A Wife of Bath 'biography' brings a modern woman out of the Middle Ages
The Wife of Bath was dreamed up by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales more than 600 years ago. She has captured countless imaginations since.
The character known for her lusty appetites, gossipy asides and fondness for wine has influenced authors, artists and musicians over the century ranging from William Shakespeare to the Brazilian Tropicália composer Tom Zé's catchy song, "A Mulher de Bath."
"She's extreme, and she laughs at herself," explains Marion Turner, an English professor at Oxford University. "She's aware of when she's saying things that are outrageous."
In her new book, The Wife of Bath: A Biography, Turner argues that Chaucer's pilgrim, whose given name is Alison, is the first modern character in all of English literature. Chaucer gives her more to say than any other character. She has a sense of her own subjectivity, her faults and foibles. Alison seems — well, real.
"She has been married five times, she has worked in the cloth industry, she has traveled all over the known world at that time," Turner points out. Unlike the queens and witches who preceded her in English literature, Alison is not a flat allegorical figure. Her ordinariness makes her radical.
"She tells us about domestic abuse. She tells us about rape. She tells us about what it's like to live in a society where women are comprehensively silenced," Turner says.
It might seem strange to write a biography of a made-up character. But Turner, who previously wrote a well-regarded biography of Chaucer, puts the Wife of Bath in the context of actual women who found ways to prosper in the aftermath of the Black Death, which upended social norms and created new pathways for women to work and hold authority.
"It's astonishing," Turner marvels, "when you find out about women such as the 15th century duchess who marries four times, and her last husband was a teenager when she was 65. Or the woman in London who was twice Lady Mayoress and inherits huge amounts of money. Other London women who run businesses are skinners, blacksmiths, own ships!"
Business acumen aside, the Wife of Bath still draws readers in with her taste for sex. The horniest character in The Canterbury Tales helped inspire James Joyce's Molly Bloom and many more prurient portrayals, including in the early 17th century. Back then, ballads written about "the wanton Wife of Bath" were censored and the printers put in prison.
Still, Turner says, "probably the most misogynist response to her across time came in the 1970s," with a film adaptation of The Canterbury Tales by the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Hardly one to shy from sex, Pasolini's Wife of Bath is a predatory monster draped in scarlet, whose sexual appetites destroy a man she marries.
More recently, the character has been celebrated and re-interpreted by several prominent postcolonial writers. Novelist Zadie Smith wrote her first play based on the character. Upon its premiere in 2021, The Guardian called The Wife of Willesden, "a bawdy treat," and "a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that's 600 years old."
And it's impossible not to be moved by the late, pioneering dub poet Jean "Binta" Breeze's take on the character. She performed "The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market" on location in 2009.
All these iterations of the Wife of Bath help us understand not just our own dynamic world, but how the travels of this pilgrim have in some ways only just begun.
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