The Wife of Bath: how Chaucer's character gives a voice to medieval women
The 14th century was a time of great change in England – not least for women, who enjoyed more autonomy, work opportunities and wealth. Marion Turner explains what Chaucer’s outspoken Wife of Bath reveals about their lives and thoughts
The great 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer frequently shared the wisdom of others in his writing. In his poems, for example, he recommends Homer, Virgil and Ovid, admired authorities in medieval culture. One of his short, personal verses, though, recommends a less well-known counsel. In it, Chaucer advises – indeed, implores – his friend Sir Peter Bukton, when pondering a decision about marriage, to read the words of Alison, the Wife of Bath.
She was a peculiarly unlikely source of enlightenment – because she was a figment of his own imagination. The Wife is the only one of Chaucer’s characters in the Canterbury Tales whom he treats as an author in her own right. He takes her outside her own text, written in the late 14th century, and writes about this character as if she is a real person.
This act is particularly striking because, in her own Prologue, the Wife bewails the fact that women’s voices have not been heard throughout history. The reason why books say such terrible things about women, she declares, is that thus far they have all been written by men – specifically, by impotent old clerics. Fantasising about what would have happened “if wommen hadde writen stories”, she says they would have expounded so much about the “wickedness” of men that nobody would be able to refute them.
Chaucer is shaping a world in which a female voice can become influential, even authoritative – a novel idea in his cultural milieu. Listening to her voice, and those of her close contemporaries, opens a novel window onto the lived experiences of European women of the 14th century, and the challenges and opportunities that faced them in this period of great societal change.
The point made by Alison (also known as Alys) about the historical silencing of women has been restated by many other female characters and women authors across the centuries. Another medieval writer, Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430), describes her bewilderment on reading story upon story about women’s infamy, exclaiming that none of the women she knew behaved in this way. She also recounts being visited by allegorical female figures – Reason, Rectitude and Justice – exhorting her to redress the balance by writing about good women.
Throughout the centuries, many women have observed – through literature and other platforms – that those of their sex simply could not make their voices heard. An early voice in this chorus was the Wife of Bath, Chaucer’s most famous character among the travellers on his Canterbury pilgrimage.
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Who was the Wife of Bath?
Five times married, this middle-aged woman talks openly about sexual pleasure, friendships and her life experiences – and also about domestic abuse, the historical silencing of women, and rape. The story of her life is an economic tale: she is a working woman, with experience in the lucrative cloth trade, who has also profited through inheritance via her many husbands, who gave her “their land and their treasure”.
A vital character – and one whom most readers over the centuries have found extremely appealing – the Wife of Bath is given far more time to talk about her own life than are any of Chaucer’s other characters. Her Prologue (which spans 856 lines – nearly 700 more than the next most extensive) tells the story of her life in a long, confessional style. She emphasises, in the first line, the importance of her “experience” rather than traditional “authority”.
She is very funny – detailing, for instance, how she admired the legs of the pall-bearers at the funeral of her adulterous fourth husband. She also creates the illusion of absolute honesty as she openly admits her faults and her limitations. Repeatedly interrupted by clerics, she quells them (“ ‘Abyde!’ quod she”), asserting her own right to speak and continuing to tell a powerful and profoundly ethical story. Her tale is about rape and redemption, power and punishment, mystery and metamorphosis.
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Before the Wife of Bath erupted onto the literary scene, there was no space in English literature for ordinary women to speak. Female characters tended to be nuns or queens, princesses or witches, virgins or crones. Sexually active, middle-aged, working women were not given a voice – just as, until relatively recently, once women turned 40 they disappeared from news desks and Hollywood films alike. Though the Wife of Bath is “ordinary”, she is also extraordinary – an excessive, larger-than-life figure, constructed from many literary texts and sources but also shaped by her historical moment.
A “golden age” for women?
That moment was the later 14th century. The 100 years or so after the plague outbreak known as the Black Death (which reached England in 1348) has become known as a “golden age” for women: a time when they had more opportunities and rights – albeit in a world of dramatic inequality.
The years following the pandemic saw a dramatic drop in population, a surging economy and rising wages. In England, more jobs were available for women – whereas in other countries, such as Italy, the labour shortage was addressed by importing slaves from eastern Europe and beyond.
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Workers were in demand, so more people – including women – joined the workforce and were able to command high wages. The flourishing post-plague economy also gave women more opportunities to move to towns and to find work in them. This was an era in which workers had choices.
Working women in the records
Chaucer was born around 1342, a few years before the Black Death decimated European society. He wrote the Canterbury Tales from the late 1380s through the 1390s, before dying in 1400. So the Wife of Bath was born into a world of social mobility and change – a world in which (some) English women read books, had jobs and were protected by strong inheritance laws.
The medieval historical record tells us about many working women. We can read about the silkwomen who, in 1368, formed a kind of union to complain to Edward III about a male merchant who was price-fixing in London. And we learn of Matilda Penne, a skinner who ran her husband’s business after his death, who employed apprentices, and who in 1392 left a bequest to another working woman, Petronella the scribe.
The Wife of Bath was born into a world of social mobility and change – a world in which (some) English women read books and had jobs
The main inspiration for the Wife of Bath is La Vieille, a character depicted as an elderly bawd (retired prostitute or brothel madam) in the Old French allegorical poem Roman de la Rose (Story of the Rose). Many of Alison’s lines are direct translations of La Vieille’s, and the two characters are both older, sexually experienced, pragmatic women who “confess” their past lives in great detail.
In contrast with La Vieille, though, the Wife of Bath is a respectable, much-married woman; “Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve”, she reveals. Medieval women often married several times, and this would not have seemed strange to Chaucer’s audience. Indeed, his great-niece, Katherine Neville, was married four times – first to John Mowbray, who became Duke of Norfolk, and last to a teenage groom when she herself was 65 years old.
Trailblazing women in the Middle Ages
There are many examples of women from across the social spectrum who seized opportunities and made interesting, often surprising lives for themselves. One source who tells us about such lives is Margery Kempe, a married businesswoman and mystic who travelled around Europe and to the Holy Land, and who dictated a book about her experiences that is sometimes described as the first autobiography in English.
She spent time with another mystic, Julian of Norwich, and with Joan, countess of Westmorland, who was Chaucer’s niece and a cultural patron. Most interesting of the women Margery describes is her maid. This girl abandons her mistress, slipping off with the rest of the pilgrim group – who cannot bear Margery’s tendency to talk about God, and object to her vegetarianism.
We next meet the maid in Rome, where she has bettered herself to an astonishing extent. Having become cellarer at a major establishment, the English Hospice, she has a position of responsibility, in charge of the wine, and is living comfortably. Margery recounts that the girl is now living “in much wealth and prosperity”, and that she gives Margery food, drink and “some times a groat or two”.
Service and travel have offered a route to an improved social position and income for this young woman, who now gives charity to her former employer. Similarly, the Wife of Bath draws a picture of a female-centre household forming her community, often mentioning women including her “mayde”, her “chamberere” (chambermaid) and her “norice” (nurse).
Though most of us would not aspire to be maids today, in the 14th century service was a crucial part of the life-cycle for many people. It provided opportunities for girls to leave their father’s home, make their own money and retain more control over their sexual and economic destiny. As well as work, women could also benefit economically from inheritance.
Service was a crucial part of the life-cycle for many people. It provided opportunities for girls to leave their father’s home, make their own money and retain more control over their sexual and economic destiny
The inheritance laws of late medieval England made widows attractive marital prospects, and remarriage appealing for the widows them selves. By the second half of the 14th century, under the common law, a widow kept one third of her husband’s property for life (or half, if there were no children).
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Mercantile women tended to do even better. In London, for instance, in addition to the common law rights, a widow was also usually entitled to live in the marital home and keep one-third of her husband’s moveable goods (as well as property) for the rest of her life. Mercantile widows received a generous inheritance, and kept it even if they married again. (Inheritance rights were far weaker for women in most of the rest of Europe.)
The European Marriage Pattern
Historians and economists have coined the term European Marriage Pattern to describe a largely northern-European trend. In the societies that it describes, women had choices about whom to marry, tended to marry relatively late, had few children, and set up new households upon marriage rather than living in extended families with in-laws.
This evolved alongside significant participation in the labour force by women, and high levels of female numeracy and literacy. How did this situation come about?
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In earlier centuries, as the church became more involved in marriage practices, opinions about the foundations of marriage changed. The church increasingly emphasised the importance of both parties consenting to the marriage, with consummation as a secondary aspect. This weakened the power of girls’ fathers, in particular, and of patriarchy more generally.
The question of consent
The right of girls and women to give or withhold consent was a crucial step in allowing them to have autonomy over a range of life choices, and in removing them somewhat from parental authority. They were, nonetheless, at times coerced into marriage. Some protested in court and, because consent was a crucial legal principle, marriages could be annulled on the grounds of “force and fear”.
One Alice Townley reported that, even after Roger Talbot stripped her, threatened her with drowning, nearly strangled her and said he would stab her, she continued to refuse. “I will never consent to you for we are over near sybb [related],” she cried. Following this truly brutal series of events he did force her into marriage, but in 1477 she went to court to protest her situation – and won. The principle of consent did not save girls and women from appalling treatment, but it did give them some recourse under the law.
As children were not able to make marital choices, the emphasis on consent also encouraged later marriage. The northern European habit of neolocality – forming a new household away from parents and other family at the point of marriage – also tended to delay marriage, because men and women needed to earn money to provide for that household. And women were incentivised to work, both before and after their marriage, because they had rights to keep their money and property.
Women living independently
The Middle English poem How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter is based on the premise that the daughter is living independently and working for a living outside the family home. Her mother exhorts her not to go to the tavern or to wrestling matches. She also tells the younger woman that, if she meets a man that she likes, she should “show him to all your friends” and not go “to such a place where sin may be wrought”.
In northern Europe, where general patterns of female wage-earning, later marriage and fairer inheritance laws already existed, the Black Death acted as a catalyst for the expansion of the European Marriage Pattern. The dramatic drop in population (and, therefore, available workers) made entering the workforce, earning money and delaying marriage easier and more appealing for women. This marriage pattern became standard for all groups except for the very rich.
After the Black Death, the dramatic drop in population (and, therefore, available workers) made entering the workforce, earning money and delaying marriage easier and more appealing for women
These post-plague conditions had a host of knock-on effects. Couples tended to have fewer children, and focused more on educating and training those children. This enabled a shift from a more subsistence-level Malthusian society – one in which women had many children, most of whom died, and in whom the parents could not invest sufficient time and resources – to a more skilled and economically productive society.
Female empowerment and the industrial revolution
The European Marriage Pattern developed particularly strongly in England and the Low Countries (roughly speaking, what’s now Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Some economists have argued that this story of female empowerment ultimately led to economic growth and the industrial revolution. They suggest that places such as England and the Netherlands were able to profit from women’s work, and from the fact that parents had fewer children who were then brought up in wealthier, more supportive households.
Women’s surging economic power and independence radically changed the shape and future of their societies. This changing economic world, with its specific valuation of women’s labour and protection of their inheritance rights and their marriage choices, is a crucial context for the invention of the Wife of Bath and the foregrounding of women’s voices in literature.
At the same time, the Wife reminds us – as do many historical medieval women – that this was not a feminist utopia. She reveals the weight of medieval misogyny by telling us about the Book of Wicked Wives, a compendium of women-hating texts that her husband reads obsessively. This “cursed book”, as she terms it, is involved in a shocking scene of domestic abuse that leaves her deaf in one ear. As she tells us starkly: “I was beaten for a book.”
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The terrible effects of misogynist literature were also detailed by Chaucer’s contemporary, Christine de Pizan. Writing about the Roman de la Rose – which in places was deeply misogynistic – Christine recounts a tale of “an extremely jealous man who, whenever in the grip of passion, would go and find the book and read it to his wife; then he would become violent and strike her and say such horrible things as: ‘These are the kinds of tricks you pull on me.’”
Books provoked bodily trauma to women. Indeed, this context is crucial for understanding the Wife of Bath’s plea that women should be allowed to tell their own stories. Her own voice has been deeply influential across time. And, although the character was created by a man, she was invented at a time when more named female writers were emerging – Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan being just three examples. Doubtless, anonymous authorship cloaks many more female identities.
In the 14th century, women were taking on a plethora of new roles and seizing all kinds of opportunities. Their contributions to the economy laid the foundation for the development of north-western Europe, in particular. And the Wife of Bath reflects what was becoming possible in that era for a 40-something, economically independent woman who could assert her right to be heard. Alison’s voice has fascinated and obsessed readers and writers across time and around the world – and still echoes loudly today.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Marion Turner is a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford
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