[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt postedhere.]
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a potential medieval husband’s worst nightmare: this Canterbury Tales pilgrim is bawdy, aggressively forward with her sexuality, power-hungry, and perhaps most offensively of all, average looking, at best. So terrifying are her confessions of sexual manipulation, that the Pardoner even interupts her Prologue with claims that he is now questioning his own impending marriage: “I was about to wed a wife, alas! / Why should I pay so dearly for it with my flesh?” (166–67, my translation). The Wife of Bath appears to be perpetuating negative portrayals of women; at the same time, she also appears to be satirizing men’s fears and anxieties about their wives and, by extension, all of womankind. Her extremely colorful (read: dirty and borderline-absurdist) humor could render her possibly anti-feminist tendencies to be ironic, along with her ability to engage with clerical knowledge, refusal to conform to restrictive expectations of women’s sexuality, and, ultimately, her ability to gain sovereignty, have been cited by many scholars to argue that the Wife of Bath is a proto-feminist. And certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that she is—see, for instance, Jessica Ping’s “Big Reputation,” which argues for reading the Wife of Bath as a Taylor Swift–type, who is herself an extremely problematic figure for many modern feminists.
Regardless, for many modern readers, it can be difficult to fully distinguish these subversions of feminine expectations from a reading that understands her as a woman who fulfills all of the medieval man’s worst fears about women. Many readers are caught in a web of interpretations: is the Wife of Bath proto-feminist for wanting control in her marriages? Pseudofeminist for being promiscuous and having five husbands? Or, ironically pseudofeminist to the point of coming back around to feminist? The lack of clarity surrounding whether the Wife of Bath is normative or revolutionary makes it an extremely relevant text for contemporary fourth-wave feminism, which has seen young women, in particular, re-embrace typically “feminine” things that had previously been cast aside in a revolt against feminine expectations.
The character Amy Dunne—of the novel and film Gone Girl—also presents a complicated tension between perpetuation and deconstruction of feminist and anti-feminist tropes. Granted, Amy’s subversion of feminine tropes are far bloodier and terrifying than the Wife of Bath’s, but the plurality of possible readings are the same. Amy herself deconstructs the idea of the “Cool Girl”—the idealized woman she tried so hard to be—in a now-infamous monologue that appears in both the novel and the film:
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. (Flynn 222)
Amy, by casting off her “Cool Girl” veneer, becomes a far darker version of the Wife of Bath: she, too, seeks to sexually manipulate the men in her life—via false rape accusations and pregnancies—and commandeer total power by fulfilling every anxiety, every fear that the contemporary man has about women. Chaucer’s medieval everyman fears their wife siphoning their money; Flynn’s contemporary everyman fears “crazy bitches” who ruin their lives with statistically improbable rape accusations and have complete financial power over them because they’ve been emasculated by their inability to be the breadwinner. Gone Girl’s author, Gillian Flynn, has been accused of misogyny because of her portrayal of Amy’s evilness: she lies about being raped on multiple occasions, goes to unbelievable lengths to manipulate the men in her life, and makes the typical “femme fatale” seem lighthearted and playful. Frankly, Amy’s a “psychotic bitch,” but does that make her antifeminist? Or is allowing a feminine character to revel in simply being a “psychotic bitch” without a necessarily political agenda feminist in its own right?
Both Gone Girl and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue are successful in how they tease out complicated questions of femininity and its place in society. What are the boundaries between a good woman, a good feminist, and a good character? These are the questions that force the reader to reconsider their own expectations for and conceptions of gender, which can create a feminist narrative, even if the characters end up not being so. Whether or not a character is feminist might even be an arbitrary question; while much of the discourse surrounding Amy Dunne is centered on feminism, this video from Vanity Fair analyzes her character from a psychological standpoint, with no mention of whether she’s “feminist” or not.
Regardless of Chaucer’s intention when crafting the Wife of Bath’s character as well as his other female characters,a clever modern reader can see she is an embodiment of the most stereotypical fears of men (see Tess Kaiser’s “Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-Feminsim” to explore the question of feminism and pseudo-feminism in The Clerk’s Tale]. In her Prologue, the wife of Bath says “I had [my husbands] wholly in my hand / and since they had given me all their land, / Why should I take heed to please them, / Unless it were for my profit and pleasure?” (Chaucer 211–14, my translation). The Wife of Bath, claiming to use her husbands for their assets and control them with sex, plays off the same core of insecurity that Amy does: sexuality and power dynamics within marriage. The manifestations are different, but there is still some universal commentary about the nature of men—and, almost necessarily, the nature of women—that’s being made by how they toy with and fuel those fears.
Above all, the Wife of Bath and Amy are threatening because they are coded as typically masculine: they’re strong, and complicated, and clever, and crave power. Whether it’s feminist to defy gender norms or anti-feminist to suggest that the only strong woman is a masculine woman is precisely Flynn’s point; whatever Chaucer’s intention was, a modern reading of a medieval character is clearly inspirational to imagined gender relations. The strength of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Gone Girl is that neither of them are clear-cut; the reader is forced to confront their own opinions about gender.
University of Notre Dame
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview editions, 2012.
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York, Broadway Books, 2012.
[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt postedhere.]
Over the years, Taylor Swift has forged an empire, and by doing so, she has become one of the most talked about women in the entertainment industry. From her seemingly endless love affairs to her Grammy nominated albums, the number of headlines she has appeared on have made her a household name across the globe. Through her fame, Swift has been demonized for the decisions she has made in her love life and has been heroicized for the actions she has taken to connect with her fans. If one looks back to the Middle Ages, they will realize there is another famous woman that also tends to carry with her much inspiration and controversy. The Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is quite possibly the most well-known character of the entire work. Her fame amongst scholars and students stems from her remarks on proto-feminist ideals and also from her abrasive and expensive nature. Her character wants to be known, just as Taylor Swift does. Both of these women have attracted widespread attention, and while there is close to 600 years separating them, they have a great deal in common. This blog post will go on to reveal the similarities that the Wife of Bath and Taylor Swift share in order to showcase the timelessness of having a strong female presence in society, and how this presence has the ability to spark radical conversation and eventual change in gender dynamics.
Look What You Made Me Do
“The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?
And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne
To reden on this cursed book al nyght,
Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght
Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
I with my fest so took hym on the cheke
That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.” (lines 787-793).
In this excerpt from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, we learn of a time when one of her previous husbands, whom she loved and trusted, wronged her. After constantly being read books about the problems that her husband believes can arise when wives are not obedient to their husband’s demands, the Wife of Bath finally releases her frustration by attacking her spouse. This quote places the blame for the assault on the husband, not on the Wife. In Taylor Swift’s, Look What You Made Me Do music video, something similar can be seen. In the video, Swift references specific moments from her professional career and, in turn, passively calls out particular individuals that affected her negatively along the way. Basically, Swift is telling her haters that it is their fault she had to write and release this song.
No matter which side you’re on: the Wife of Bath or her husband’s, Taylor Swift’s or Kanye West’s; it’s hard to ignore the call to choose a superior. It’s in our nature, and both Swift and the Wife of Bath are aware of this instinct. They use it to their advantage. After all, all publicity is good publicity when it comes to building a following and without an audience, it is impossible to have any true voice in the world now or back in the Middle Ages.
Glitz and Glam
“Hir coverchiefs ful fyne were of ground
I dorste swere they weyden ten pound
That on a Sonday were upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed
Ful streite yteyd and shoes ful moyste and newe,” (lines 453-457).
The Wife of Bath certainly knew how to ‘knock em dead’ with her looks, or at least with her sense of fashion. She is not a shy character, so we shouldn’t expect her closet to be either. It was her goal to stand out and look the part, and with her “scarlet reed” hose, she surely made an entrance. Red is a very vibrant and sensual color, and the Wife of Bath is a very sexual individual. It is no wonder that she would be wearing something as daring as red pantyhose beneath her skirt. Part of Taylor Swift’s fame stems from her image and fashion just as it does with the Wife of Bath. When attending public events, Taylor’s outfits always get mentioned in the next day’s ‘hot or not’ gossip articles. Also, similarly to the Wife of Bath, Swift has an affinity for the color red. It is a rare moment to see Swift pictured without the bright tint added to her perfect pout. Both of these popular women allow their looks to drive their brand and fully shape who they are and, more importantly, how they want the world to see them.
The Ghosts of Lovers Past, Present, and Future
“Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in her youthe,” (lines 460-461).
It is no secret that the Wife of Bath has gotten around. She discusses each of her husbands in detail during her personal Prologue and seems to be obsessed with the idea that women are entitled to more than one man during their lives. Taylor Swift shares her same mentality. By dating at least ten different men over the course of ten years, Taylor certainly knows how to make men fall for her (Kerr). Like the Wife of Bath, Taylor also has no problem discussing the tragic endings of each of her relationships. The only difference between the two is that the Wife of Bath rants about her divorces in her well-read prologue, and Taylor sings about her breakups in chart topping songs. No matter if it’s written out or sung aloud for the world to hear, audiences relish in other people’s drama. It makes them feel as if their own lives aren’t as boring as they are. Therefore, the Wife of Bath and Taylor Swift have both managed to grow in popularity because neither of them is afraid to make their private lives public.
“We love no man that taketh kepe or charge
Wher that we goon; We wol ben at oure large,” (lines 321-322).
The Wife of Bath can be seen as an early feminist hero in many ways; the text above being one of the strongest pieces of evidence for this statement. Her character believes in the free will and autonomy of women, which is something that few women had in the Middle Ages. She is often considered to be a character who is ahead of her time and one that is very vocal about her thoughts. Sovereignty has not always been attainable to women in the past or present. It is still a real problem that women across the world face, and it’s one that Taylor Swift speaks up for in many ways. Swift empowers women to stand up for themselves, to reach their full potential, and to not let men get in the way of their own personal success. While, no, she is not leading Women’s Marches or talking to government officials about making policy changes, she still sets a precedent for young women to chase their dreams and create their own path. Throughout her career, Swift has been unapologetic for her creative and personal decisions and it is through this unconcerned attitude that she stands out as a positive influence within the entertainment industry.
So, what exactly does it mean to say that the Wife of Bath represents a Taylor Swift figure of the Middle Ages? It means that the Wife of Bath pushes boundaries, has passion, has style, knows how to attract an audience, knows how to tell a story, and knows how to carry herself. These attributes are what make the Wife of Bath so fascinating. She has many layers so that each time readers peel one back, they find another one underneath. In the same manner that Taylor Swift has risen into superstardom by being on top of trends and an inspiration to women everywhere, the Wife of Bath has become a popular topic of conversation amongst modern audiences for her wisdom and attitude. Both Swift and the Wife of Bath have positive and negative qualities, but that is what makes them so mesmerizing and worthy of attention.
Most of Geoffrey Chaucer’s female characters in the Canterbury Tales lack agency and in most cases, have little to say at all. That said, he chose to include the Wife of Bath and everything she represents in his narrative. This was a very deliberate decision and while Chaucer was far from a feminist, including the Wife of Bath was practically revolutionary for his time. Fictional or not, the Wife of Bath was a radical persona of the Middle Ages and had the potential to create just as much of a storm in society as Taylor Swift does today.
University of Notre Dame
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, Broadview Press, 2012.
In the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence, patriarchal inheritance laws of the land drive a young girl’s parents to make a choice: lose their lands and leave their daughter without an inheritance or raise her as a boy. Thus, the child (aptly named Silence) grows up to become one of the greatest knights of the realm. In a society that values masculinity, the female characters in the story strive to assert their voices in a world dominated by men’s discourse. The story begins as a traditional chivalric romance, with Silence’s mother Eufemie (whose name means ‘use of good speech’ (cf. euphemism)) and father Cador struggling, in the passionate heat of their courtship, to say what they feel. When Silence reaches puberty, and Cador stresses the necessity of maintaining a masculine identity, Silence, whose body has become the locus for a battle between the personified forces of Nature and Nurture, is left with little choice but to acquiesce. Later, living quite successfully as a man and the most valued knight of King Evan’s (spelled, in various ways, Ebain in the original) court, Silence faces the unwanted sexual advances of King Evan’s wife, Eufeme (whose name means ‘alas! woman’), at which point, things begin to unravel. Unable to voice an essential, personal truth and trapped by the confines of traditional gender roles, Silence ultimately is left silent in a story that is both beautiful and devastating. In 2017, revisiting this story of a transgender protagonist, sexual harassment (and assault), that which is spoken, and those who are silenced, I knew that the time was ripe for introducing my students to Silence.
At the Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas—an all-girls college preparatory school—my Upper School students are women who similarly are trying to find and use their voices in a time (both developmentally and historically) when they are confronting fractured messaging about women’s roles in the social and political spheres. I teach Arthurian stories in British and world literature courses and in a senior seminar on King Arthur. Whenever I teach Arthuriana in my classroom, these students, who are becoming well-versed in the language of feminism, race-theory, social dynamics, and identity, consistently impress me with their ability to discuss diversity with sensitivity and passion. This year, I decided to assemble a focused reading group outside of class for students, enthusiastic volunteers from all levels in the Upper School (freshmen through seniors), to study the Roman de Silence. Like Silence, the students in our group are women growing up and trying to assert their own voices in a world that often tries to silence them. They were so proud to make their voices heard through this project.
The course was structured informally as a reading group, meeting once a week over lunch in my classroom. We had about thirty students participating in one way or another throughout the semester with a core of about a dozen who attended regularly. I initially planned for about eight meetings. We read 1,000 lines a week of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s facing-page translation, moving fairly slowly through the text. While this pace allowed us to dive more deeply into Silence during our meetings, we decided that we wanted to continue the conversation outside of class through an online discussion board using our school’s learning management system. This included topics such as “Silence’s Birth and Youth,” “Silence, the Minstrels, and Eufeme,” and (because I teach teenage girls) the spirited catch-all, “Things That Have Us Shook.”
My goal with this reading group was, in part, to take young, pre-college students and turn them on to that undeniably electric attraction so many of us feel when we study the Middle Ages. In part, I also wanted them to get fired up about how little has changed since thirteenth-century France in conversations about identity and politics. It was serendipitous, then, that a month before our first meeting, TIME magazine named the “Silence Breakers” its “Person of the Year,” celebrating women for breaking their silence in the face of sexual harassment and assault. The weekend before our first meeting, celebrities in the film and television industries at the Golden Globe Awards coordinated the launch of the #TimesUp movement (building on the momentum of the #metoo movement, which had been gaining significant traction through the winter). Women who had been silenced by their abusers and the systems that protected them were speaking out—breaking their silence, just as our Silence could not. My students were incensed and energized—you have to work in a girls’ school to understand it—it was in the air and in many of the conversations they were having with each other and begging to have with me. Silence, then, was a fitting literary entrée into the conversation.
The Roman de Silence explores some challenging topics, including sexual harassment, consent, gender dynamics (including transgender issues and the politics of gender), Nature vs. Nurture, and a problematic narrator. Because I was working with students of a wide range of ages (the kids in my group ranged from ages 14-18), I wanted to be sensitive to that dynamic. We decided it was necessary to establish a common language, most important to the students, agreeing on what gender pronouns to use in reference to Silence, the main protagonist, and Heldris, the ostensible author and narrator. One of the biggest (and coolest) challenges with the Roman de Silence is the dexterity with which Heldris moves back and forth between genders in reference to Silence, sometimes even within the same sentence. Heldris, too, is ambiguous in gender, so how were we to refer to our author/narrator? In the end, the students decided together that they would use the gender neutral “they” in reference to both, which provided a sometimes stumbling, but always insightful frame for our discussions. It matters, they learned, which pronouns we choose when referring to Silence and to Heldris.
Early in the story, Heldris establishes their authority by claiming that they will write the story in French based on their reading of a “Latin version” of unclear origin:
I’m not saying there isn’t
a good deal of fiction mingled with truth,
in order to improve the tale,
but if I am any judge of things,
I’m not putting in anything that will spoil the work,
nor will there be any less truth in it,
for truth should not be silenced. (1663-8)
So, very quickly, my students had to figure out how to hold these two things in tension: how can truth and fiction coexist? First, we have an author who is grounding themselves in textual authority (Latin, no less!). On the other hand, that author freely admits that, just as one might a bland soup, they have spiced up the tale by mixing in fiction “in order to improve” it, but in a way that will not spoil the work or make it less truthful. This metaphor of cooking (which seems to lie just below the surface of Heldris’s words) helped my students, but it also sowed the seeds of doubt for some—how reliable was this narrator? Whose side were they on?
Choosing to use the singular “they” in reference to Heldris throughout our discussions ended up highlighting (sometimes rather strikingly) the author’s problematic position of authority. When divorced from gender identifiers, assumptions students might otherwise have made about Heldris’s opinions or positions suddenly unraveled, making them much more complex (and perhaps for my students, more frustrating). One minute, Heldris seems so intimately conversant in the effects of sexual harassment on a female victim. The next, they’re condemning women wholesale for their tendency to manipulate men with their tears. When we removed our essentialist biases about how women write or men write (and where their sympathies lie as writers), we found ourselves so much less sure about how to understand Heldris’s position.
Here’s an example from the online discussion board “Things That Have Us Shook.” We had been reading about Silence’s prowess at tournaments and on the battlefield. Heldris describes Silence as “a second Alexander,” running through a heroic catalogue of their clothes and especially helmet (like the shield of Achilles). Eufeme, who at this point already has attempted to sexually assault Silence once, will soon begin plotting to do so again, despite Silence’s revulsion of her:
Student A: What does it suggest about sexuality if Silence has been raised as male for all intents and purposes and yet is not attracted to women? It seems like an extremely progressive idea that even today older generations seem to have trouble grasping.
Student A later explained in our meeting that she was trying to think through the idea that a male-presenting person, raised with all the trappings and cultural baggage of a man, might be, if not attracted to women, presumably attracted to men. For this student, this allowed for fluidity among gender and sexuality that really struck her and made her feel like Heldris was pushing some boundaries in exciting ways. Then, her peer responded thus:
Student B: I actually didn’t read it as a progressive idea, as the phrasing of the encounter between Eufeme and Silence seemed to imply that Silence was not attracted to Eufeme because they (Silence) were biologically female. In this context, the book could be interpreted as hetero-normative, because despite Silence being raised as male, their “true nature” as female means Silence cannot be attracted to women. I guess it really depends on what Heldris thinks Silence identifies as (I personally think Silence is bi-gender, but Heldris seems to be on the side of Nature).
This sparked a lively group discussion about Heldris’s “allegiances,” as the students called them. Silence is the best at combat—as a woman, they can do everything men can do (and better!), but Heldris still will make snide comments about women and point back to the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Then again, Heldris so carefully plays with Silence’s pronouns in a way that seems to suggest, in Student A’s words, “maybe Heldris chose to switch pronouns when Silence felt more in tune with one gender over the other.” This seems so sensitive and gentle that when at other points Heldris makes blanket statements about the failings of women, such statements felt particularly brutal to my students. While the students loved the debate between Nature and Nurture—so dramatic, so steeped in stereotypical gender norms, and so very relevant to cultural discussions we’re having today—they had difficulty figuring out just where Heldris fell on the debate.
We spent quite a bit of time discussing the threats and execution of both sexual and deadly violence on women’s bodies. It took us a full meeting, for example, to begin to unknot King Evan’s dismissal of Eufeme’s accusations of sexual assault against Silence (fabricated as they were). When the king says to his wife, “So let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Just think of it all as a dream, sweetheart. / Nothing happened, nothing’s wrong, nothing should come of it” (4245-7), we couldn’t help but think about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and so many others, and the many men who worked behind the scenes to enable their predation. When Heldris says of women who are trying to avenge the wrongs done to them: “When she is told to keep quiet, / she tries all the harder to make noise” (4270), we couldn’t help but hear the “Silence Breakers.” When King Evan has Silence stripped of all their clothes in front of the court, exposing King Evan’s limited understanding of truth and forcing Silence, in quiet dignity, to speak their own and then fall silent, my students mourned the loss of Silence’s ability to own and live their identity. In the end, Nature’s victory rung so terrifying (in all its objectification of Silence) that we were reminded of the recent horror film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (as though Silence had been sent to the “sunken place” and were watching their life, silently, from afar). This is part of what inspired my students to want to dramatize the story in film.
I said previously that I had planned for this group to last about eight weeks. Most of these meetings focused on close, textual analysis and consideration of other primary and secondary texts. During one meeting, I brought in a .pdf of a working draft of Regina Psaki (University of Oregon) and Bonnie Wheeler’s (Southern Methodist University) new prose translation of the Roman de Silence. Wheeler said of the translation: “Gina and I originally conceived of this project as one that would be in print but have now decided to make it open-access on-line so that it can be used in classrooms without adding to student book costs. Thus we don’t want it included in course packets, etc., for which students are charged.” They asked a few colleagues (including myself) who teach at different levels to do beta testing, and their goal is to produce a parallel text/translation, including links to important essays on the poem. If all goes well (and they find a great tech-helper), we should expect to see it available by spring 2019. In the meantime, my students were delighted to engage with (and even provide suggestions for) this fantastic translation-in-progress.
About six weeks in, my students decided that they wanted to produce a film trailer for a movie about Silence (it was a group filled with budding actors, costume designers, creative writers, and film makers) and began making plans in a Google doc for a culminating project. They spent about four weeks on this and developed a draft for a script. What was most interesting was how they thought through the rhetoric, purpose, and audience of a film trailer and struggled with what scenes to preview and how best to problematize Heldris (who would provide the extradiagetic voiceover). In the end, they ran out of time (with graduation looming on the horizon), but during our final meeting (lucky number 15), they were determined to come up with some kind of project nevertheless. Therefore, they created a Twitter handle, which this year’s students will now run. So feel free to check out @heldriscornwall on Twitter for some fun memes, surveys, retweets, and recommended reading!
 See Heldris de Cornuälle, Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992).
 The name Heldris de Cornuälle translates to Heldris of Cornwall, but it could also be Heldris of Cornouaille, the medieval name for a region in south-west Brittany, the southern part of the modern-day département of Finistère. It is probably an Arthurian-sounding nom de plume of sorts. We know nothing about the author. The language in the manuscript is a mix of Francien and Picard dialects of Old French, meaning that the manuscript was likely brought from France to Nottingham, possibly during the Hundred Years’ War (Roche-Mahdi xxiii).
 For further reading, Arthuriana has dedicated two full volumes to the Roman de Silence (7.2 and 12.1). More recently, see: Katie Keene, “‘Cherchez Eufeme’: The Evil Queen in Le Roman de Silence,” Arthuriana 14.3 (Fall 2004): 3-22; Heather Tanner, “Lords, Wives, and Vassals in the Roman de Silence,” Journal of Women’s History 24.1 (Spring 2012): 138-159; Jane Tolmie, “Silence in the Sewing Chamber: Le Roman de Silence,” French Studies 63.1 (January 2009): 14-26.