It was almost inevitable that I would do this scene - it's the old English teacher in me coming out.
So, here's the story ....
A weary traveler, still in her wimple, smiles in her sleep.
Surrounded by the trappings of her journey to Canterbury, she is so glad to be home.
Apparently, she had a sip or two of wine before falling asleep. There on the floor next to the stack of books is the silver cup. And looks like she only managed to remove one red stocking before collapsing in exhaustion onto her bed.
Her bedside table is a wine cabinet that belonged to one of her wealthy husbands. He may have been a wine merchant; the cabinet still contains a cask on the top shelf.
On the top is the pot that held her mulled wine; beside it an untouched before-bedtime snack her maid had brought. Called the voide, the snack is intended to aid digestion and includes spiced cake with dried or fresh fruits. Guess she was just too tired to eat it.
You may ask, "Who is this woman, Wanna? And how do you know she has been all the way to Canterbury?"
Well, let me tell you ...
A new middle class had arisen and prospered by Geoffrey Chaucer's time in the Middle Ages, after the Black Death had killed off most of the population earlier in the century. It became fashionable to take pilgrimages to religious shrines, much as we might visit a theme park or spend our vacation in the mountains or on a lake or at the seashore. Just as we bring back postcards or regional crafts or items from nature, returning pilgrims often brought souvenirs as visible symbols of their religious devotion and as proof they had actually made these often grueling journeys.
In Chaucer's day, the most popular pilgrimage in England was to the tomb of St.Thomas á Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who had been murdered at the instigation of the king two hundred years before. Pilgrims to this shrine at Canterbury Cathedral often returned with a badge of St. Thomas á Becket, or even an ampule containing a drop of his blood.
Thousands of people took these pilgrimages, and the anniversary of Becket's death was the setting for one of Chaucer's most famous writings, The Canterbury Tales.
"Bifel that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde."
It is in this group at the Tabard tavern that Chaucer introduces us to Alisoun, The Wife of Bath, one of the most interesting females in literature. Independent and assertive, by her own acknowledgment she is expert in the old game of love and marriage, after five husbands, and in addition to seeking the grave of the beloved St. Thomas she is no doubt looking for husband number six.
The pilgrims agree to travel together for safety and companionship; and to pass the time as they ride, they will each tell a story.
Chaucer describes Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, for us in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales ...
"At making cloth she had so great a bent
She bettered those of Ypres and even of Ghent,"
(superior cloth makers in Belgium)
Look at that! She even took her hand spinner along so she could amuse herself when no young men were around to entertain her.
"Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red,
Close gartered, …"
"Upon an anbler easily she sat,
Well wimpled aye, and over all a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a targe;
A rug was tucked around her buttocks large,
And on her feet a pair of sharpened spurs."
After some of the other pilgrims had told their stories, she began the Prologue to hers ...
"Now, sirs, now will I tell you forth my tale.
And as I may drink ever wine and ale,…"
"I will tell truth of husbands that I've had,
For three of them were good and two were bad.
The three were good men and were rich and old.
And by my faith I set by it no store.
They'd given me their gold, and treasure more."
The Wife's first husband, rich and old, left her this money coffer and account book, which she still uses.
The books which serve as her nightstand were from a former student at Oxford,
"My fifth husband, may God his spirit bless!
Whom I took all for love, and not riches..."
In a time when most women had little power and even less money, Alisoun was not an ordinary woman. Wealthy because of her first husbands and also a businesswoman in her own right in the wool trade, she definitely was no stay-at-home housewife. Chaucer tells us that
"Three times she'd journeyed to Jerusalem;
And many a foreign stream she'd had to stem;
At Rome she'd been, and she'd been in Boulogne,
In Spain at Santiago, and at Cologne."
…………………… She could tell much of wandering by the way:
(Apparently, the Wife had convinced some strong young male pilgrim to bring this heavy wooden cross all the way home from Jerusalem for her.)
See it propped on the ledge next to her bed? Also note the empty wineglass, the red stocking, a black shoe and one spur (a bit blurred; too much wine?) in the floor. Looks like Alisoun or her maid did hang up her pilgrim's cloak and big black hat, although her traveling rug still lies across the foot of the bed.
This daintier cross that now hangs over her bed was probably carried all the way from Spain for her by another young pilgrim. She also had brought back a fine sword from her pilgrimage to Cologne, but it has disappeared somewhere, perhaps taken by some other young man in her past.
"But thereof there's no need to speak, in truth."
Like many other pilgrims, the Wife likes to keep the souvenirs of her journeys close at hand for others to see. Her leather basket contains maps, a cross from Bologne, dried palm branches (travelers to Jerusalem were called 'palm-bringers' because of the palm branches they brought home), keys (travelers to Rome were called 'Rome-goers', their symbol the keys of St. Peter and St. Paul), and a scallop shell, from perhaps the most famous of all the pilgrimages, her journey to Santiago de Campostella in Spain, the reputed site of the grave of St. James.
These symbols, along with their pilgrim's cloak, walking stick, and the pouch in which they carried their possessions (often adorned by a stitched-on scallop shell if they'd been to Campostella), all were a way travelers could show proof of their pilgrimages.
Since the sword has disappeared, there is no obvious symbol in this scene for the Wife's pilgrimage to Cologne Cathedral. The shrine there covers what are said to be the bones of the Three Wise Men, a priestly caste in ancient Persia who paid homage to the infant Jesus by following a star. Professing the doctrines of Zoroastrianism, the Magi practiced a ritual that involved pouring concoctions of milk, oil, and honey over a flame while chanting prayers and hymns. Gradually, Babylonian elements, including astrology, demonology, and magic were incorporated into their religion. From magi comes our modern word magic.
There is a great deal of sooty wax on her candlestick.
And a mysterious leather box in the Wife's wine cabinet. Hmmm....
Also visible on the wine cabinet's shelves are a folded deep red velvet skirt, embroidered shoes and a beaded headdress from her younger days when
"Therefore I made my visits round about
To vigils and processions of devout,
To preaching too, and shrines of pilgrimage,
To miracle plays, and always to each marriage,
And wore my scarlet skirt before all wights."
She attributes her numerous husbands and her talents in love to the astrological signs under which she was born. (Although the earliest mention of Tarot cards did not appear until the mid-1400's, maybe these were the prototypes she found in her pilgrimage to Rome!)
"For truly, I am all Venusian
In feeling, and my brain is Martian.
Venus gave me my lust, my lickerishness,
And Mars gave me my sturdy hardiness.
Taurus was my ascendant, with Mars therein.
Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!
I followed always my own inclination
By virtue of my natal constellation;"
Well, Chaucer also said of her that
"… The remedies of love she knew, perchance,
For of that art she'd learned the old, old dance. "
This potion bottle with its wooden stopcock always accompanies her on her travels. Obviously she used it along the way, because its red sealing wax is gone! It hangs even now on the corner of her wine cabinet.
Perhaps these other potions brought back from some of those early exotic pligrimage sites explain why the male pilgrims carried those crosses and other souvenirs for her!
Chaucer never finished The Canterbury Tales, whether intentionally or not. He asks us if we know
"... where ther stant a litel toun
Which that ycleped is Bobbe-up-and-doun,
Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye?"
He left his pilgrims at a fork in the road only about a mile from Canterbury, so we aren't told if they reached the grave of St. Thomas or not.
The route they took in their journey is shown on the wall over Alisoun's bed. They began at Southwerk, upper left, and Boughton-under-Blee, where he left them, is shown as BobupandDown in the lower right corner (obscured by her bed hangings in this picture).
So, once again you ask, "Wanna, how do you know that The Wife of Bath did go on to Canterbury, since even Geoffrey Chaucer didn't tell us?"
Well, we can't tell by looking at her travel pouch (a leather pouch with a scallop shell that she picked up in Santiago).
The only things left inside the bag now are things she might've had with her even if she hadn't gone on to Canterbury - her dagger, a few gold coins, her riding quirt (no, I don't see it there; she must've already put it away), and a couple of jars lying atop the pouch.
Those jars are medieval seasonings - something like the blends we have today in poultry seasoning and pumpkin pie spice - Powder Fort, a strong blend of spices that almost always contained pepper, never sugar, and Powder Douce, a blend containing sugar and perhaps cinnamon, etc. Perhaps they are the special recipes of one of her fellow pilgrims, Hodge of Ware, the Cook. Stoppered with finely stuffed lamb's wool and tied with string, they are sealed with melted red wax.
In those days before refrigeration, herbs and spices were greatly prized because they helped mask the smell and taste of rancid meat. Perhaps Alisoun's own cook persuaded her to be on the lookout for new mixtures. Or, she could've gotten these seasonings soon after she became acquainted with the Cook. So, no proof there ....
She (or the maid) apparently has put away most of her traveling things, including her lantern, and hung up her cloak and hat, for instance, neither of which answer our question.
Aha! But the proof that The Wife of Bath did reach Canterbury is on the corner of her wine cabinet by the candle wax. There, ready to join the collection of symbols from her other pilgrimages, is an ampule containing a drop of the blood of St.Thomas á Becket, martyred two hundred years before!
The half-smile on the Wife's dreaming face suggests that not only did she visit the tomb of the blessed St.Thomas á Becket, but maybe she also made the acquaintance on this pilgrimage of future husband number six!
For anyone interested in a literary treatment of the conflict between Thomas a' Becket and the King that led to Becket's eventual martyrdom, read T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. This is a good piece for choral reading; I have done it with my classes. There was also an excellent movie that came out in the 60's, Becket, starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.
There are more pictures and background of the making of this scene in My Workroom and The Wife of Bath In Progress. I also mentioned in those pages the story of the cross hanging over Alisoun's bed. It is special because it was made for me by Mrs. Fernando Orrantia, the mother of my dear friend, Fernie, with whom I taught for many years.
In my research I discovered that the Cook was supposedly Hodge of Ware, and that Hodge was a form of the name Roger. I was intrigued since my step-father's name was Hodge, and as far as I know neither he nor any of his family was aware of that tidbit of information.
The red-orange pitcher on the wine cabinet was among a collection of pitchers I found at an antique sale in a church basement in New Hampshire. I bought all their smallest pitchers that day. Another one, a blue one, is shown in the Kitchen Box in the Miscellany page.
The Wife's rug was a medieval swap item from Moonyeen Moller.
Nancy M. McKenna, coordinator of Complex Weavers' Medieval Textiles, who knows everything there is to know about weaving, provided me with some carded raw silk (the white "wool" in the Wife's basket) and the two skeins of different hand-dyed red wool. The hand spinner came from a MiniProjects group member, Steph, also in the medieval swap; but somehow with computer problems I have lost her full name. If anyone recognizes this contribution, please let me know, so I may acknowledge her here.
Marian, a student of Medieval popular culture as well as an ex-English teacher and a visitor to my website, offered some important information about what would or wouldn't have been used during the Wife's life time. Although I do a great deal of research for all my stories, occasionally I lapse, and an anachronistic detail slips in, sometimes for poetic license, sometimes inadvertently. (This is the reason my wizard is called Anachronon. lol)
Living in the desert, I had no ready access to scallop shells, so when I put out a call on the old SmallStuff online miniatures list, several persons responded, including Anne Gerdes, Wendy Bayer, Mary in FL, Lorrie Harvey, Rhonda in FL, Rose Stout and Grace Shaw. Alice Zinn even sculpted a scallop shell for me; it is in the leather basket. I have enough tiny shells, or sources for them, to do other scenes as well!
The shoes on the wine cabinet shelf were made by Sylvia Roundtree; the potion bottle was made by Greene & Greene Pottery.
I am grateful to all these individuals and others who helped me translate my imagination into this scene. And most of all, I am grateful to all those students (and fellow teachers) who through my teaching years traveled with me and Alisoun and the other Pilgrims on the way to Canterbury.
You can read about making the Wife of Bath here, and get a glimpse of this roombox and the Wife in progress by clicking Next below.