Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been fueled by deep rage among conservatives, who think his position in the American nobility guarantees his fitness for the job. Wayne Allyn Root, for instance, defended Kavanaugh as “a great man” by comparing their pedigrees: “Brett Kavanaugh graduated near the top of his class in his high school while starring in sports. I graduated number one in my high school while starring in sports. Then he went on to Yale. I went on to Columbia.” Kavanaugh himself dodged Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) questions about college drinking by responding, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country.”
Supporters not only pointed to Kavanaugh’s elite credentials to defend his nomination, they also have extolled his chivalry, from parading around the young girls he coaches to sharing support from women who knew him in his prep school days. Kavanaugh stressed his chastity and his care for women in an interview with Fox News: “Just ask the moms,” he said. Heather Mac Donald touted Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record of treating women with respect” to argue that even if the attack on accuser Christine Blasey Ford happened, it would be “feminist narcissism to put an uncharacteristic instance of adolescent, never-repeated sexual aggression ahead of a lifetime of achievement in the law.”
These medieval defenses of Kavanaugh’s nobility and chivalry seem out of place. After all, Americans pride themselves on their modern, meritocratic culture. Moreover, the notion of a chivalrous Kavanaugh seems tenuous: As accounts of hazing, sexual assault and drunken violence in his social circle keep emerging, we’re getting the picture of a man who exhibits anything but modesty, restraint and respect for women. And yet in that sense, very little has changed between the Middle Ages and today: Medieval chivalry also was a fiction that masked aristocratic violence.
Chivalry, which has always been more literary than real, has been called a “protection racket,” because it forces women to rely on men to protect them from other men. Even then, chivalry protects only certain women. The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, famous for his chivalric romances, explained that if a noblewoman or her lady in waiting traveled alone, a knight could “no more treat her with dishonor than cut his own throat.” But if he fought another knight for her and won, he could “do with her as he pleased.” Lower-class women didn’t warrant a mention in Troyes’s chivalric code.
In Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Arthurian legend, knights swore to protect ladies, damsels, gentlewomen and widows, but ignored abuses against peasant women, some of which were committed by Arthur’s own court. And when 19th-century Southerners resurrected “chivalry” on this side of the pond, their code protected only white women — which is undoubtedly still the case today. The criteria for which women chivalry does, and doesn’t, protect always shifts: It can be race, class, age, power or even just being in the right crowd.
But inevitably, other women become targets for the violence that is controlled and contained in the presence of the worthy. Men feel entitled to those unprotected women, and crimes against them are considered mere “misbehavior.” This is how you can have a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault who nevertheless gets 65 women to testify that he’s a swell guy. It’s one of many cases in which a woman will leap to a man’s defense because he treated her well, not realizing it’s only because she was part of the “in crowd.” (At least one woman withdrew her support when she learned that she did not, in fact, have a place behind the shield of chivalric protection.)
Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale,” which centers on a rape trial, gives us more insight into the disingenuous stories noblemen have always told about their “chivalry.” When Arthur’s knight rapes a maiden, Guinevere gives him one chance to keep from literally losing his head: He must discover what women “most desire.” The knight rides around feeling sorry for himself until an ugly old woman offers to help him. He agrees, and she reveals that what women want most is “sovereignty” and mastery over their husbands.
You might think the story ends when the reformed-rapist knight realizes women want autonomy and power. But the rapist hasn’t truly reformed; he has only learned to perform chivalry to the right audience. The old woman demands his hand in marriage. Bound by his oath to her, the knight complies, but he’s absolutely outraged. He whines that he, an aristocrat, should not have to marry a woman who is “so loathsome, and so old,” who comes “from such a low lineage.”
It was hard not to think of Chaucer’s indignant knight when watching Kavanaugh angrily condemn insults to his “good name” by listing his credentials: “I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School.”
Kavanaugh had every conceivable economic and class advantage: He’s the son of a lawyer and a judge, a prep school kid, a Yale legacy and the husband of George W. Bush’s personal secretary. And he demands that his privileged position be evidence of his character, putting him above reproach.
The Wife of Bath would disagree: She tells her complaining knight that his arrogance “is not worth a hen.” “Churlish sinful deeds make a churl,” she says, and Christlike behavior, not “old richesse,” makes a man noble. Only when the knight demonstrates humility and relinquishes patriarchal power in the most private of spaces, his marriage, does she transform into a beautiful, loving bride.
Of course, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale” is fantasy, told by Chaucer’s most controversial female pilgrim. In reality, a medieval woman who wanted justice had to testify before panels of men — much like Ford did — who would judge her and her rapist on their “character,” often measured by wealth, power and class.
Women are told to be grateful that we’re not living in the “Dark Ages,” but how much distance is there, really, between medieval times and today? One in three women will be assaulted during their lifetimes, and most assaults go unreported. Rape can define a woman’s life, but it does not make the man, as we see from the many comebacks of men accused of rape and sexual harassment less than a year ago. Even Chaucer is remembered as the “father of English poetry,” not as a man accused of sexual assault. His accuser, Cecily Chaumpaigne, is not remembered for anything else.
If the #MeToo movement changes anything, it must be this formula in which a man’s wealth, fame and power drown out a woman’s voice. Until then, we have no business sneering at the past and calling ourselves modern.