An Excerpt from “The Wife of Bath: A Biography”

FEB 22, 2023

by Marion Turner (Princeton, 2023)

A woodcut of the Wife of Bath in purple and pink against a green background

The Wife of Bath was created at a moment in English history that saw extraordinary demographic change. Like the First World War, the plague was a demographic catastrophe that had the consequence of giving women greater opportunities in a time of labor shortage. The Black Death was an unprecedented and unparalleled event. Probably around a third of the population of Europe died in the first wave (1348–1349), and it returned periodically for the rest of the century. In the wake of the plague, there was more social mobility. Anxiety about wage rises was manifested in Statutes of Labourers, and sumptuary laws were passed to try to control the clothing that people wore. These attempts to prevent social climbing and class mobility failed, and the second half of the fourteenth century saw an increased loosening of feudal bonds and ideology, already on the wane.

Historians have discussed the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a “golden age for women,” especially in London. While there are differing opinions, particularly about just how golden the age was and how long it lasted, most do agree that there was an increase in women’s opportunities and status in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They had some economic power, as seen, for instance, in the formalisation of their right—whether single, married, or widowed—to trade as femmes soles, rather than under the governance of their husbands. This meant a woman could run her own business, be responsible for her own money and taxes, and train her own apprentices. Jointures developed, allowing a woman to own property jointly with her husband, so that she could bequeath it as she wished. In some cases we even see women disposing of jointly owned property against their husbands’ desires. Chaucer witnessed the growing opportunities for women—and he himself had a mother who owned property and a wife who always earned her own money (she worked as a lady-in-waiting in great households).

Alison of Bath is a middle-aged woman—a reasonably happy older woman (even if she might prefer to be younger)—still sexually active, still attractive, someone who works, goes on holiday, and enjoys life. A woman like this could not speak in texts before Chaucer’s; her viewpoint was not seen as interesting. Moreover, she could barely even be spoken. In literature, she hardly existed, just as (until very recently) once women turned forty they mysteriously disappeared from Hollywood movies and television newsdesks alike. More fundamentally still, before Chaucer invented the Wife of Bath, there were no characters at all with the particular kind of subjectivity and personality that she embodies. The characters that he created were different from those that had gone before, and readers reacted to them differently, with deeply personal responses. Readers often group Alison of Bath with characters from much later novels, as part of a set of women with whom many people identify and whom they see as representing something recognisable and vital. She lives for readers in a way that most characters do not.

The Wife of Bath is one of only a handful of literary characters—others include Odysseus, Dido, Penelope, and King Arthur—whose life has continued far beyond their earliest textual appearances. I can think of no other examples of this kind of character—a socially middling woman—who has had anything like Alison’s reach, influence, and capacity for reincarnation. Her extraordinary journey has, so far, spanned continents and centuries; and she has endured humiliations and attacks as well as celebration and almost incredible influence.

In the centuries following Alison’s emergence into literary history and into the consciousness of readers and writers, she has ventured far and wide. I explore, for instance, what Shakespeare made of Alison; the seventeenth-century imprisonment of printers who printed ballads about her; Dryden and Pope’s efforts to make her less scandalous; her eighteenth-century journeys to the Continent, where Voltaire took her on, and across the Atlantic, where she went on the stage; Communist readings of her in the twentieth-century; and twenty-first century reclamations of Alison by writers including Caroline Bergvall, Patience Agbabi—and Zadie Smith.

Marion Turner is The J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Language and Literature at The University of Oxford, and the author of The Wife of Bath: A Biography (Princeton, 2023) and Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton, 2019).


Promotional imagery for Marion Turner’s The Wife of Bath: A Biography (2023), courtesy of Princeton University Press.

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