Mary: Hello. You're listening to the LRB podcast, and welcome to the third episode in a series of Close Readings, looking at the lives and voices of women in medieval literature. I'm Mary Wellesley, a contributor to the LRB, and I'm joined for this series by Irina Dumitrescu, also an LRB contributor, who teaches medieval English literature at the University of Bonn. This week, we're discussing a sexually voracious professional widow, a stealth preacher, a vivid storyteller, a teacher of love. We are, of course, talking about Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Irina, shall we start with the question ‘who is the Wife of Bath?’
Irina: I think it's fair to say that Alisoun of Bath is Chaucer's best known character. Not always best loved, but by many also best loved. She's a figure in the Canterbury Tales, introduced along with the other pilgrims in the General Prologue. And she seems to be a woman who has lived a great deal. She's a professional cloth maker, a quite successful one. She has had five husbands, possibly other lovers as well, depending on how you read the lines of the Middle English. And she has travelled widely, she's been to Jerusalem three times and on various other pilgrimages to Rome, Cologne, Bologna, and so on. She's also a jokester, an extrovert, someone who knows the remedies of love. So she's already a playful figure right at the beginning of our acquaintance with her.
Mary: And where does she fit into the Canterbury Tales generally? Can you just say something about what the Canterbury Tales is?
Irina: The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s unfinished magnum opus, a story collection inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, but which Chaucer never quite completed. And the characters are pilgrims from every walk of life. There's a prioress, there's a knight, there's a pardoner, a nun's priest, a cook, and also the Wife of Bath, who is an ordinary middle-class woman. And the idea is that they're in a storytelling contest, and they're going to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two stories on the way back, and at the end the person who told the very best tale will get a free meal.
Mary: But we never hear both stories, and many of the pilgrims who are named in what's now editorially titled the General Prologue don't actually end up telling a tale, so the poem is a bit of a headache for editors. But I think what's interesting about the Wife of Bath is that she's one of the very few female characters in the poem.
Irina: Yes, she is. And she's also not a religious figure. Even though she goes on pilgrimages, she's living an absolutely secular life. Her main two occupations seem to be making cloth and marrying.
Mary: Yes. The marrying seems to be more important in her life than the making cloth. The making cloth is a kind of sideshow.
Irina: Well, I think that's what gets us into what's so tricky about her, and also what makes her so alive in many ways. We learn a lot about her because she has the longest prologue out of all of the pilgrims. So whereas most of the pilgrims have a pretty short prologue and then they launch into a tale, when it comes to Alisoun she has about nine hundred lines to talk about herself and her life and her opinions and her experiences. And then she tells a short tale at the end of that. So we can get a little bit of a sense of who she is and what she's lived. But it's highly crafted, and it's not necessarily quite the confession that it seems to be at first glance.
Mary: I think what's a little bit confusing about it is that on one level it's fantastic that here we have this woman who is a secular figure, who is describing her emotions, who is speaking so freely, so amusingly, so wittily with these brilliant digressions and this wonderful colloquial tone. And yet what she describes is really a tissue of anti-feminist stereotypes about women. We have this image of a woman who is vain, who is deceitful, who's sometimes sexually voracious, but sometimes appears to withhold sex. She doesn't come across as a very nice figure. And yet what's interesting is she’s such a popular character, she's really entered the popular imagination in a way that no other character from the Canterbury Tales has and no other character created by Chaucer has.
Irina: Well, I think the reason for that is that she has such a powerful voice. Every time I read the first line of her prologue, ‘experience and no authority is what gives me the right to speak of the woe that is in marriage’, it resonates, it somehow jumps off the page louder than any other character in Chaucer. And maybe it would be good to just go over a little bit of what she actually describes in this tale. She begins almost like a preacher to take on a very important question in Christianity, which is how do you live the perfect life? In her case the most important question is, should you be a virgin or not? Well, after five husbands and perhaps a little something on the side, she's clearly not a virgin any more! That ship has sailed. But that introduces the second question, which I think in the Middle Ages was an important and vital one for so many people, which was how do you live with yourself when you know you can't be perfect? You're not going to be the person who gives all of your wealth to the poor and lives the ascetic life. You're not going to lock yourself up in a little cell like an anchorite, like Julian of Norwich from the last episode. You have your family and your desires and your needs and your business and your living in the world. Well, what does that make you? Does that make you a nothing? Does that make you absolutely worthless, or can you find some value in that kind of life? So she's going through these questions at the beginning of her prologue, discussing the debate on virginity. Everybody knows virgins are perfect. They're the closest to God. They're gold! That's the best thing you can be is a virgin. But maybe you can be good leading a sexual life as well. Maybe you're not as good, you're not as exquisite and perfect and ideal, but you're good enough.
Mary: Right. But I think one of the things that's tricky is that on one level the Wife appears very learned because she marshals up all of these sources to support her argument, but she's really cherry picking the material. And she's using these alongside this experience that she talks about in the opening line as having been this thing that gives her license to preach. But it's unclear whether that makes her seem a more authoritative figure or not. Or does she just seem like a bit of a caricature, somebody slightly idiotic?
Irina: Well, I have strong opinions about this, Mary! She plays a lot on the word glosen, or ‘glossing’. Glossing is something that men do. It's something that educated men do with difficult texts. They explain those difficult texts. But if you look at Middle English glosen, it also means to explain in a way that's false or deceitful, it also means to flatter, to seduce someone. And I think the word ‘gloss’ wouldn't have taken on those meanings if there wasn't a sense that glossing is already something that can be potentially deceitful. When people explain older texts, they're always explaining them to their own ends. It's never a purely scientific or detached process. So I think what she's doing reading ancient texts, reading the Bible especially, reading scripture and using it to prove that married life is still valuable and is still good in its way, that's exactly what a man would have done as well. Absolutely educated, literate, university trained man. But modern scholars come along and they're dealing with a woman, and they see that she twists the evidence and they say, well, this is a woman's way of dealing with texts. Men did the same thing. That's why ‘gloss’ means also deceit.
Mary: And Chaucer did the same thing. So in Troilus and Criseyde there’s this wonderful moment when Chaucer throughout that poem talks constantly about his sources, and he uses this as a little shield to hide behind. If the readers or the audience are offended by what they read in this poem, I'm sorry, I'm just copying my sources. And then he cites this source, Lollius, and no one has ever been able to establish whether this Lollius is just some kind of writer whose work has completely disappeared from the face of the earth, or is this Chaucer just being quite playful with this citationary tendency that perhaps he detects in other poets of the period. And actually he thinks citing sources is a bit silly. And so perhaps the Wife is doing the same thing. She's drawing attention to this process of deriving authority from written sources. So much of the Canterbury Tales itself is about the drama of interpretation. One of the engines of this poem is the way – and we see this particularly in the Wife's prologue – the pilgrims are fighting with each other, they're interrupting, they’re interjecting. And throughout the prologue we have these other characters interrupting her and saying, well, I'm not sure I see it this way. So there's a real sense that Chaucer is alive to the possibilities of these differing interpretations.
Irina: Well, I'm glad you pointed out the fact that there's an audience there, this is very much a performance. And there's this part in her prologue where Alisoun talks about how she likes to go to weddings and preachings and plays. You get a sense that this is someone who likes to go to shows. She would have been on Broadway with a season ticket if she had lived in New York! So she's someone who's very aware that she's performing for others. And she says at one point – this is a line that I'm always coming back to – my intention is only to play. I think that's the giveaway. She knows she's playing with language, with her own story, with ideas, with all of these terrible misogynistic proverbs that are part of the literary tradition of the time. She's going to play with them, and she's going to play with them for the amusement of the pilgrims.
Mary: Yes. So there's constantly this internal and external audience, the external audience being the readers or listeners of this poem, and then the internal audience. And that's wonderful in the way that Chaucer is writing in this very layered way, knowing that we are experiencing it through these several removes.
Irina: It's like a rose, really, with all of these petals where you feel like you're never quite getting to the centre, because she also presents herself as someone who can be quite tricky. And early on in her story of her life, after she's got through this question of virginity and perfection and the married life, she describes her marriages. And she starts with the first three marriages in which she was quite young and she married rich old men. Which is a good business move, if you're gathering capital, to marry rich old men! And she basically pictures herself as giving advice to young women about how to manipulate their husbands. So you have to imagine Chaucer's audience, and then imagine the Canterbury pilgrims figuratively, and now we're imagining her performing the wise old woman for younger women who have to learn how to manipulate their husbands. And the way to manipulate your husband is to tell him that when he was drunk, he said all kinds of awful things to you, sexist things, that he accused you of cheating, that he accused you of walking around outside in the town and getting into trouble. And the men feel so bad that they do what she wants, which is give her their money. But her point is they never actually said any of these things. She just managed to convince them that they had, when inebriated, been absolutely terrible to her. It's some of the most complex gaslighting I've ever encountered! And she presents that as working quite well for her, that she can manipulate them. The only bad part is that every now and then she does have to have sex with them. On the one hand she presents herself as sexually available and unquenchable in a certain sense, but she also seems to not have that much pleasure in her older husbands. She says ‘in bacon, I never had any delight.’ So the old meat was never really her thing, but she would hold out as long as possible until she got money and then she would suffer them to do what they needed to do.
Mary: So should we see the Wife as this somewhat unpleasant manipulator or a very shrewd operator who's gaming a patriarchal system and making it work for her as best she can? She's clearly a highly subversive figure who is drawing attention to the oppressive structures that she lives within. And so is she some kind of wonderful trailblazing proto-feminist activist, or is she just a straight-up unpleasant person?
Irina: Well, I think it's always a mistake to try to look for someone who's feminist by today's standards in the past. I think we would have trouble even looking in the 1980s or one decade ago and finding someone was perfectly feminist by today's past. She's someone who's already rejected perfection. She's not going to be anyone's perfect model of anything. Her glory is in all her flaws. That's where it lies. And she's declared that to us at the beginning. But I think what makes her a sympathetic figure is that she then goes on to have two other relationships, which are also quite different from the first three. In the fourth marriage she has a quite cruel husband who really is a drunkard, who really does cheat on her, who really does all of the things that the other men didn't do but she convinced them that they did. And she's quite cold about the way she describes him.
And there's a sense – perhaps this is something I'm imagining – but every time I read these lines, I feel that there's a sense of hurt there that's almost simmering below the words. She says that he died when she came back from a pilgrimage and she buried him in a simple grave, and she hopes that he goes straight to paradise because she made his life just as much of a purgatory as he did hers. So there's a sense of real pain there. And then she marries a much younger man, Jankyn, who’s hinted at earlier in the story having particularly nice legs!
Mary: Yes, we should briefly talk about this. There's this wonderful moment when she sees Jankyn in fact at the funeral of her fourth husband, and she looks at him, and she says what wonderful...
Irina: From behind!
Mary: From behind, and she says, what cracking legs he has. And it's just such a wonderful moment.
As help me God, whan that I saw him go
After the beere, me thoughte he hadde a paire
Of legges and of feet so clene and faire
That al myn herte I yaf unto his hoold.
He was, I trouwe, twenty winter oold,
And I was fourty, if I shall seye sooth;
But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth.
So she's saying, as help me God, when I saw him go after the bier – so she's, ironically, watching him walk behind the funeral bier of her previous husband – I thought he had a pair of legs and feet 'so clene and faire'. 'Clene' there could mean clean, but it could also mean good and pure and wonderful. 'That al myn herte I yaf unto his hoold'. So I wanted to give all myself, all of my heart for him to hold. And then she says this lovely aside: and he was only twenty and I was forty, but as I shall say, I had always 'a coltes tooth'. So I had always a youthful appetite, 'gat-tothed I was and that bicam me weel'. And being gap-toothed was a sign of lustiness.
Irina: Oh, but Mary, I just love the next bit. You really get a sense of her.
I hadde the prente of Seinte Venus seel.
As help me God, I was a lusty oon,
And faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon,
And trewely as myne housbondes tolde me,
I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be.
So, ‘I had the print of St.Venus's seal.’ You get the sense she's not worshipping Christian saints, for her Venus is her patron Saint. And ‘God help me, I was a lusty one, fair, rich young, well dispositioned. And as my husbands told me, I had the best genitalia that may be.’ She says ‘truly’ and ‘forsooth’ a lot, so I think that's also a good sign that she's lying sometimes! But I think that's also a sense of the life that's in this figure. As much as she's based on a woman in the Romance of the Rose – she has all kinds of textual predecessors – I think we still want to see her as a creature who Chaucer really wanted to bring to life for us. And who's proud of her vagina, of her sexuality, of her body. At the beginning, she talks at great length about how marriage and sex are maybe not as perfect as virginity, but kind of OK anyway, but you get the sense over the course of her prologue, no, she's actually proud of these things. She's proud of her erotic life her lust, her desire. So she marries this young man who's a student, who spends his time... on the one hand is great at sex and they have a wonderful time. He can glose her really well, he can gloss her very well and he's very fresh in bed, and you get a sense that she's actually really enjoying sex for the first time as opposed to using it as a tool, as an instrument. She actually talks about her genitals as her instrument. But with Jankyn it's different, there's real passion there. But he also has this annoying habit of reading from a book of anti-feminist literature and just hammering her with all of these proverbs and these stories about how terrible women are and how much they betray men, like Delilah betrayed Samson, and how they have to be controlled. And you get the sense that this is actually something that's quite hurtful to her. She describes her own pain in listening to him go on and on out of this book.
Mary: And then what's really wonderful is you sense her real hatred of this book and the physical book itself, not just the text. And then there's this really wonderful moment where she decides to rip some pages out of the book and then they get into this fight and he punches her on the ear, and she then becomes deaf as a result of this punch. And here this relationship between the spoken word and the written word and the relative authority of those two forms of discourse is really realised in this really quite violent, quite disturbing episode. There's this domestic violence that leaves her permanently scarred.
Irina: Although, Mary, can I just point out she does actually throw out the first punch. Just to be absolutely fair to the situation. The marriage is abusive in both directions at this moment. She rips out the three pages from the book and then she punches him and he punches her right back and she falls to the ground and says, I'm dead, you've killed me. And then he feels really bad for her and they make up and he gives her control of everything again. People talk about her deafness as being a symbol for how she doesn't understand scripture. Again, I focus on the pain of that, and I think that is she someone who is marked by life. But maybe she also doesn't have to hear him spouting all of this anti-feminist stuff all of the time. Maybe she gets spared the misogynist rants. But I never quite liked this reading in which her deafness is a symbol of how she doesn't understand things. I think she understands things quite well, both in the texts we assume she hears... scholars tend to assume that the reason she knows all of the scripture and all of these classical texts is that she actually learned them from Jankyn or she heard them from Jankyn. Maybe that's reading too much into the character, but it's possible that if she knows literature, she knows it through hearing. So then in that sense, the deafness might be a little bit symbolic, but I reject that. I think she understands quite well, whether she has a disability or not.
Mary: I think it's important to say that the sheer range of her references is impressive in itself. Although as I said she's cherry picking from her sources, nonetheless there's an impressive range of them. So on one level, she's a very well-educated figure, as much as perhaps she could be, because of course, the question is how did she have access to these texts? And there's something sad and a little bit troubling that her only her access to it is mediated through this abusive husband, potentially.
Irina: Well, in that moment that's when I wonder if it's worth really reading the character as a realistic character. I think she's a kind of Chaucerian performance which has elements which really feel like a real person, and other moments which feel like reading a book, a treatise in a book. So there's a bit at the end where she talks about all the things Jankyn reads to her. That is a quite a bookish section. I'm not sure any person would really talk that way outside of a text or a university.
Mary: Well, Chaucer is very interested in the way in which a text can often in its physical sense as literally a manuscript or as the story of a text can be this wonderful springboard into a whole new imaginative fictive fantasy world. So several of the dream visions begin with Chaucer falling asleep. Or not Chaucer, but they begin with a narrator who’s somehow identified with Chaucer falling asleep reading a particular text, and then having this extraordinary dream. So the Parliament of Fowles begins with him reading this standard work on medieval dream theory, the Dream of Scipio. And then he enters into this strange fantasy world where he sees these birds gathering together, trying to choose their mate for the year. But the sense that the written text can offer these extraordinary imaginative possibilities... so there's something interesting about the way here within this imaginative frame we have these texts interleaved within this other text.
Irina: I like that. And I think what always strikes me about Alisoun of Bath is that she's so physical. She's very much someone who gives you a sense of her body, partly because she talks about it a lot. The number of ways that she refers to her instrument, it's her quoniam, her belle chose, that’s my favourite. She actually describes her genitals at one point as being like a candle that can give off as much fire as possible without ever being quenched, which I think is a figure for the female orgasm. She's basically saying to her early husbands, look, I can have sex with other men because there will still be enough for you. And you would be quite selfish to not offer someone fire from your candle. You would still have as much light, and you can still have as much pleasure from my body if other men have pleasure too. So you get this extremely powerful sense of her own body, but she also has all of these physical metaphors which I think maybe fit with her femininity, the sense that she's in a household. She has this other beautiful passage where she's talking about virginity versus the married life or the imperfect life, and I’ll just read a short passage.
For wel ye knowe, a lord in his houshold
He hath nat every vessel al of gold;
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servyse.
So, a lord in his household doesn't have every vessel made of gold, some are made of wood, but they still do their lord service. And I think that's her point. Look, not everything can be gold. The practical, basic, simple stuff is just as useful. But you're thinking of her body, right? Her whole soul and her body are like wood that's a vessel that does her lord, in this case God, service.
Mary: Yes. And throughout the prologue we have, as you say, this vivid sense of her own body. We hear about the gap in her teeth and we hear about this birthmark that she has, and then there's a bit of a wink to the reader, I've got another one somewhere else, which I can’t tell you about! And also in what is editorially titled the General Prologue, at the beginning we have this very vivid description of her broad hips and the clothing that she's wearing. She's a very – pun intended – fleshed-out figure here, much more perhaps than some of the other characters in the Canterbury Tales.
Irina: I think that's what makes her seem so real in certain ways, that you can actually really picture her, you're invited to focus on different parts of her body and think about them. And by the end you feel that you know her, although it's a little bit of a trick! You don't actually know her, you know a certain performance that she's put on.
Mary: Yes. I think that's often the thing I wonder about with the Wife of Bath. Is she a real character or, as you say, is she just this tissue of tropes about women? And I think it's interesting that Chaucer so frequently uses these animal metaphors in the prologue. So we have this image of the cat with its skin that's been singed. She talks about biting and whinnying like a horse. She talks about how wives leap on their husbands like spaniels. And then in another of the tales, in the Miller's Tale, Alisoun (another Alisoun) is described as being like a little weasel, having this sleek body and this soft, sexy fur. So it's clear that Chaucer is using these animal images to make us think about the female body. But also to make us feel that women are base and bestial, that they're lower than men, that they should really only be seen as animals.
Irina: I think you could read that in two ways. The Wife of Bath also uses the animals to convey proverbial wisdom. So at one point she says, I don't take any store by a mouse that has only one hole to run to. She means you should have another man ready. You should have another husband ready, another opportunity, another way to be financially certain and safe. But she conveys that with a very simple animal proverb. At another point she talks about how you can't lure a hawk with an empty hand, you have to be willing to give something. And I tend to think that's a way of opposing a sort of folk wisdom, a practical folk wisdom against these elaborate textual proverbs and stories of the written tradition. So in that sense, I think on the one hand she does seem animalistic, but on the other hand she also seems practical. A mouse has to survive. A hawk has to eat. She's always reminding us this is what experience is really like for most people. It's about survival, and she's interested in survival. She's not interested in perfection or living up to what's required of her in a text.
Mary: So, Irina, let's talk a little bit about the tale. One of the things to perhaps say at this point is if you had heard or read the Wife’s prologue at this point, you are probably expecting her to tell an earthy colloquial story, perhaps one that involves what scholars term a medieval fablieau, something that probably involves sex, some kind of bed trick, something perhaps like the Reeve’s Tale or the Miller’s Tale. And what the Wife tells is very much not in that vein. She tells a story about chivalry. It's set in the time of King Arthur, in this time when fairies filled the land. And it's a story about chivalry, about the dark underbelly of chivalry, and one of its major motifs is this concept of gentillesse, gentleness. I'm not quite sure how we would exactly gloss that today, but perhaps ‘chivalry’ or ‘gentility’.
Irina: Or ‘nobility’.
Mary: ‘Nobility’. Yes. Thank you, that's a much better gloss. And so already Chaucer is playing with our expectations, and that's something that we see in the Canterbury Tales generally. I think that's one of the great energies of the poem, that the Tales often don't quite seem to fit their tellers. And I always think it's one of Chaucer’s great jokes that the knight, who's right at the beginning, who's this noble character who we're expecting a real stonking story from, and it's kind of boring, the story! And some of the best stories, some of the stories that really stay with you for a long time and are troubling and interesting and you can't quite get them out of your head, those stories are told by basically the lowest class characters, often. So Chaucer is already playing with your expectation. So can you just tell us a little bit about what the tale is that she tells?
Irina: Yes. So it's a bit disturbing to me. I think it's hard to read it and not be disturbed to some extent by it. It begins with a knight, a noble knight, who finds a maiden unguarded and rapes her. And the next part is unusual. He's actually taken to trial for it. He's taken to Arthur's court and he's condemned to death. So that's the surprise, that he's actually punished, sentenced and punished for his crime. And he is then given over to the queen and her ladies for judgment. They basically commute his sentence and they give him the opportunity to save his own life by finding out what women really want, and he has a year to do this. And this is a trope. We find this in a number of other medieval stories, this little story about a knight who has to figure out what women want and needs to do it within a year. But I think it's most powerful in Chaucer’s version because it's preceded by a rape. This is someone who did not care what women wanted. He did not care about women's consent or women's personhood. And suddenly he finds himself being adjudicated by a group of women, a group of noble women who are giving him a second chance to live.
Mary: By the way, when I was rereading this yesterday, there’s this amazing bit when she says, oh, we’ll delay your death for a year if you can find out what women want. And he's like, oh God, maybe I'd rather die. It's like so weird. He actually pauses and thinks about whether he'd like to be killed now or whether he's actually going to go on this quest.
Irina: So he goes around and interviews lots of women. And again we have stereotypes, some want to be flattered and some want to look good and so on. And he doesn't find the answer because every woman says something different. He runs across an old woman. And she offers to save him because she will give him the answer. And they go to court, and he can report there that what women want most is to have sovereignty, to have power over their husband and their love and to have mastery of him. So women want power. I think implied in that is also that women want power over themselves, because usually the husband would be the more powerful partner. All good, except that he's made a promise to this old lady that he will fulfil her wish. And after his life is saved, she says, OK, now I want you to marry me. He doesn't want to, he's horrified by it. He's disgusted by her old body, by her poverty. And he's now in the position of having to do something he doesn't want to do, like his victim at the beginning of the story, but he's forced to marry her. They do it in secret because he's so ashamed. And the final part of the story is a bedroom scene in which she is basically, in the most learned terms – learned in philosophical terms – trying to convince him to have sex with her despite his disgust at who she is or who he thinks she is by convincing him that he's better off with an old poor woman.
Mary: Yes. And then she delivers this extraordinary kind of sermon, I suppose. Here the structure of the prologue and the tale is almost like a sort of Russian doll structure. Within each layer there's this little moral and a little sermon inside each layer. She asks him to think about the nature of gentillesse, nobility, and she says to him, if you're truly noble then you will accept me for what I am.
Irina: And she also argues for her age, because if he had a really young wife, then he'd have to worry about her being chased by all kinds of men. Whereas he knows that an old wife will be true to him. And that's a little bit of a question if this young man is mature enough to appreciate that!
Mary: Yes. And she poses him this question. She says, would you rather that I am old and always faithful to you, or that I am young and hot but I am unfaithful? And then it's quite interesting. His response is, well, what would you prefer?
Irina: Yes. And I think that's the interesting part, where he seems to have learned the lesson that he can't actually choose what she will do with her own body. And then we get this happy ending, which is a little bit... we could talk about how we feel about the happy ending, where she says, ‘cast up the curtain, look how that it is’. We imagine that they're in a canopy bed together and they're in the dark and he pulls up the curtain, light streams in, and he sees that she's young and beautiful. And she stays that way and they have mutually satisfying marital relations and live happily ever after. Mary, how do you feel about this ending?
Mary: Yes. And it says that she submits. It says
His herte bathed in a bath of blisse.
A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hire kisse,
And she obeyed hym in every thyng
That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng.
So she obeys him in every possible way. What do we feel about this, Irina?
Irina: Mary, I asked you first!
Mary: I find this a very troubling story, because it seems to be saying that a rapist, even though he does go through this process of transformation, it's not a total transformation. And what he gets in the end is this hot young wife who obeys him. And then right at the very end, the Wife has this final couplet where she says, I begrudge husbands who won't be governed by their wives. So it's weird. She's torpedoing the seeming moral of the tale she's just told. I don't feel that this tale warms my feminist heart.
Irina: I've always had problems with the tale as well. But the last time I taught it, I came to see it a little bit differently, partly through conversation with students. And it's a troubling tale if you want the rapist to be punished. It could just end with his punishment and then he would get his just deserts, but that's a certain kind of justice that that would imply, that the punishment is the resolution, is the justice. And I think you can also read this story as a story about restorative justice. He has to understand why what he did was wrong and he has to make it right. So he really has to spend a year listening to women. He actually has to go around asking women what they want. And that was the question that he failed to ask when he raped this maiden at the beginning of the story, he was not capable of asking a woman what she wanted and listening to her, and having her answer matter. So I think there's a certain elegance to the fact that a female court, a court of the queen and her ladies give him a punishment which will force him to learn why what he did was wrong. And maybe that's a fantasy. Maybe it's a fantasy even today. And I think the Wife knows that to some extent. She talks at the beginning of the tale about how succubi or incubi and fairies and so on used to threaten women on lonely paths, but now it's friars who do that. So there's a sense that women have always been threatened and continue to be threatened by men who do not see them as people, who do shame to them or dishonour to them. So I think there's a little bit of fantasy that the justice works, that the punishment works, that he learns how to listen to women and how to give them mastery over their own body. But I think as a fantasy it's an interesting one, because it's proposing a different understanding of what justice could look like.
Mary: I suppose I just feel like it is in fairyland, whether it's the Wife or whether it's Chaucer that seems to be saying this could never actually happen. And there's a terrifying moment when the old hag says that she wants to marry the knight and he's horrified, and he says, let my body go. And it sounds so like the words of a woman whose body is being taken by force.
Irina: But that's where I think he experiences what it's like to have sex expected of him when he hasn't really consented, when it hasn't been free consent. What I find disturbing is the fact that the young woman at the beginning is never heard from again. And sometimes I try to read the story in a way that upsets me less, and I like to imagine that maybe the old woman at the end and the young woman are actually the same, that because she is a fairy, she is a shapeshifter, that could be the case. But of course there's no actual evidence for that. There is a sense that his first victim really is just silenced. So it's not a fantasy of justice without loss or justice without pain. But I think that fits with Alisoun of Bath because she has her deafness from this fight with her husband, even though they live happily ever after too, after their fight, she's still scarred by it. There's still a sense that her experience has left scars on her body, scars on her soul. She's not untouched by it.
Mary: But for the knight it all works out perfectly, and he gets this beautiful young wife and she obeys him in everything. And how does it work out for Alisoun?
Irina: Well, that depends what you think the relationship of the story is to her. I tend to think of it as a little bit of a dream on her part to this idea of transformation. I think on the one hand the idea that men can learn, that's a dream. But also the idea that you can be old and poor and disgusting in the eyes of men, and yet still somehow transform into something, into a woman that they find appealing and are delighted to be with. She mourns at one point in her prologue her old age, that she used to be young and beautiful, that she used to sing well and dance, and get drunk and get all lusty because of the alcohol and so on. There's a sense of wistfulness about the way she looks back on her youth and the energy and beauty she enjoyed. I don't think she’s really fully lost it in the present of the text either, but you do get the sense of her nostalgia about who she is, and maybe a longing to still be seen as the woman that she still feels like inside. I think – can I say this? – I think it's perverse if I say at the age of forty I feel younger than I am because I know other people tell me I’m quite young, but I do think there is this feeling. I’ve talked to others as well, other women who say they do not feel that they are the age they are inside, they are still young and the outside is a surprise. So I wonder if that's also part of the dream or the fantasy of the tale, that you can actually be perceived as the young, energetic, passionate, life-loving person you still feel like on the inside, that other people could see you that way.
Mary: Yes. I suppose I just think that the whole tale is something of a fantasy. Right at the beginning, it's the queen who intervenes. And of course there were well recognised historical moments in which queens would intercede on behalf of somebody who was condemned to death, perhaps, and women did have this public sort of diplomatic quasi-intercessory role. But it still seems to be this fantasy that the women get to decide the fate of this man. And it seems to be all part of this ridiculous fantasy in, oh well, imagine in fairyland, the women get to decide what happens.
Irina: But I think that's how we should understand it. And the thing about Alisoun – and this is where I think she really is beautifully constructed as a character – is that she is not beyond manipulatively using her dreams. And the dreams are never easy to interpret. There's a passage – which it's not a hundred percent certain that it is by Chaucer, it may have been added later, it's certainly not in the earliest manuscript, but it's also possible that he's the author of it, and I like to think so because it has this psychological depth that I associate with Chaucer – in which Alisoun seduces her fifth husband, the young Jankyn, by telling him that she had a dream in which he attempted to kill her. And she was lying in bed covered in blood. But the blood was a symbol of gold. And so it's actually a positive dream. And that – maybe it's wishful thinking – I think the reason why I like the idea of this being by Chaucer and being part of his vision for Alisoun of Bath is that that's precisely the kind of seduction she would employ. It's not a simple seduction. It's not ‘I dreamed that we lived happily ever after’, she’s speaking to something quite dark in him. She's speaking to a perhaps sadistic desire, a sense of power, a sense of vulnerability on her part, which turns out to be true. It’s wonderfully ripe for Freudian interpretation, as is the tale she tells afterwards. So I do think Chaucer was moving towards a figure who perhaps only manipulatively gives these glimpses of herself and her inner life and her fantasy life which are disturbing, which aren't easy to take and which have a masochistic element that certainly doesn't fit neatly into Alisoun of Bath as the empowered businesswoman who has managed to gain authority through her marriages.
There's always, I think with her, a sense of vulnerability and almost a sense of loss of control or potential loss of control.
Mary: Yes. And I think much of what's interesting about that episode is the fact that Chaucer is dramatising here as elsewhere throughout the prologue, and indeed the tale, the drama of interpretation. Having a dream in which he tries to kill her and the bed is covered in blood, you could definitely read that in a different way. You could definitely not see that as some kind of good omen where the blood symbolises gold. There's this really wonderful passage when Alisoun is talking about the book that Jankyn has, the so-called book of wicked wives. And she says if women wrote more texts then they would be described differently in these authoritative sources. So Alisoun is reflecting on this book of wicked wives that Jankyn reads. And she says, is it impossible to read about noble women and virtuous women, except in the stories of holy saints? (Which is rather interesting in the context of our first episode.) And then she says in this wonderful moment,
Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.
So she's saying if women had written more stories, as clerks have sitting in their oratories, they would have written more of the wickedness of men. And the question at the beginning, who painted the lion, tell me who, she's referring there to this story in one of Aesop's fables where a lion is shown an image of a man fighting a lion and the man seems to be winning this fight. And the lion says, well, if that image had been painted by a lion, it would show a very different outcome. And it's this wonderful moment where she's drawing attention to the fact that men control textuality, they control authority. And indeed there would be a different way of reading the texts or interpreting the images in much the same way that she is herself, albeit in her rather selective cherry picking of the sources that she's referencing.
Irina: Part of the magic, I think, of Alisoun of Bath is that on the one hand she shows how differently the same textual evidence can be interpreted, or even the same event in real life can be interpreted. But partly she pulls her audiences, these various imagined audiences, but I think also real people later who have read Chaucer’s texts, into a guessing game. She makes you part of the glossing, she makes you part of this interpretation. And so you're wrapped up with her. That's her seduction. I think she seduces the readers in the same way that she seduces Jankyn by giving them a nut that's so hard to crack that they have to just keep trying! And this is the case with her fairytale too, with the story that she tells. It would be a mistake, I think, to expect a story with a really neat moral. First of all because it's Chaucer, and he doesn't tend to like that sort of thing. He tells complex stories that leave you talking about them and leave you thinking about them for a while, for some of us too long.
Mary: For centuries after!
Irina: But she does the same thing. And I think I see her as a bit of a stand in for Chaucer in that sense, that she’s a figure who plays with these things in the way that he does too. She's not going to give you an easy story, either about her own life and her own experience or about Arthurian days and the relationship between men and women and what the nature of justice is. She's always going to make it a little bit disturbing and a little bit itchy in a sense, so that you have to keep going back to her and try to scratch the itch. If you look at the Wife of Bath’s prologue, it's full of inconsistencies. One of the ways she argues for sexual life and for marriage is that – and this is not an argument original to her – but she says, well, if everyone were a virgin, where would you get more virgins? You need some people who aren't virgins to give birth to more babies who can then be virgins! And yet many scholars have pointed out with some concern that she never mentions having any children in all of these five marriages. Now it doesn't mean she didn't, maybe it's irrelevant to the point, but she also doesn't mention having any. So her argument is a little bit inconsistent there. She's presented as a cloth maker at the beginning, but she never talks about that work. She only talks about her sex work and her marriages. She doesn't talk about her pilgrimages really, other than mentioning that she likes to wander around and see things around town. So there are a lot of inconsistencies, which I think troubles readers if they want a really neat, understandable character. And I can see why then there's the desire to say she's not a real character, she's just a patchwork quilt of horrible stereotypes about how terrible women are. But we're all patchwork quilts of experience and stereotypes and ways that we might be a little more standard and basic than we expect, and behaviours that don't really make sense together and mysteries that remain veiled even to ourselves. So I think in that sense, and the fact that she doesn't really make sense, she's actually a very good character.
Mary: Yes, and this explains her incredible popularity and longevity as a character in the public imagination. John Dryden modernised her tale, Alexander Pope modernised the prologue, John Gay wrote a play about her. There are a whole load of ballads, one called the Wanton Wife of Bath. And even today you can just say ‘the Wife of Bath’ to people, particularly in the UK, and if they've read any Chaucer at school, it's invariably her. And in quite an ironic way she as a character has been stripped out of the context of the tales themselves, which is kind of ironic. And the interesting thing about Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is that it seems as though no manuscripts of the text date from his lifetime. There is one that possibly might date from his lifetime, but it's not completely clear. And so in a very real sense this poem is the product of predominantly its fifteenth-century scribes. And we see this trend in the fifteenth century across a huge number of manuscript witnesses. There were about 98 different versions of the poem in varying degrees of completeness, some of them only tiny fragments and some near complete copies of the text. It's a very problematic poem from an editor's perspective because there are different orderings of the tales, and not all the pilgrims tell tales. But also what's interesting is the way that in the fifteenth century scribes clearly wanted to reframe it and change this poem. Some of them took the tales out and put them in a completely different context, and sometimes they added these rather interesting glosses. And there's a fascinating manuscript in the Egerton collection in the British Library where the scribe appears to have added their own glosses. And what's so funny is the way the Wife talks constantly about the problems of glosen, to glosen up and down, and yet here this Egerton glossator is clearly horrified by the nonsense that the Wife is spouting and desperately tries to wrest control of the text back from her, and writes these often very anti-feminist scriptural references alongside the text as though he's trying to grab the microphone from the Wife.
Irina: One of the best known early modern ballads about her is called the Wanton Wife of Bath. And it's quite a fun ballad, because basically Alisoun dies, goes to heaven, knocks on the door and a variety of Old Testament and a few New Testament figures come out intending to tell her that she's too sinful to get in. And some of them do that. And with every single one of them, she points out something sinful they’ve done. Whether it's Mary Magdalene or Peter or any old figure from the Old Testament, it's really not hard. And only when Christ comes out does she beg for mercy. And he tells her she doesn't deserve it, and grants it to her anyway. And she gets to go into heaven. And I love that as a popular expression of her appeal, which is that no one is perfect. Every single person in heaven – well, in the scriptures at any rate – is also flawed. And she's the person who tells them to their face, you did this, you did that. You had multiple wives, you killed so-and-so, you denied Christ. She's willing to say it, she's willing to point it out, and she will recognise perfection when she sees it. But there's only one perfect person. Well, maybe Mary too. But in this tale, it's Christ. Christ is the only really perfect person. I think the audience there understood. They understood something about what's so powerful about her prologue. It's the same appeal of a figure like Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt, who we've talked about before. There's the sense experience tells you that being absolutely sinless is impossible. You can't do it. Maybe saints can, but they live in books. Real people can't! That's what experience tells you. But maybe you can get along anyway. Maybe you could do your lord service, maybe you can have a good life. Maybe it's good enough.
Mary: And such is the enigma of the Wife of Bath. Thank you so much, Irina.
Irina: Thank you, Mary.
Mary: Join us next time, when we'll be talking about late medieval England's most boisterous female mystic, Margery Kempe.