Marion Turner: In Conversation
Marion Turner is an award-winning author and the J R R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford. Specializing in Chaucer and late medieval literature, she is both a renowned expert and an extremely engaging author and speaker, her passion for Chaucer inspiring new audiences and generations around the globe. Following the success of her multi-award-winning book Chaucer: A European Life, she has written another stunning study, this time on the indomitable Wife of Bath. We caught up with her at Chalke Valley History Festival to chat about the appeal of both Chaucer and his most abiding character.
Tell me about your book on the Wife of Bath.
The Wife of Bath: A Biography argues that Chaucer's Wife of Bath is the first ordinary woman in English literature. There had been lots of women in English literature before, but they tended to be damsels in distress, princesses, queens, saints, or else prostitutes, old crones, witches. In The Wife of Bath, for the first time we get a woman who is middle-aged, what we would think of as middle class. She has a job. She makes a lot of mistakes. She's sexually active. She talks about her desires. She drinks. She goes on holiday. She's a really different kind of woman from the women that had been in literature before. So in the first half of my book I look at how this woman emerged in the late-fourteenth century: what was the historical context; what was it like for women at this time; and in what ways is she a product of that historical moment? Then the second half of my book goes right across time, because she has had an influence on English literature unlike any other character. There are versions of her – adaptations, translations, all kinds of creative imaginings – right across time. So, the second half of the book goes from Chaucer's death in 1400 up to 2021 and Zadie Smith's version, and looks at why she's been so influential and what that tells us about women and gender across the centuries.
Why do you think she has had this enduring influence, particularly above other people in The Canterbury TalesA series of twenty-four stories and a general prologue, following pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English between 1387 and 1400. It is widely considered one of the most important works of English literature.?
She has such a powerful voice. Unlike other characters in The Canterbury Tales, we hear a lot more about her. Her prologue is much longer than the other pilgrims’ prologues, and that's because Chaucer was more interested in telling us about her backstory. He also uses her to experiment with what literary character is, and so he gives us much more of her memories, her hopes for the future, her sense of humour, her voice. It's really interesting that he chooses to do that through the voice of a woman who shouldn't have a voice at all: she represents a demographic that doesn't usually have any voice in texts, and he gives her more of a voice than he does any of his other characters. She captures people's imagination. Chaucer himself put her into other Canterbury Tales and into one of his short poems outside The Canterbury Tales, which he did with none of his other pilgrims. You could see that he was fascinated by her more than he was by anyone else. And right from the earliest moment, we see scribes being more interested in her. So, she is a more developed character than the others, as well as doing something interesting and different.
Do you think she's based on someone he might have known?
I don't think she's based on a real historical person. When you look at her, you can see that there are literary sources from which she has been born. Chaucer changes them, but when you look at someone like Ovid's Dipsas or, more importantly, La Vieille from Le Roman de la Rose – which is a very important, influential medieval French text written in the thirteenth century – the Wife of Bath is drawn from those literary sources. La Vieille is an old prostitute; Chaucer turns her into an essentially respectable, multiply-married woman. He takes bits from the literary sources but makes her into a much more personalized voice, someone who is much more what we would think of as a character. At the same time, I'm sure that he was able to create her because of the world in which he lived, the kinds of opportunities that women had at this time. Although I look at her right across time – she is a character who speaks to many people in different environments – she's not timeless. She's not an everywoman because there are many societies, and many places in the Middle Ages in which the idea of a woman who can inherit money, can keep the money after her husband dies, can have a job, can go on holiday without her husband, can talk about her sexual desires, is not imaginable. She wouldn't have made sense in many places in Europe, never mind in other parts of the world as well. There are places today where she wouldn't make sense. Chaucer lived in a world in which he knew many powerful widows, women who made their own money, women who had an important voice and were powerful. So I do think she was born out of that broader social environment, but I'm sure she wasn't based on one specific individual.
Was the time in which Chaucer was writing was particularly good for women in England?
It certainly was. People have talked about the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a golden age for women in medieval London. More broadly, it was, relatively speaking, a good time for women in north-west Europe. But it's really important that we don't idealize this: none of us would want to live in a time where women don't have the vote, have very limited legal rights, don't have access to reliable contraception, or medical care. Of course it's not great, but when we compare it to other places in the world at that time, or to what came a bit later, it was a good time for women. Partly this is long-term trends in the law in England, which did protect women; partly it's related to the post-Black DeathA deadly disease, also known as plague, that first raised its head in its current form in the 1340s and continued ravaging communities in Europe for the next three and a half centuries. environment. The plague was a demographic disaster a bit like the First World War - for the people who did survive, things got better in some ways. In the fourteenth century there was the same amount of land that needed to be farmed but half the workforce: so people's wages went up, people could move around, more people could move to cities and that affected women as well as men. There were already decent social conditions for women, but the plague enhanced that. In north-west Europe in the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries women were protected by inheritance laws – a widow would usually inherit a third of her husband's property, although it was more in London, and they would get rights over their children. But in other places, such as parts of Italy, women were just entitled to have their dowry back, and they would only get that if they stayed with their husband's family. If they went back to their birth family, the dowry would go back to that family, but they would lose access to their children. Women were not incentivized to work or make money during their marriage because they couldn't benefit from it, and they weren't incentivized to remarry. In north-west Europe in particular, there was something called the European marriage pattern, which involved later marriage: women would usually work for a few years, earn some money, get married in their twenties. So they're then having fewer children, which is better for their health. They are earning money partly because there was a trend for something called neolocality – forming a new household after marriage, not staying with parents. When you've earned your own money and you're forming your own household, you've got more control over your sexual destiny, over whom you choose to marry, because you have a bit of economic independence. All those things did mean that women had some choices at this time and they were not at home living exclusively domestic, more limited existences. They were doing many really interesting, different jobs; they were travelling; they were making their own decisions. They were not what people often expect of medieval women.
What is it about Chaucer, that 700 years later he's still well known and widely read?
The key thing is that Chaucer is unbelievably versatile. The essence of The Canterbury Tales is the idea that you must listen to lots of different voices, so there is something for everyone. Obviously he wrote lots of other things as well, but what you see in The Canterbury Tales is the idea that different people will tell different stories, will have different perspectives. This principle of social and aesthetic variety is at the heart of what Chaucer is doing: you can go to Chaucer if you want a romance, a bawdy fabliau, a saint's life, a philosophical tract, a fable. People can find rude Chaucer, they can find moral Chaucer, they can find feminist Chaucer, misogynist Chaucer. In later centuries, you get people saying he was a strong Catholic; or that he was an early ProtestantSomeone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation.. People find what they want to find, but also what you also really see is this wonderful demonstration of the idea that we should try to open our minds and listen to different points of view. We all need that lesson so much today when we are led down algorithms that keep feeding us the same sort of thing.
What Chaucer is all about is the idea that you really must listen to different voices. The same story will be told in different ways by people from different perspectives. What we see depends on where we are standing, and that idea is still so important for us all to think about today: we should challenge ourselves to read things that we don't want to read, that might make us uncomfortable. We might think that we hate this character, so how are they going to tell a story that we're interested in? We've got to read that stuff. And I think that's such an important lesson for all of us. Chaucer makes that didacticism seem very undidactic because he makes it all so fun and interesting. When you talk about why he is still read, there are so many different reasons, but one unfashionable reason is that he is a genius. The poetry is brilliant in so many ways. It's amazingly well crafted, it's experimental, it's beautiful, it's clever. He was brilliant at what he did.
There was a debate a few years ago now, about Chaucer being read in the original or in the modernized version. What's your take on the modern translations of Chaucer?
It completely depends on why you're reading Chaucer. When we're teaching Chaucer at university in a literature department, we're teaching the original because we're teaching the language as well – we're teaching the poetic form, we're teaching the language and the imagery which Chaucer himself was using. But when people are reading Chaucer on their own, without the structure of study, they should read Chaucer in whatever way they want. There are some dual-text editions. Some people might want to read a translation; some people might want to start with a translation and then go to the original; some people might want to start with really radicalA person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform, or a description of that change. adaptations which take Chaucer into completely different directions and then maybe go back to the original text. When you're not doing it for study, when you're reading this in your own time, you should do whatever makes you happy and you enjoy. I don't think we should be purist about this. Chaucer himself is translating other texts; he's adapting them; he's experimental. He was a very modern poet. I don't think he would have wanted to be pickled in aspic and not made part of the everyday world today.
Just using the vernacularThe language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region. set him apart, didn't it?
Chaucer is writing at a time when the vernacular is starting to explode, so there are other people writing in English at this time – people such as the anonymous poet of Gawain and the Green Knight, or Langland's Piers Plowman. Someone like his friend John Gower, who wrote three major poems – one in English, one in French, one in Latin – is more typical of what you might expect at this time: someone who's beginning to write in English, but they're not letting go of French and Latin. As far as we know, Chaucer only ever wrote in English. But in a way, what's more important than him writing in English is the kinds of things that he wrote in English. There'd been an unbroken tradition of English verse for hundreds and hundreds of years, but he did things like taking the French form of the dit amoureuxA fourteenth-century French poetic tradition focusing of courtly love (literally 'tales of love')., which had always been in French, and put that into English. No one had ever heard or read poems like that in English before, so he was saying, 'English can do this.' He took Italian forms that Boccaccio and Dante had developed and made them into new English forms. Chaucer invents the iambic pentameterA style of poetry, known to the general public mainly through studying Shakespeare at school, where lines of a verse are split into five 'feet', or groups of syllables, with one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. ; he invents a poetic form called rhyme royal. He was really pushing what English poetry could do.
He's such a fascinating man, not just because of his literary output, but, as you mentioned, he was friends with John Gower; he was in the court circles; he was tied up in Richard II's usurpationThe taking of someone's power or property by force. by Henry IV.
Chaucer's life was extraordinary. My previous book was a biography of Chaucer, Chaucer: A European Life, where I wrote a lot about the different experiences he had: he was a prisoner of war in France, he was an MP, he was paid in wine, he travelled very, very widely. His life was just fascinating. And it was partly those travels to Italy that really helped him to change what English poetry could do because he acquired Italian manuscriptsBooks, documents, or piece of musics written by hand rather than typed or printed. Later, pieces of work that have not yet been published.. Educated English men were trilingual in English, French and Latin, but he could also speak Italian and read and write Italian, probably because he had a mercantile background, brought up in London where there were lots of Italian bankers. Then he got the court position, which meant he could be sent on diplomatic missions to Italy. Because he's straddling those worlds, mercantile and courtly, he got those opportunities.
He worked for both Richard II and Henry IV. Henry IV was the son of John of Gaunt, who was probably the most important person across Chaucer's life, who patronized him in many different ways. Chaucer's sister-in-law ended up married to John of Gaunt after having been his mistress for twenty years. So Chaucer had high up court connections, but was himself someone who always worked for a living, particularly as a customs officer, also as clerk of the King's Works, when he was in charge of buildings such as the Tower of London. He was in charge of the mews at one point – which housed the king's birds, in what's now Trafalgar Square. He did all kinds of interesting jobs. As far as we know, he never earned a penny from his writing: he was always earning money from the day job and then going home and writing The Canterbury Tales at night, by candlelight. How infuriating!
What attracted you initially to specializing in Chaucer? Was it because he's an amazing person? Was it because you fell in love with his poetry?
It was about his poetry. I first read Chaucer a bit when I was a teenager at school, as do a lot of people. For most people, they are drawn to it as soon as they read it. There might be some people who have a block before they actually read it, but the usual experience is you are introduced to it and think, 'This is extraordinary.' Probably a bit later in my late teens I then read The House of Fame, which was one of his really experimental poems. It astonished me because it was so different from anything that at that point I would have expected from a medieval author. It's this story where he talks about a version of himself as someone who has writer's block and goes travelling to find poetic inspiration. He's seized by an eagle and taken up to the Spheres, where he goes on this journey through thinking about what poetic authority is, what the canon is. Where does authority come from? Where do we get inspiration? He can't get inspiration from the great authors. He ends up in this cacophony of sounds and rumours, and it's amongst ordinary people that he gets his inspiration. But this is all deeply influenced by Virgil and Ovid. There's a lot going on: texts come to life and speak to each other and speak to him. It's what we would naïvely think of as 'post-modern', because usually we don't expect medieval people to be thinking like that. Mostly we're taught to think that people hundreds of years ago were not as sophisticated and edgy as modern thinkers. And that's completely wrong. So, it was reading The House of Fame that really switched me on to the fact that these staid, serious olden times were nothing of the sort. It made me realize that medieval poetry was exceptionally novel. I often say that Chaucer was so newfangled that he, in fact, invented the word newfangled.
I'd like to finish off by asking you about next projects.
I've got a big project that I'm not allowed to talk about. So I can't talk about that book, but I can tell you about an exhibition that I'm curating with an accompanying book, which is going to be at the Weston Library at the Bodleian. It's opening in December and running until April 2024. It's called Chaucer Here and Now, and it's about Chaucer right across time. It's got the earliest manuscript of The Canterbury Tales in it. It goes through Victorian Chaucer; women reading Chaucer; translations of Chaucer into lots of languages, including Ukrainian and Esperanto; modern Chaucer – pull-out, pop-up books, Zadie Smith's Wife of Willesden, all those contemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time. Chaucers. It's arguing that each generation invents their own Chaucer. And there's going to be a book that accompanies it called Chaucer Here and Now.
Imagine you've got a TARDIS. Where would you go? What would you see?
My immediate thought is absolutely to go back to Chaucer's time because I've spent so much of my life writing about him, thinking about him, so going back actually to talk to him and to see if some of the things I've conjectured and speculated about are true would be extraordinary. There's a temptation to go to somewhere which we know much less about, because we do know a lot about Chaucer's time – there's a huge amount of records on Chaucer. So, the other thing that I immediately think about is the Trojan WarA war that may or may not have actually happened, around the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE, between the Trojans and Greeks. It entered into mythology based on the Greek poet Homer's (C8 BCE) famous epic poem, the Iliad (and the Odyssey). to see what really happened: was there a Helen, and what happened? So much of it is imagined and conjectured.
If you were to have a dinner party and if there were no translation issues, who would you have as dinner guests?
Obviously I've got to have Chaucer. I think I'd probably have a woman writer from around the same time, maybe Christine de Pisan.Christine de Pisan was an Italian-born French poet who became a court writer for Charles VI of France, among others, to support herself and her family after her husband died of plague in 1389. I'd probably want to jump across time a bit. I've just mentioned the Trojan War, so maybe someone like Homer. That would obviously be amazing. I would love to have Jane Austen. I'd also like to have ordinary people because you can immediately think, 'It’d be so fascinating to talk to that emperor or that queen', but actually, it would be so interesting to have an ordinary, everyday woman from the fourteenth century, or from the first century in Rome. What were they like; what were their experiences?
You can purchase The Wife of Bath: A Biography here.