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Kathleen Cawsey’s Dalhousie University literature students can get Chaucer’s 14th-century take on restorative justice.PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

English literature professor Kathleen Cawsey had taught Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale several times when, during a lecture this February, she decided to update it for her audience, a class of students at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"I was in mid-sentence and found myself saying, 'So does anyone object to the fact that the rapist gets the girl at the end and goes on to a successful career in dentistry?'"

Many students laughed. A few began to draw parallels between the situation that was unfolding on their campus and the story Geoffrey Chaucer wrote for The Canterbury Tales 600 years ago, about a knight who rapes a maiden. The knight is spared from beheading, but must embark on a quest to find out what women want. He discovers the answer – sovereignty over their husbands – but faces another test. He must decide whether his wife will be beautiful but unfaithful, or ugly but true. He asks his betrothed to make the decision – and she becomes fair and steadfast.

"It's really a restorative justice process [in the tale]," said Dr. Cawsey. "We were talking about whether the knight deserved to be given that chance and whether he had truly reformed and changed. … It's where the conversation typically goes, but it was underlaid with awareness that this was happening at our university, in society today."

Hundreds of thousands of words have been spent examining how a group of students in Dalhousie's dentistry faculty came to make hateful comments in a private Facebook group, but only a few of those analyses have been literary. Dr. Cawsey says that's lamentable.

"Our society is so turning away from arts and humanities, but we don't have any other language for this type of issue. Literature can be a thought experiment where we play out what happens, in our minds rather than in reality," Dr. Cawsey said.

Chaucer, she says, would have much to offer. He is the only one to tell the tale by making the crime rape, instead of what had been originally, murder. And no one in the story proceeds to interrogate the maid, to see if she is telling the truth. "If Chaucer was able just to imagine a circumstance where a woman would be believed without question, that says something about how far we haven't come," she said.

As a report released Monday by an independent task force revealed, what transpired at Dalhousie had even more in common with Chaucer than Dr. Cawsey realized. None of the women targeted by the posts were assaulted, but like in Chaucer's tale, where after the rape, the maid is never heard from again, the original complainant was ostracized by her classmates.

At the same time, many of the students in the graduating dentistry class participated in a restorative justice process, ultimately releasing statements apologizing and explaining what they learned. Are they telling the truth? Literature would have an answer, Dr. Cawsey says. She points to the race of transparent beings Laurence Sterne creates in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: If the "glass been there set up, nothing more would have been wanting, in order to have taken a man's character, but to have taken a chair and gone softly … and look'd in."

Better reading than a task force report, too.