Undergrad Wednesdays – Big Reputation: Reading the Wife of Bath as the Taylor Swift of the Middle Ages

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

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.

Jessica Ping
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, Broadview Press, 2012.

Kahn, Joseph, director. Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do. Performance by Taylor Swift, YouTube, Vevo, 27 Aug. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tmd-ClpJxA

Kerr, Chloe, and Tilly Pearce. “From Tom Hiddleston to New Man Joe Alwyn, Who Has Taylor Swift Dated and Which Exes Inspired Songs?” The Sun, The Sun, 14 Sept. 2017, www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/1748180/taylor-swift-boyfriend-list-full/.

Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:

But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.

Undergrad Wednesdays – The Refugee Tales: A Modern Canterbury Tales Gives Voice to the Silenced

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Open your morning newspaper or scroll through the news report that just popped into your inbox and there’s a good chance that one of today’s top stories surrounds the global refugee crisis. It’s today’s top story, it was yesterday’s, and it’s likely to be tomorrow’s too. With countless news stories dictating faceless facts and figures of the growing number of refugees, one UK organization – the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group – decided to make things personal, drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: our good friend Geoffrey Chaucer and his work, The Canterbury Tales. Like The Canterbury Tales’cast of characters embarking on a religious pilgrimage and participating in a tale-telling contest along the way, a group of writers, poets, and journalists set out on their own pilgrimage across the UK, journeying in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration detainees. They stopped along the way to tell the stories of those who had walked that path before them; then those tales were compiled into the Refugee Tales. A look into the Canterbury Tales, specifically the “Man of Law’s Tale,” illustrates how the structure of storytelling is an effective mode for educating about the refugee crisis as well as how the issues of persecution and discrimination pervaded even Chaucer’s society hundreds of years ago.

The Man of Law’s Tale follows Constance, a devout and pious Christian woman, on journeys across the seas and back; though she endures persecution, violence, and trial at each step, she remains steadfast in faith and eventually returns home. Two snapshots of Constance’s voyages speak directly to the experience of refugees and migrants throughout history. First, upon arriving in Syria, Constance is courted by the Sultan who is so taken by her and her faith that he converts to Christianity and urges his people to do the same. The Sultan’s mother, however, fears that Constance is trying to force her religion onto the Syrians, saying: “What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe / But thraldom to oure bodies and penance, And afterward in helle to be drawe” (Chaucer, 337-339). She fears that this new member of the community, who has brought in her own set of beliefs and practices different from their own, will overtake the native culture, ruin its integrity, and enslave the people in a life they do not want. In retaliation, the Sultan’s mother orders a merciless massacre of all who converted – including her own son – and Constance is forced to flee. This kind of violent religious persecution was not uncommon at the time and it endures today; there is a persistent danger in demonstrating foreign practices or customs for fear of persecution. It is rooted in a lack of understanding of other cultures as well as a desire to preserve one’s own culture, at any cost.

The second important episode of Constance’s story finds her as a refugee just landed in a pagan country. Knowing that she has arrived in an environment hostile to Christians (“In al that lond no Cristen dorste route; / Alle Cristen folk been fled fro that contree” (Chuacer 540-541), Constance is forced to hide her faith and lie about part of who she is in order to appear less different and threatening – to save herself from the kind of violence she faced in Syria. This is a common experience among refugees who feel the need to blend in to their new communities and avoid standing out for fear that they will be discovered and apprehended. The need for safety eclipses all other needs, and many refugees and immigrants are forced to hide or even give up integral pieces of themselves in order to avoid punishment, ridicule, or even removal.

[Disclaimer: Religious persecution ran rampant during the Middle Ages, so a story such as this is not uncommon; however, this tale is problematic in its telling. While the tale is certainly plausible,  it is necessary to note that it is inherently malicious in its portrayal of other religions – i.e. the portrayals of the Sultan’s vicious mother and of the pagans are not flattering and are, in fact, exaggerated, rendering the tale itself spiteful and discriminatory against non-Christians and demonstrating the multi-faceted and widespread persecutions from all angles in Chaucer’s time. For more on the Man of Law’s tale, check out Meggie Kollitz’s piece on "Islamophobic Rhetoric in Chaucer: Not Just ‘A Thing of the Past.’”]

The Refugee Tales adopt the overall structure of the larger Canterbury Tales and delve deep into the specific issues of the persisting refugee crisis seen in the “Man of Law’s Tale.” Having met with and listened to a number of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration detainees in the UK, the taletellers of the Refugee Tales set off across the country to tell the stories they had learned. One such story is “The Detainee’s Tale in which a writer, Ali Smith, discusses her encounter with a man who was indefinitely detained and her subsequent visit to a detention facility. She writes as if telling the story to the detained man himself, using “you” to refer to him and speaking of herself in the first person: “The first thing that happens, you tell me, is that school stops” (Smith). This point of view draws the reader in and puts us into the detainee’s shoes, as if Smith is telling us our own experience. The majority of the tales, in fact, are told in first person – a significant difference from the original Canterbury Tales, which does not use first person in any of the tales. This important change renders each tale much more personal and each subject more real. It gives a real voice to silenced refugees and migrants while protecting their anonymity. Additionally, the title of the tale (in this case, the “Detainee’s Tale”) names the subject of the story, rather than the teller, shifting the focus from teller to tale (in this case, the Detainee, rather than Smith). While borrowing the structure of the Canterbury Tales, the Refugee Tales tell much more personal and heart-wrenching stories that focus on giving a voice to these people (not stock characters) who otherwise would go unheard.

Among the greatest attributes of the Canterbury Tales is its insight into the vast array of characters living in the Middle Ages, as well as the different values and issues of the time. Similarly, the Refugee Tales spotlight a commonly undocumented section of today’s social spectrum and showcase important social problems and values. Looking back on the Canterbury Tales, it is easy to cringe at and criticize many of the implied social norms. We can look at the society painted by Chaucer and realize it wasn’t all that pretty. But that forces us to acknowledge the stains on the tapestry of human history. We should never sanitize the past and bleach out the bad parts; rather we must recognize them and learn from them. Similarly, there is a need to document all parts of our current history – even the parts that are not so pretty. The Refugee Tales does just that. These tales detail a trying time in our world and shed light on a crisis in human dignity. This particular portrayal of the issue, however, illuminates the presence of humanity, compassion, and hope amidst that crisis. We have seen that the social problems of persecution and discrimination have persisted since Chaucer’s time, and even before; the Refugee Tales show that, yes, those issues still exist, but how we view and approach them has evolved and we are finding new ways to solve them once and for all.

Claire Doyle
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Man of Law’s Tale, from the Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2ndEdition, Broadview Press, 2012.

Herd, David, and Anna Pincus, editors. Refugee Tales. Comma Press, 2016.

Smith, Ali. “The Detainee’s Tale by Ali Smith: ‘I Thought You Would Help Me’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 June 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/27/ali-smith-so-far-the-detainees-tale-extract.

To Learn More:

“About Refugee Tales.” Refugee Tales, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, refugeetales.org/about-refugee-tales/.

Brockbank, Hannah. “Refugee Tales.” THRESHOLDS, University of Chicester, thresholds.chi.ac.uk/refugee-tales/.

Cleave, Chris. “World Refugee Day: The Lorry Driver’s Tale, as Told to Chris Cleave.”The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 20 June 2016, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/world-refugee-day-the-lorry-driver-s-tale-as-told-to-chris-cleave-1.2691968.

Herd, David. “Modern Day Canterbury Tales Refreshes Chaucer to Tell the Lost Stories of Refugees.” The Conversation, The Conversation US, Inc, 16 June 2015, theconversation.com/modern-day-canterbury-tales-refreshes-chaucer-to-tell-the-lost-stories-of-refugees-42981.

The Refugee Tales Website: http://refugeetales.org