A Wife of Bath 'biography' sheds new light on Chaucer's beloved character Dreamed up by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales more than 600 years ago, the Wife of Bath was known for her lusty appetites, gossipy asides and fondness for wine.

A Wife of Bath 'biography' brings a modern woman out of the Middle Ages

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A new biography takes a fresh look at a 600-year-old character.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As the Wife of Bath) Now, sirs, now will I tell you forth my tale.

SIMON: The Wife of Bath from "The Canterbury Tales" - she's influenced authors, artists and musicians from William Shakespeare to Brazilian samba stars to BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. NPR's Neda Ulaby has the story.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The Wife Of Bath is a lot of fun.


TOM ZE: (Speaking in Portuguese).

ULABY: This song by the Brazilian composer Tom Ze was written in her honor.


ZE: (Singing in Portuguese).

ULABY: The Wife of Bath is one of a few dozen characters making a pilgrimage to Canterbury in the famous stories by Geoffrey Chaucer. She stands out. The Wife of Bath loves to drink and gossip.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As the Wife of Bath) And as I may drink ever wine and ale, I will tell truth of husbands that I've had.

ULABY: Scandalous. That's why Oxford professor Marion Turner wrote a biography of the character.

MARION TURNER: She's extreme, and she laughs at herself. She's aware of when she's saying things that are outrageous.


ULABY: Chaucer, says Turner, gave the Wife of Bath more to say than any other character in "The Canterbury Tales." She argues with the Bible. She reflects thoughtfully upon her life. And she enjoys sex. That's what makes her the first modern character in all of English literature, Turner argues. Before, women characters were never normal. They were usually allegorical - witches or queens. The Wife of Bath seems real.

TURNER: She has been married five times. She has worked in the cloth industry. She has traveled all over the known world at that time.

ULABY: She is ordinary in a way that was radical in literature.

TURNER: She tells us about domestic abuse. She tells us about rape. She tells us about what it's like to live in a society in which women are comprehensively silenced.

ULABY: It might seem strange to write a biography of a made-up character, but Marion Turner was thrilled by the chance to research real women who found similar ways to prosper in the Middle Ages.

TURNER: It's astonishing when you find out about women such as, you know, the 15th century Duchess, who marries four times - and her last husband was a teenager when she was 65 - or the woman in London who is twice lady mayoress, inherits huge amounts of money, other London women who run businesses as skinners, as blacksmiths, own ships.

ULABY: Financial independence is part of what makes the Wife of Bath compelling. But the horniest character in "The Canterbury Tales" also helped inspire James Joyce's Molly Bloom and other more libidinal interpretations.

TURNER: There were ballads written about her, and they were censored. The printers were put in prison. This is in the early 17th century (laughter).


TURNER: Probably, the most misogynist response to her across time came in the 1970s.

ULABY: When Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made the Wife of Bath a predatory monster draped in scarlet in his movie version of "The Canterbury Tales."

TURNER: Sex with her literally kills her fourth husband.

ULABY: More recently, the Wife of Bath was reimagined by novelist Zadie Smith, who wrote her first play based on the character.


CLARE PERKINS: (As Alvita, the Wife of Willesden) Let me tell you something. I don't need no permissions or college degrees to speak on how marriage is stress. I've been married five damn times since I was 19. From mi eye deh a mi knee (ph).

ULABY: That's from Smith's recent play "The Wife Of Willesden," soon to premiere in Boston and New York. When Zadie Smith was young, she and other British students studied "The Canterbury Tales" intensely. As she said during a 2021 talk at Arizona State University, there was a clear favorite among the stories.


ZADIE SMITH: Everyone loves "The Wife Of Bath" (ph). It's the rudest one, and it's the funniest one.

ULABY: Rude and funny are timeless. And Smith said she feels a certain class allegiance to these very old stories.


SMITH: In the English canon, both Chaucer and Shakespeare, for working-class writers in Britain at least, they're our brothers, you know, because they speak about the people. They come from the people, more or less.


JEAN BINTA BREEZE: My life is my own bible wen it come to all de woes of married life (ph).

ULABY: That's the late Jamaican British dub poet Jean Binta Breeze. She performed her poem "The Wife of Bath In Brixton Market" (ph) there in 2009.


BREEZE: Doah dem all dem wort someting in dem own way. But dem say dat troo Jesas only go to one weddin in Canaan (ph).

ULABY: In some ways, the long life of the Wife of Bath has really just begun. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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