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The Wife of Bath: A Biography

Ever since her triumphant debut in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath, arguably the first ordinary and recognisably real woman in English literature, has obsessed readers. Few literary characters have led such colourful lives or matched her influence or capacity for reinvention in poetry, drama, fiction, and film. In The Wife of Bath, Marion Turner tells the fascinating story of where Chaucer’s favourite character came from, how she related to real medieval women, and where her many travels have taken her since the fourteenth century. Winner of the 2023 History Reclaimed Book of the Year Prize.

Hello, I’m Marion Turner, the JRR Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford. I’m going to be talking about my recent book, The Wife of Bath: A Biography which was published by Princeton University Press in January 2023, and will be out in paperback in spring 2024.

The Wife of Bath: A Biography is a book about Chaucer’s most famous character and his favourite character, Alison, the Wife of Bath who appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which he wrote in the last about 15 years of the fourteenth century. I argue in this book that the Wife of Bath is the first ordinary woman in English literature. Before Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, of course there had been lots of women in English literature, but these women tended to be divided into the stereotypically good women: damsels in distress, Queens, marriageable virgins, nuns, saints… and stereotypically bad women: prostitutes, witches, procuresses, old crones, those kinds of women.

In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer created a different kind of woman. This is a woman who is middle-aged, which is what we might think of as middle class, she works, she has friends, she makes mistakes, she drinks too much, she’s sexually active, she talks about her friends and her sex life and her travels in great detail. So she’s a really different kind of figure.

What I do in the first half of this book is I look at why and how she emerged at this particular historical moment. Why did Chaucer create such a character? Of course he had literary sources, but he changed those sources dramatically to create a new kind of figure in literature. So in the first half of the book, I look at different aspects of her. The fact that she is multiply married, the fact that she works, the fact that she travels a lot and the fact that she’s a storyteller for example. And I look at both literary and historical antecedents and contexts to try to understand how she came about at this time.

The late fourteenth century is a really fascinating period in all kinds of ways. In particular, this is the post-plague period. The fourteenth century underwent a terrible pandemic in the middle of the fourteenth century. The Black Death killed maybe a third, maybe a half of the population and there was great social change afterwards. One thing that happened was that for those who survived, opportunities improved, wages went up, there was more social climbing, social change, there were all kinds of things that that affected women as well as men. So more women move to cities, more women got different jobs. But this was also a historical moment where already women in England and in Northwest Europe in general had more opportunities than they had had before, than they had later and then they had in other parts of the world. One thing that I’m looking at in the first part of this book is something called the European marriage pattern. I’m looking at inheritance laws. Why women were able to wield a certain kind of power.

So what I do is I interweave the literary character, the Wife of Bath, with mini biographies of real medieval women. I look at women such as a fifteenth century duchess who was married 4 times and her last husband was a teenager when she was in her sixties for example. I look at fourteenth century mercantile women who married many times had lots of economic power, were able to benefit from inheritance laws and really have a lot of control and power in medieval London. I look at women who travelled around Europe and to the Holy Land. I look at the emerging women’s voices in literature and text at this time as well.

At the same time those new opportunities for women, which are really important to emphasise because a lot of people think that medieval women all stayed at home, all had very domestic limited existences and that’s not true. There were a lot of opportunities for women at this time and they made the most of them. You can find women blacksmiths and ship owners and parchment makers for example.

However, I balance that by also looking at medieval misogyny at the weight of things that were balanced against women at this moment. Women of course were not living in a feminist utopia in the late fourteenth century, obviously not. And fictional women such as the Wife of Bath as well as real women were battling against all kinds of oppressive aspects of their existences.

One of the things that the Wife of Bath talks about is the bias of literature, the fact that women had not had the opportunity to tell their own stories. And so she talks about the way that the canon, the authoritative texts of the time were biased against women, that women have not told their stories. And she says if women had told stories as men have in their oratories, they would have said of men more wickedness than all the mark of Adam can redress. So she’s talking about the fact that many women have not had the chance to tell their own story.

And that’s something that that fits in with Chaucer’s interests more generally. Chaucer is really fascinated by trying to amplify people’s voices who are not usually heard. So in the Canterbury Tales as a whole, he’s saying we shouldn’t just listen to voices of authority, we should listen to the stories of a cook, of a miller, of a lawyer, of women, as well as the story of the knight for example, and so his foregrounding the Wife of Bath is part of that. But it is noticeable that he foregrounds the Wife of Bath’s voice, her own voice more than anyone else’s. So I also talk about the fact that it is through the Wife of Bath that Chaucer invents literary character overall. That’s a big historical and cultural change. The way that he develops literary character, he gives her much more of a voice. She tells us much more about her own life, her past, her desires, her memories, her hopes than any of the other pilgrim characters do in the Canterbury Tales. So, in that first half of the book, I’m talking about what medieval culture was like for women, about the kinds of opportunities they had, and the kinds of prejudices and problems they faced.

The second half of the book then moves to look at the Wife of Bath across time. The Wife of Bath has had an extraordinary influence particularly on culture in this country but also around the world. She’s been translated so much, she’s had so much influence. Right from the beginning, Chaucer himself treated her in a different way to the way he treated other of his characters. He lets her escape her text. He writes about her not only in other Canterbury Tales but also in one of his short poems for example. So she begins this career as a kind of book runner, someone that gets out of her own book and into other books. And then many other authors took up that mantle and started to write versions of the Wife of Bath. We see that from the fifteenth century right through to the present day.

And I suppose it’s important really to dwell on how interesting and unusual that is. If you think about characters who exist in multiple texts across centuries, most of them are legendary and monarchical figures. You know, people such as King Arthur or Odysseus, for example. Sometimes there are women who have that kind of long history but they’re again queens, women such as Dido or Helen of Troy. The Wife of Bath as this very ordinary, and of course, extraordinary woman is really unique in having that kind of influence across over 600 years.

In the second half of the book, I look at the way that she has fascinated writers and readers across time while also provoking all kinds of anxiety. For example, I write quite a lot about a ballad which was first penned in the sixteenth century and remained very popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The Wanton Wife of Bath.

Now on the one hand this was written and rewritten and read obsessively in many different versions. On the other hand, printers were put in prison for daring to publish it and the ballad itself was burnt on occasion. It was rewritten to make it more acceptable in different cultural circumstances. That kind of sums up this pull, this back and forth of how people were drawn to the Wife of Bath but also very anxious about this figure.

Across this second half of the book, it allows me to look at gender and culture right across time and I have a chapter, for example, about Shakespeare’s use of the Wife of Bath, so I argue that Falstaff is a version of the Wife of Bath and that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a refracted version of the Wife of Bart’s prologue and tail.

I write about Voltaire who translated The Wife of Bath’s tale via Dryden’s version and really changed it in all kinds of ways. It’s a story about rape in Chaucer’s original, a very serious story, and he makes it into something quite different that really takes the focus away from the victim and makes the rapist into a hero. So it’s a very disturbing reworking of that tale. I talk about James Joyce’s use of the Wife of Bath in his in his famous character Penelope in Ulysses. I look at things like Alexander Pope who translated the Wife of Bath’s prologue but took out all the bits about sex and the body and female desire and indeed the Wife of Bath has often been censored across time. We often see writers taking bits out that they don’t like and that happens to a lot of text written by women. A lot of medieval women’s texts indeed, we can see them censored by early printers and readers and editors across time.

So as I say, this second half goes right through the centuries. And there are so many really fascinating versions. As we get closer to the present day, I talk a bit about film versions such as Pasolini’s version, which is a real kind of travesty of the Wife of Bath, I think. And then in the last chapter, I look at versions from the last 20 years. In the last 20 years in particular, we’ve seen a kind of reclaiming of the Wife of Bath’s voice by lots more female writers and particularly by Black British female writers. In that last chapter I look at Jean “Binta” Breeze, Patience Agbabi and Zadie Smith’s versions of the Wife of Bath, finishing with a discussion of the Wife of Willesden by Smith, which was premiered and published in 2021. So very recent.

And I think that it’s really fascinating to think about why the Wife of Bath is still of so much interest to people today. On the one hand when we’re reading Chaucer’s texts, The Wife of Bath, but also his other texts, on the one hand it’s really important that we make an imaginative leap into this period, at a time of difference. People lived in different ways. We can’t project all our own desires and feelings on to the past because people were living at a time when they thought about the private and the public very differently for example, about subjection in different ways. But at the same time, when people read these texts, they are also often amazed by the shock of familiarity. So many things that the Wife of Bath says and talks about are still relevant to us today. And many students or people who are reading Chaucer for the first time are often very attracted by the familiarity, the accessibility of so much of what these characters are saying. And I think we have to maintain that tension between remembering how different the past is and the importance of trying, imaginatively, to get ourselves into the shoes of someone who lived in a very different time and tried to think about what it might be like to live in that different culture, while at the same time recognising the things that are still familiar, and maybe particularly for the Wife of Bath. So many of the things that she says about gender and about misogyny do resonate right across time. And that’s one reason why this character I think has remained of such interest to so many people across time. She really is completely unique in English literature and in English history, and I think remains the character that that most people remember in much more detail than Chaucer’s other brilliant creations. So that’s the Wife of Bath, a biography. Thank you.

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Marion Turner