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The Canterbury Tales anticipated Trump’s “grab 'em by the pussy” line by 600 years

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The comments Trump made about women in the recently released Access Hollywood video from 2005 are abhorrent. They are also nothing new.

“You can do anything” when you’re a star, Trump brags in the tape. “Grab ’em by the pussy.”

As Sonja Drimmer and Damian Fleming point out via their medieval studies group blog, “In the Middle,” that’s exactly the kind of sexual assault men have used to try to dominate women’s bodies for centuries. It’s a story so old that it appears in the writings of Chaucer.

Specifically, it’s in “The Miller’s Tale,” one of the 24 Canterbury Tales Chaucer wrote in the 14th century. In this story, a clever young scholar named Nicholas is renting a room from an old carpenter and his beautiful, 18-year-old wife, Alison. Nicholas wants to seduce Alison, so he grabs her:

And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,

And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,

For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."

In Modern English, this means, more or less:

And discretely he caught her by the pleasing thing,

And said, “Oh, but if I have my will,

For secret love of you, darling, I’ll die.”

It’s also, being Chaucer, riddled with bawdy puns. “Queynte” is literally a pleasing thing or ingenious device, but then as now, it sounds like “cunt”; “spille” means “death or destruction,” but it also carries connotations of orgasm. Nicholas is, like Trump, grabbing Alison by the pussy and talking about how much he wants to come.

Alison is less than pleased by Nicholas’s approach. She jumps away like a colt does when it’s being shod, and she cries out, “Why, lat be, lat be, Nicholas!” But Nicholas, undeterred, carries on.

The encounter Chaucer is describing, Drimmer and Fleming write, is the same kind of encounter we use today as a sort of cultural shorthand for men’s violent dominance over women, from Mad Men’s Don Draper (remember Bobbie Barrett?) to Trump:

Nicholas grabbed her by the pussy. And then he said, “if I have my will.” Don Draper grabbed Bobbie Barrett by the pussy. And then he said, “Do what I say.” Donald Trump boasted that he “grab[s] ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Never original, Trump was availing himself of a stock gesture of violence that expresses dominance over women via the route of women’s bodies — arguably (arguably) even the body part that most defines a woman in biological terms.

This kind of violent, domineering act is not acceptable. It has been around for centuries, and it has never been acceptable. If Trump’s words emerge, as Drimmer and Fleming argue, “from our cultural legacy,” then it is our responsibility to come to terms with that legacy. It is our responsibility to show the Nicholases and Don Drapers and Trumps of the world that their actions are reprehensible.