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/.

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

Undergrad Wednesdays – Arcane Incantations and Technobabble: The Exploitation of Exclusive Language in The Canterbury Tales and the Modern Day

[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.]

In the many conversations we regularly engage in, there is always the risk that we will be confronted with an unfamiliar term or concept. When this happens, we are faced with two options: 1) Ask the speaker what it means. B) Don’t ask about it — try to infer the meaning from context and perhaps make a mental note to look up the word or concept later, consigning oneself for the time being to an uncertain or incomplete understanding of the speaker’s message.

While choosing the first option seems like the best and most reasonable way to ensure that one understands what the speaker is saying, there are a number of reasons that people might opt not to ask. Probably the biggest reason is that it requires one to admit ignorance of the word, thus admitting the speaker’s intellectual superiority in the matter, and risking exposing oneself to ridicule if the word is considered common knowledge. People also might not feel at liberty to request a definition (such as if the speaker is the listener’s social superior or is addressing an audience) or they might not trust the speaker to accurately define the term.

Regardless of why listeners might remain ignorant about a word’s meaning, in doing so they grant their speaker a special immunity from criticism or disbelief. Most listeners, when confronted with an unfamiliar word, will by default assume that it was used correctly, or at least refrain from questioning the validity of its usage. If someone were to say that a Diplopod is a type of Chelicerate, most speakers would make no objection unless they knew what those terms referred to. While it seems like common kindness for an ignorant listener to give their speaker the benefit of the doubt in such cases, the trouble begins when speakers learn to exploit this tendency, dazzling their audience into believing falsehood by using intentionally indecipherable language.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, harshly critical of the clergy on a number of fronts, writes of this tendency of medieval clergy-members to abuse their education, especially their knowledge of Latin, to deceive or swindle the uneducated masses. The clearest example of this is during the Pardoner’s Prologue, in which the corrupt Pardoner, a clergyman licensed to collect money and grant indulgences on behalf of the Church, —  is describing the many rhetorical techniques he uses to manipulate people into paying him (for more information on Chaucer’s Pardoner and his relevance to the modern day, check out Zach Prephan’s post).

And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe
To saffron with my predicacioun
And for to stire hem to devocioun. [1; Fragment VI; lines 344-346]

[“And I speak a few words in Latin/ to season my preaching/ and to stir [my audience] to devotion”]

He boasts of being able to use his knowledge of Latin to lend his sales pitch an (arguably undeserved) air of authority and legitimacy, precisely because the language would be unintelligible to most. While his “theme” which he mentions a few lines earlier — “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (1; VI; 334) [“the root of all evils is greed’] — is indeed a valid biblical quote (1 Timothy 6:10), his use of Latin rather than the vernacular language gives him complete control over the interpretation, as few, presumably, if any, of his audience would also speak Latin.

While most widely-used languages are used for their ability to reach a wide audience, the ubiquitous use of Latin among the clergy seems more readily attributable to its exclusivity. It was frequently argued, especially during the Reformation by religious dissidents such as Martin Luther and John Wycliffe, that the Catholic Church was able to teach false doctrine without facing scrutiny because so few people spoke Latin. Reformation leaders called for widespread distribution of vernacular translations of the Bible, which Catholic Church leaders had, at various times, refused to allow. The Church, they believed, had exploited the exclusivity of the Latin language for its own agenda, preventing the common person from reading and interpreting Scripture for him or herself. If few outside of the clergy could read Scripture, few could pose a legitimate argument about Scriptural teachings against the established Church.

Furthermore, as the Pardoner suggests, the use of Latin likely evoked an emotional response of awe and reverence. To non-Latin-speakers, the language (which would most frequently be heard in a religious setting) would probably take on an arcane or mystical quality in the context of religious ritual which the same words spoken in vernacular would be less able to evoke. Referring to the medieval clergy’s use of Latin, Kathryn Rudy writes “[l]inguistic exotica suggest mystery and superhuman provenance, something more elevated than a common, Earth-born origin”(2; p. 12). This effect certainly persists today — if the magic spells uttered by the characters of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe were based on English rather than Latin or Greek, would they sound nearly as cool?  While it is probably overly-cynical to cite monopoly over theological interpretation and potentially-manipulative emotional effects as the primary reasons for the Church’s preference for Latin, it seems very likely that these contributed to it to some degree.

Another example of Latin’s special gravitas occurs in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” when the protagonist, a rooster named Chaunticleer, quotes “Mulier est hominis confusio(1; Fragment VII; line 3164)” to his wife. The comedy of this is that he later says that the phrase means “‘Woman is mannes joye and al his blis’(1; VII; 3166) while a more correct translation of the Latin reads “woman is man’s confusion.” Again, a character turns to Latin to secure a rhetorical advantage and establish a sense of authority. Chaucer, however, seems to satirize this practice by suggesting that neither party actually understands Latin (or, if Chaunticleer is aware of his mistranslation, that he intentionally uses the Latin phrase to argue something almost opposite to its actual message). Just because something is said in Latin doesn’t mean it’s true, Chaucer seems to suggest.

While vernacular translations of the Bible did become widely available and, with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church ultimately allowed the saying of Mass in vernacular languages, criticism regarding intentionally-inaccessible language remains prevalent, though now focused on secular authority figures. Namely, the development of increasingly-specific jargon for academic fields has occasionally come under fire for allegedly being intentionally difficult to understand. Often derisively called “technobabble,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “incomprehensible or pretentious technical jargon (3),” scientific or academic authority figures are criticized for using excessively-difficult or esoteric language for personal gain, often to appear more knowledgeable or to hide their ignorance on a topic. At its extreme, technobabble can easily be almost as incomprehensible as an unfamiliar language, as the below video demonstrates.

While the video was intentionally satirical, finding proof of “professionals” using their prestige and knowledge of jargon to bamboozle audiences out of their money is as easy as turning on the TV and watching a few minutes of ads. A modern demonstration of the effectiveness of technobabble is the “Sokal Affair,” in which physics professor Alan Sokal submitted to a prominent academic journal “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which he described as “an article liberally salted with nonsense”(4). The article was accepted and published, only for Sokal to announce the intentional ridiculousness of the paper, citing its undeserved publication as an example of how academia is able to make ridiculous and unfounded claims without reproof, “the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.”

Sokal suggests the editors of the journal were deferent to the “cultural authority of technoscience,” in that they trusted in Dr. Sokal’s reputation as a scientist to believe that the incoherent paper made sense. The mention of the “cultural authority of technoscience” being trusted in this manner is interesting, as it seems to closely recall the aforementioned trust placed in the medieval Church to interpret Latin texts. Is technobabble the new Latin, and the representatives of technoscience its interpreters for the unlearned masses?

Obviously this is a very limited comparison for a number of reasons — the knowledge required to understand technical jargon is widely accessible on the internet and no longer reserved for those of specific social classes, and the complex and specialized nature of the language used serves an important purpose and can’t easily be translated into “vernacular” (although some have tried, such as Randall Monroe in his bookThing Explainer, which explains various scientific concepts using only the 1000 most commonly used English words(4)).

However, as Chaucer shows, people have exploited exclusive language for personal gain for centuries, and likely will for many more. While mistrusting scientific consensus without reason is a recipe for becoming a flat-earther, perhaps we should be a little more skeptical about the many things we are told and accept without understanding, especially if personal gain for the speaker is on the line. Luckily, unlike in the Middle Ages, Google (or Bing, if you’re a determined nonconformist) is only a quick pocket-dig away for many of us. While trust may be the basis of a functional society, we must be aware of who we are placing our trust in, and ensure that we, like the Pardoner’s audience, are not being manipulated.

Andrew Cameron
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

(1) Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Toronto, Broadview, 2012.

(2) Rudy, Kathryn M. Rubrics, Images and Indulgences in Late Medieval Netherlandish Manuscripts. The Manuscript World ed., vol. 55, Brill, 2016. Library of the Written Word.

(3) “techno-, comb. form.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/198460.