There are a few things in our culture that almost no one dislikes. Dolly Parton, fried rice . . . I can think of something else, too. For this item the constituency is smaller—you probably have to go to college to want to vote on it—but really, it, or she, should be included: the Wife of Bath, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” With “The Canterbury Tales,” which Chaucer wrote during the last decade or so of his life—he died in 1400, leaving it unfinished—he went a long way toward inventing the novel. Actually, scholars don’t agree on what the first novel was, but, more than any other work preceding it, “The Canterbury Tales” has a trait, in abundance, that people look for in a novel and miss if it’s not there: the noise and bustle of real human life, the market-square color and variety that you find in “Tom Jones” and “Middlemarch” and “War and Peace”—indeed, in most of the works that we reflexively think of as great novels. One might even say that “The Canterbury Tales” has too much human life, too many characters: some thirty late-medieval people who are going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral and who decide to pass the time by taking turns telling stories.
Among them is the Wife of Bath, Alison by name, a clothmaker—well off, well travelled, well dressed, riding a nice horse. Alison is a sort of distillation of the work’s chief novelistic qualities, its realism and its immediacy. As she speaks, you can almost feel her breath on your neck. And it’s not just medieval life she’s talking about. Her story is also a summary of much of the important literature available to people of the Middle Ages, the stories that taught them who they were. Alison is a whole syllabus of human wishes and grudges, blessings and curses—a Divine Comedy, a Metamorphoses, a Decameron, even. (She alludes to all of these sources.)
Her contribution, like that of almost all the pilgrims, is in two parts. First comes a prologue, in which the speaker, who has already been identified by what he or she does for a living, gives us a jumble of opinions and observations about this and that. Then the speaker narrates a tale, which may or may not be related to the prologue. Normally, the tale is the main event, but the Wife of Bath’s tale is dwarfed by the unstoppable monologue that precedes it, in which she tells us her views on marriage.
As she says at the outset, she is entitled to speak on this subject, because she’s had a lot of experience. Married first at the age of twelve, she has tied the knot five times so far. At the beginning, she liked her husbands old and feeble, so that, in gratitude for her youth and beauty, they would give her whatever she wanted, including their property—all of it, please. To show them what a prize they had won, she often scolded them, especially in bed: “I put them so to work, by my faith, / That many a night they sang, ‘Woe is me!’ ” (I’m quoting from the 1948 translation by Vincent F. Hopper, which helpfully puts the modern English version and Chaucer’s Middle English on alternating lines.) But she chided them everywhere else, too. “Sir old dotard,” she addresses one poor man. “Old barrel full of lies,” she calls another. “Jesus shorten your life!” she yells at a third. When Jesus answers her prayer, leaving her widowed for a fourth time, she does not wear widow’s weeds for long. As the coffin is being carried to the church, she can’t help lingering over the rear view of her neighbor Jenkin, who is one of the pallbearers:
Alison has a lot to say, and not all of it stands to reason. She interrupts herself, contradicts herself, then forgets what she was talking about, then—oops!—remembers and returns. Why do people say that a widow shouldn’t remarry? she asks. What do they think those things between our legs are for? To expel urine? To help people tell boy babies from girls? Or—an alternative she considers eventually—to enable us to procreate, as the Bible told us to? But why must we procreate? she asks. (She never mentions having any children.) What about using those organs just for our pleasure? she proposes.
Within a month of her fourth husband’s burial, Alison is married to Jenkin, the neighbor with the nice legs. This time, though, things are different, because she is now the one who’s in love, and therefore, as she sees it, she is operating at a disadvantage. She makes over to Jenkin all of her property, and she listens ruefully as he reads to her from a book he owns that tells stories of women’s wickedness: how Eve brought about Adam’s fall, how Delilah betrayed Samson to the Philistines, how Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War, how a certain man of ancient Rome, Latumius, told his friend Arrius that in his garden he had a tree on which all three of his wives, one by one, had hanged themselves, out of spite. (“O dear brother,” Arrius says, “give me a shoot of that blessed tree, / And it shall be planted in my garden!”)
Finally, one night, Alison has had enough. She jumps up from her seat, tears a handful of pages from Jenkin’s book, and socks him in the face so hard that he falls backward onto the hearth, where it seems a vigorous fire is burning. He escapes with his life, and, tit for tat, deals Alison a blow on the head that knocks her unconscious, so it seems. But soon she’s yelling at him again—for killing her. She asks for one last kiss before dying. All apologies, Jenkin leans down to oblige her, whereupon she socks him in the face once more. “Now will I die,” she announces. “I can talk no longer.” But, instead, they reach an agreement, and she comes out of it rather well:
“My own true wife,” he says, “Do as you please all the rest of your life.” “After that day,” Alison recalls, “we never had an argument.” So, in the end, she arrives at the same arrangement with Jenkin that she had had with her previous husbands. Well done, Alison!
That is the essence of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue: irreverent, triumphant, ribald, fun. At the same time, there are moments of real sadness. Describing Jenkin’s regular readings of his misogynist texts, Alison finally turns to her fellow-pilgrims and asks, Who can understand the pain that was in my heart? She loved him, and all he ever told her about women was that they should be disrespected, counted as nothing. They were resentful, horny, pushy, homicidal. As for Alison’s fight with Jenkin, Chaucer doesn’t let the violence turn into slapstick. Ever since he hit her on the head, Alison says, she has been deaf in the ear on that side. (Chaucer the proto-novelist doesn’t forget a detail like that: in the general prologue to the Tales, her slight deafness is the first thing he mentions about her.)
To anyone who knows anything about how literature is being studied in today’s universities, it should come as no surprise that the Wife of Bath has been of special interest to Chaucer scholars. She exemplifies the kind of woman—bossy, willful, sexy—that, we are often told, has excited hatred since literature began. In 2019, Marion Turner, a medieval-literature professor at Oxford, became the first woman to write a full-scale biography of the poet: “Chaucer: A European Life.” So several centuries had to pass, it seems, before a female scholar felt that she had the right to take on the man whom John Dryden called “the father of English poetry.” Now Turner has published a kind of spinoff: “The Wife of Bath: A Biography” (Princeton). Of course, the Wife of Bath is not a person but a fictional creation, so this biography is a history of a fictional character. Turner tells us where the Wife of Bath came from—in terms both of literary precursors and of actual women’s lives in Chaucer’s England—and then, once the character was hatched, where the idea of such a woman has gone in the course of English literature.
As Jenkin’s anthology suggests, there was plenty of flatly misogynist writing circulating in Chaucer’s time. For a start, there was Scripture—above all, St. Paul (mentioned by the Wife of Bath), whose reputed declaration that women should not be allowed to speak in church lies behind the Roman Catholic ban on female priests. Or St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin and who, according to a pair of scholars who have reconstructed the contents of Jenkin’s book, was “animated by a nearly neurotic horror of female sexuality.” But Chaucer’s most important source for the Wife of Bath was not Scripture but a very popular thirteenth-century poem, “The Romance of the Rose,” written in Old French. This is a strange composition, the work of two poets of whom not much is known. The first part of it, an allegory of love, is by one Guillaume de Lorris. The poem was then completed by Jean de Meun, who seems to have been a very different character—brash, abrasive, anti-clerical. Jean’s half featured a personage called La Vielle (the old woman), who, Turner observes, has much in common with the Wife of Bath: she is a sexually experienced woman who “instructs a young man in the arts of love and lays bare the wiles of women.” She also resembles the Wife in having a sense of self: “She looks at her past, she tells us about her experiences, she confesses.” But, unlike the Wife of Bath, she is a flatly misogynist creation, a prostitute turned procuress and just the kind of cynical old crone who might appear in Jenkin’s book. Although both women arguably see the union between a man and a woman as a negotiation, La Vielle is grimly transactional, lacking the Wife of Bath’s wit and warmth, her capacity to keep believing in love.
Marion Turner writes from a feminist perspective, but she is not a presentist—the kind of person who faults the past for failing to live up to the standards, or some people’s standards, of the present. Still, any feminist scholar of the Middle Ages has to contend with pervasive (indeed, state- and church-sponsored) misogyny. How, without special pleading, can we account for the fact that the fourteenth century, such a dark time for women, produced a blossom as colorful and funny and full of feeling as the Wife of Bath’s Prologue? By assembling evidence that the period wasn’t necessarily such a dark time for women, after all.
For one thing, many of these women, Turner says, had money of their own. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, inheritance laws across England evolved, enabling women to claim a greater share of the property of their deceased husbands. Life being short in those days, and girls so often being married off to much older men, such reforms redirected a lot of money to women, including women with most of their lives ahead of them. The Wife of Bath says that she inherited all the property of her first four husbands. This would have made her a very attractive remarriage prospect. Only briefly, befuddled by love for Jenkin, does she make the mistake of losing control of her property, and she soon finds a way to correct her error, going on to survive Jenkin, even though he was twenty years younger than she.