In my class on Chaucer, we studied The Canterbury Tales. I remember becoming incredibly angry in class one day at the attitude of one of the characters, the way that he thought he could treat women. I hated the Man of Law on a deeply personal level. I hated that he could get away with the things he did in his speech and nobody stopped him; I hated how much this was like society today. I whipped up an email that shared my disapproval for the tale with the professor. I was too agitated and on my soap-box to bring it up in class, but I knew that I need to say these things.
What I didn’t know then was that in just one day, the scars that were so offended at that point would be ripped wide open. In just one day, I would completely change.
Chaucer’s Man of Law has a strong preference for passive and weak women, which he illustrates when he says “Humblesse hath slayn in hire al tirannye / She is mirour of alle curteisye; / Hir herte is verray chambre of hoolynesse” (Lines 165-167). Custance is so humble that she has no inclination towards tyranny; she is courteous, and her heart is filled with holiness. Her humble holiness is what keeps her alive; Custance may not receive much in life, but she is allowed to live. By following the guidelines of what is expected of her, Custance preserves her own existence. But is it worth it? Is this type of living really existing at all?
I’m checking back in with you.
I read the message, and I stick on those words. Checking in. She’s checking in. This is good; I can start checking off days. How many days has it been again? Crap. Do I even exist anymore?
If you’re feeling up to it next week sometime, let’s see if we can make an appointment to talk about options.
I am struggling with options right now. I am struggling with direction. I am struggling to function.
I know it may not feel like you have too many right, but you do have options. We all have options. Always. Even if we don’t particularly like any of them terribly much.
It’s like she can read my mind. I want the words she’s sent to tell me what to do, but they don’t. I have to do that, and I don’t want to. I am folded into my bed, wrapped in blankets, with a cat on top of me. I run my fingers through her fur, lost in thought. Part of me says this is my fault. But part of me says I did what I had to do.
Custance allows herself to be treated as an object by both her father and her husband because she feels she has no other choice. She tries to subtly guilt her father into not sending her away when she says, “Fader … they wrecched child Custance / Thy yonge doghter fostred up so softe” but she then continues by submitting to her objectification with the statement “Wommen are born to thraldom and penance / And to been under manes governance” (Lines 273-275, 286-287). Custance calls herself wretched daughter, referring to herself in third person, which leads to her identification as an object, and then adds that women are born just to suffer and do what men tell them to do. However, she never directly expresses outward displeasure at the events that are being thrust upon her.
If you’re not up to talking about this yet, that’s also okay. You have complete control over when we tackle this.
I don’t think I want to say a word ever. It’s like someone has taken a knife to my emotional scar tissue and ripped me to shreds. I feel like I’m dying.
I’m behind you.
I don’t know how to respond to that thought, because it implies a forward motion that I’m not sure I can adhere to. I want nothing more than to stay here, hiding,
All my best thoughts are directed towards you today. You are one of the most talented students I’ve seen in recent years and I know I’m not the only one who sees your potential.
I start to cry. The potential that she mentions, my potential, is gone. I’ve been silenced.
1 Corinthians 14:34 says that women “should remain silent … they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (NIV Bible). The Bible states that women should remain silent in all matters and defer to men, and this is an attitude that permeated throughout medieval times of historical record. Custance allows herself to be used and directed by both men and God, which illustrates an outward devotion to Christianity, but she obeys God simply because she believes that she is supposed to do so. As a woman, Custance does not believe herself to have any say in the matter. She stays silent and continually fails to speak out for herself in a direct manner. Her humility and her endurance go to extremes that no real woman could ever hope to attain. Her existence itself is a magnet for suffering, and the reason for this parallels the Biblical interpretation of how women should be treated: as objects. Following God to the extreme and being a moral, upstanding, Biblical woman does not advance Custance into anything other than heartache.
Every step is a choice. You have control over whether or not you do each one.
Yes. This is true. I do.
I unwrap myself from the blankets and grab my laptop. And I write. I write about Custance and The Man of Law’s Tale and the land of Chaucer. I remember how this was a horrible thing for me just a few days ago, the way Custance was treated in the tale. I remember how struck I was by the similarities between us. Suddenly, as I write, I identify with her even more. I remember how I am a good student, how this is what I do now. I’m smart. I can’t defend myself, I can’t speak, but I can do this.
I can do this.
I do homework, I get ahead, because it is the only thing I can do. The only thing I know how to do. I write about Custance and her silence, and how she is a magnet for suffering.
I too am a magnet for suffering.
Where I disliked The Man of Law just a few short days ago, now I find myself hating Custance. And I hate myself right along with her.