in order to articulate the deep-rooted ambivalence about women that is a structural feature of late-mediaeval culture, providing a terminus ad quem beyond which even the most well-intentioned writer cannot pass.

That the culture itself was divided on “the woman question” is evident from social fact and ideological theory. Socially, women were integrated into the work-force in rural and urban communities, contributing their labour to the burgeoning European economy of the high Middle Ages and benefitting from the wealth they helped to create. At the same time they were excluded from important arenas of social activity and influence: from universities, priesthood, and (with a few exceptions) government.

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