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 – Manic Pixie Dream Grisilde: Was Geoffrey Chaucer a Medieval Cameron Crowe?

[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.]

A collection of poems written nearly 700 years ago may at first seem entirely outdated in subject matter, but there are certain aspects of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales that are alarmingly relevant in today’s world despite our wishes that they had stayed in the past. One such element is the way in which countless characters tell their tales about women. In many of the tales, women are denied a nuanced voice and a complex character in favor of being reduced to overly idealized deities or spiteful, manipulative villains. It is the former representation of women and its manifestation through one particular character that serves as the subject of this post. Grisilde of “The Clerk’s Tale,” a tale about a man who routinely challenges (and emotionally abuses) his wife to test her goodness and her love for him, is a prime example of a woman who is seen only in idealized descriptions and as a figment of her husband’s male fantasy. In modern film and literary criticism, there is a term that describes the type of character Grisilde is and the role she plays in her tale: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG).

Nathan Rabin, a film critic for The AV Club, coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in a 2007 review of the film Elizabethtown. He writes, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” (Rabin). This type of woman typically is chic in appearance, has cutting edge taste in the arts, and practices hobbies that set her apart from other women. Some recognizable examples of MPDGs from film are represented in the image below, and the popularity of the films in which these characters appear has catalyzed the term’s use outside exclusively critical circles.

In the decade since Rabin first coined the term, it has become a staple of discussions about female characters in popular culture, inspiring everything from internet quizzes to entire novels written with the intention of dismantling the archetype.

However, while Rabin describes the archetype in terms of its place within cinematic history, Grisilde’s role in “The Clerk’s Tale” works to suggest that this concept, which has become such a common trope in modern culture, has actually been in existence for well over half a century. In fact, Hugo Schwyzer hints at this in an article for The Atlantic, writing, “As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice” (Schwyzer). Despite her name, which is much more unique than that of her husband, Walter, Grisilde lacks the quirky personality that commonly defines a MPDG by today’s standards—it would have been entirely unbelievable rather than merely eccentric to find a ukulele-strumming, pierced-eared woman in medieval England. Instead, Grisilde is remarkable in her perfection and her purity, both of which are emphasized to set her apart from other women, a staple of the MPDG genre. Walter does not ever want to take a wife, but Grisilde, because she possesses some otherworldly qualities, is the only woman who can get through to Walter and allow him to see the merits that accompany having a wife. Walter, emulating a medieval Gatsby, creates an image of Grisilde in his head that paints her as more than a person. Chaucer writes:

Commending in his heart her womanly qualities
And also her virtue, passing any person…
…and decided that he would
Wed her only, if ever he should wed. (Chaucer 239-245)

While Grisilde fits an altered version of the MPDG personality that more appropriately matches the time period from which she is a product, she fits the other half of the modern definition to a tee. Her sole function in the narrative of “The Clerk’s Tale” is as part of the journey of the male characters. For the Clerk, she serves as an example of the types of characteristics all women listening to his tale should aspire to possess. For Walter, her husband in the tale, she is a means through which he attempts to achieve his own happiness and self-assurance without regard to her feelings. Prior to getting married, Walter says the following to Grisilde:

I say this: are you ready to submit with good heart
To all my desires, and that I freely may,
As seems best to me, make you laugh or feel pain,
And you never to grouch about it, at any time? (Chaucer 351-354)

Walter goes on to make Grisilde swear that she will never say no when he wants her to say yes. He desires to better understand the world and feel secure of his place within it, and in order to do so, he consistently tests Grisilde’s affections for him and stretches the lengths to which she will go to keep him content. Grisilde watches as her children are taken away and is even willing to see her husband marry another woman if it will make him happy.

Chaucer attempts to remedy some of the damage done through the decimation of Grisilde’s character by urging women in his envoy to “let no humility nail down your tongue” (Chaucer 1184). In comparison to the rest of “The Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer’s envoy dovetails well with aspects of modern feminism. It also fits, however, in accordance with the common portrayal of modern MPDGs as bold women who have something to say and who will not let humility nail down their tongues. Unfortunately, the things these women have to say are most often pieces of advice as to how their male protagonist can improve his life. For example, Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, commonly accepted as an exemplum of the MPDG, is permitted to scream at the top of her lungs, but only after the male lead figures out his current purpose in life and takes her hand.

This type of representation in which female characters are reduced to personality quirks and pithy advice aimed at male protagonists remains problematic today because it paints women as vessels through which men can accomplish their needs and strips them of any independent ambitions. In Grisilde’s marriage, as in the relationships of countless other MDPGs, she has no agency in making the choices that better her own life. Rather, she and women such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Cameron Crowe’s Penny Lane continue to stand as a means through which a man can determine who he is, what he wants out of life, and how the woman to whom he is magnetically attracted can help him to obtain his deepest desires.

Kelsey Dool
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-feminism

[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.]

The question of how we deal with texts that are problematic yet revered is one that pervades modern readings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “The Clerk’s Tale” is no exception, as it depicts the unwavering devotion of Griselda to her husband King Walter, even when he cruelly takes her own children away from her. In one of the stranger literary moves in the Tales, the “Clerk’s Tale” includes an “Envoy” with some concluding remarks on the tale proper. This envoy offers a seemingly competing moral than the Clerk originally gave in his tale. How we read this envoy becomes a complicated task. For one, we are unable to say for certain who is its speaker. While many scholars believe these are still the words of the Clerk, others offer competing arguments that they are actually Chaucer’s. While finding out the intended speaker would likely change the meaning of the “Envoy,” we will read this section as most critics currently do: as an ironic passage[1].

Walter taking Griselda’s child in the Clerk’s Tale

At face value, the “Envoy” of the “Clerk’s Tale” rejects the moral that women should strive to the levels of obedience that Griselda achieves. The envoy says that this is impossible, and women should instead hold no silence and take governance into their own hands. However, the “Envoy” goes even further to direct women to wield metaphorical arrows and binding practices offensively against men. While these are metaphorical images, the point is that women should rise up and achieve unjust levels of domination over men. Read ironically, as most critics do, the speaker is in reality still advocating that Griselda’s obedience is the ideal and that female dominance is to be sidestepped. The irony highlights only two extreme possibilities for women: the selfless obedience of Griselda to her husband, and the forced dominance of a woman similar to the Wife of Bath. These two characters of the Canterbury Tales are often analyzed in opposition to one another because they are polar opposites. They represent the two ends of the spectrum, and how there is no apparent middle ground for women to inhabit. Here we find the problem of the “Envoy.” Whether or not it advocates for the obedience of Griselda, it acts as if there is only one other alternative for women, which is unjust dominance.

The “Envoy” of the “Clerk’s Tale” is not the only relevant text to display this misogynistic phenomenon. In pop culture today, the 2014 film Gone Girl has garnered attention from critics for similar reasons. The film depicts Amy Dunne, who basically fakes her own kidnapping and murder to frame her husband. In carrying out her carefully orchestrated plot, Amy lies and even kills to punish her husband.

Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, 2014

As critic Veronika Kiss comments in a 2014 article, “she commits these reprehensible actions under the guise of being a feminist liberator, lending credence to misguided fears that all feminists are out to get men.” The “guise of being a feminist liberator” is an important concept because even though other critics saw Amy’s independence as a feminist action, we can more truly deduce that her violent actions against men have no place in the narrative of true feminism. Therefore, Amy represents the extreme end of the womanly spectrum, opposite to the “Clerk’s Tale’s” Griselda. Placing her at this extreme implicitly establishes an argument that there are only two possibilities for women: complacent, suburban Amy, or reckless, murderous, freed Amy. This phenomenon can be described as pseudo-feminist because it implies that the “liberated” woman must be an extremist one.

In a way, this idea confines women further because it denies them the possibilities of the spectrum, and places them into one of two categories. We can argue which category Chaucer or the Clerk thinks women should belong to, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that having only two categories is reductive in nature. However, recognizing this phenomenon in media, like the examples in the “Clerk’s Tale” and Gone Girl, is an important exercise in recognizing shortcomings in equality and formulating a more reasonable, modern feminist narrative.

Tess Kaiser
University of Notre Dame


[1] Cherniss, Michael D. “The ‘Clerk’s Tale’ and ‘Envoy,” the Wife of Bath’s Purgatory, and The ‘Merchant’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 6, no. 4, 1972, pp. 235–254. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093203.