Among the 29 pilgrims that set off from the Tabard Inn to visit Canterbury in Chaucer’s ‘Prologue, were just a few women – a Prioress, another Nun and a lady described as ‘A Woman of Bath’. All the others were a large cross-section of men – from the Knight all the way down to the ill-mannered and foul-mouthed miller, with many interesting characters in between.
We will take look at the ‘Woman of Bath’. Chaucer starts by informing us that came from the City of Bath, which is towards the West of England, in the county of Somerset. Although she was ‘somewhat deaf’ Chaucer admires her skills in what he called ‘making cloth’, probably meaning weaving. As Bath was a centre of the cloth trade, it is possible that one of her husbands had been a cloth-maker. According to the trade custom of the time, that would have given anyone who married his widow the right to succeed to his place in the cloth-maker’s guild which might account for the Wife’s own skill in the craft.
“A worthy woman from beside Bath city
Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity.
In making cloth she showed so great a bent
She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent.”
A strange character description then follows which includes mention of her expensive taste in clothes, including a ‘kerchief’ which was usually a triangular or square piece of cloth tied around the head, face or neck for protective or decorative purposes. Chaucer writes –
“In all the parish not a dame dared stir
Towards the altar steps in front of her,
And if indeed they did, so wrath was she
As to be quite put out of charity.
Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground;
I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound,
The ones she wore on Sunday, on her head.
Her hose were of the finest scarlet red
And gartered tight; her shoes were soft and new.
Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue.”
This ‘Woman of Bath’ had certainly seen her fair share of life as well as having travelled extensively on pilgrimages –
“A worthy woman all her life, what’s more
She’d had five husbands, all at the church door,
Apart from other company in youth;
No need just now to speak of that, forsooth.
And she had thrice been to Jerusalem,
Seen many strange rivers and passed over them;
She’d been to Rome and also to Boulogne,
St James of Compostella and Cologne,
And she was skilled in wandering by the way.”
She must have been quite an imposing sight and a lady to whom you paid attention. She was obviously someone who was well-dressed, a little plump and could certainly ride a horse. In addition, she was clearly very good company and was probably what we now call ‘the life and soul of the party’. Not only does Chaucer mention that ‘she liked to laugh and chat’ but she also ‘knew the oldest dances’ –
She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say.
Easily on an ambling horse she sat
Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a shield;
She had a flowing mantle that concealed
Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that.
In company she liked to laugh and chat
And knew the remedies for love’s mischances,
An art in which she knew the oldest dances.
Chaucer does not mention that she had a lady companion which confirms that she was happy to travel alone – maybe, looking for her sixth husband! Who knows? Although much has been made of her character by other writers and in dramatisations of her tale, she remains very modern in her outlook. She would not look out of place in today’s society.