Mary C. Flannery
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Death or dishonour
The problem of exemplary shame
in Practising shame
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This chapter takes up the problematic relationship between female shamefastness and the model of hardy masculinity and considers its disturbing implications for female exemplarity founded on shamefastness. As Chaucer’s adaptations of the narratives of Virginia and Lucretia demonstrate, women’s shamefast chastity is not only under threat from masculine hardiness, but can even provoke that threat, either by stimulating masculine desire or by inviting men to prove their manhood. The chapter begins by exploring how Chaucer represents the irreconcilability of shamefast femininity and forceful masculinity elsewhere in his work. It then continues to the stories of Virginia and Lucretia, and shows that Chaucer and his contemporary, John Gower (c. 1330–1408), approach the theme of ‘manly force’ from very different angles. Whereas Gower invites readers to consider what might have happened in a Rome that was justly governed by chaste rulers, Chaucer engages readers in a deeply uncomfortable experiment in counterfactual thinking about female honour, an experiment that threatens to reopen the question of whether the binary of death or dishonour need exist in the first place.

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Practising shame

Female honour in later medieval England


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