This month we spoke to Professor Marion Turner (MA Oxon, MA York, DPhil Oxon) an alumna who is the first female biographer of Chaucer. We discuss her successful career and the new book she is currently working on, all about the importance of gender in history. With Covid being ever present in our minds, we spoke about how the plague affected women’s rights in the 14th Century and how, even now, many women’s voices still struggle to be heard.
What made you choose York to do your Masters in Medieval Studies?
I came to York in 1997-1998, because it offered such an interesting interdisciplinary Master’s course. My first degree, from Oxford, was in English Language and Literature, and before starting on a doctorate in medieval literature I wanted to have the opportunity to study history, history of art, and archaeology alongside literature. In my year at York I made some of the best friends of my life, and am still in close touch with several of them. I lived in a shared house just near the city walls. My course was based at the King’s Manor in the city itself, so we spent a lot of time in the town as well as on campus. I have very fond memories of Café Concerto next to the Minster.
What did the early stages of your career look like and how did it develop?
After my doctorate, which I did at Oxford, I had a Junior Research Fellowship at Magdalen College and then got a Lectureship at King’s College London. In 2007, I got my current job – Tutorial Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. I was recently promoted to full Professor. My early published work tended to be very specialist, as is normal for academics, and that kind of work is vital in all fields. But with my last book, I reached a broader audience. My biography of Chaucer – Chaucer: A European Life, published by Princeton UP in 2019 – changed my career in various ways. It won and was shortlisted for several prizes and was picked as a ‘book of year’ by a number of newspapers. I made many radio and TV appearances and spoke at literary festivals. Writing a biography allowed me to focus on interdisciplinary interests, and I chose to write for non-specialists as well as specialists. It was thrilling for me to find out that there is a big audience for this kind of work – people who do not want things to be dumbed down, but are interested in big ideas, and proper research.
‘Chaucer: A European Life‘ got a lot of attention, and some reviewers focused on the fact that you are the first female biographer of Chaucer. Why does that matter?
It is interesting that, while there have been very many biographies of Chaucer none of the biographers before me were women. I certainly wrote more about the women in Chaucer’s life – including his first employer who bought him figure-hugging clothes, and his daughter, Elizabeth, who lived in a fascinatingly sociable nunnery – whom no one had really been interested in before. However, I think in some ways this had more to do with the fact that I was writing in the twenty-first century – I’m sure lots of male biographers in this day and age would also have written more about gender than those in earlier times.
Your next book is about gender in history – can you tell us more about it?
My next book is a biography of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath across time, from her sources in antiquity to Zadie Smith’s forthcoming play based on Chaucer’s character. Alison of Bath is a much-married, working, widely-travelled woman who talks at length about her experiences of sex, domestic violence, and institutional misogyny. She is a new kind of literary character with depth and complexity – while also being based on particular ‘types.’ And both Chaucer and his readers treated her differently from other characters, giving her more space to speak and allowing her to escape into other texts. The first half of my book explores the literary stereotypes that lie behind this character while also looking at how she connects to real medieval women’s experiences. So I move between literature and history to unpick how people thought about women and female characters in the later medieval period – and there were some amazing medieval women. In the second half of the book, I trace how later readers and writers reacted to her, as the Wife of Bath has had unprecedented influence – from Shakespeare to Voltaire, Dryden to James Joyce. Ballads about her were burnt and printers imprisoned; she travelled all over Europe and beyond; and in recent years we have seen fabulous postcolonial Alisons created by several women of colour. It is a great story.
What can we learn or what have you learnt that you think is key to us now?
Well, some of the issues that the Wife of Bath was concerned about are still live issues today. She complains, for instance, that the canon has been written by men, and that books are biased against women because women have not had the chance to tell their own story. The same things were said hundreds of years later by women such as Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. And although of course there have been improvements, analyses of the space given to reviewing books by men compared to books by women, or to shortlists for book prizes, suggest that women still struggle to get their voices heard. When you look at responses to the Wife of Bath, some of the reactions in the 15th century were less overtly misogynist than many 20th century responses – it isn’t the case that women’s rights have always been progressing. Obviously it is much better to be a woman now (in most countries) than it was 600 years ago, but many of the same problems are depressingly present.
How were women’s rights affected by the plague in the fourteenth century?
In the era of Covid, lots of us have been thinking about past pandemics. The Black Death was a plague like no other – when it came to England in the 1340s, when Chaucer was about 6, it killed perhaps a third or a half of the population. For those who survived, however, there were economic improvements – there was the same amount of land to farm, but fewer labourers, so wages went up, and people could move around more for opportunities. This affected women as well as men, and indeed more women entered the labour market, moved to towns, and commanded better wages. While women were still treated very much as inferiors in the law, things were not as bad as people often assume. For mercantile, urban women in particular, there was good legal protection in terms of inheritance laws, and women could run businesses, employ apprentices, and earn (and keep) their money. Their situation was far better in England and in north-west Europe generally than it was in southern Europe, for instance, at this time.
What has been a highlight of your career so far?
I loved publicising Chaucer: A European Life, as I was able to talk to so many people and spread my enthusiasm about medieval literature and history to wider audiences. One of my favourite events was speaking at Hay on Wye festival to nearly a thousand people – the adrenalin of talking live to an interested audience is hard to beat, and then I was able to talk personally to many of the attendees afterwards at the book-signing. I can’t wait for festivals to be possible again after Covid.
What is next in your career or what else would you like to accomplish?
My next book – Alison’s Tale: A Biography of the Wife of Bath – will come out in a year or two’s time, and I’m looking forward to seeing how people respond. I’m also beginning to plan for a major exhibition on ‘Chaucer Here and Now,’ that I’m going to be curating at the Bodleian Library in autumn/winter 2023, so I’m really looking forward to that. There will be an accompanying book, and hopefully by then big gatherings will be normal again for us, so lots of people will be able to come and see the manuscripts and other objects in the exhibition. But I also love doing some of the things that I’ve been doing for years – teaching brilliant undergraduates and (hopefully) inspiring them, doing outreach with schools, supervising innovative doctoral students. I’m very lucky to have a job that I love.
You can purchase Marion’s book here.
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