It’s easy to revile or romanticize the medieval church as a monolith of religious attitudes. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, however, opens a view to the 1300s of extraordinary richness and color.

The son of a wealthy vintner, Chaucer (1343–1400) lived most of his life at court, serving as a soldier, judge, member of parliament, and ambassador. Chaucer also composed poems and courtly romances, and in later years, his earthy, realistic Canterbury Tales.

The Tales introduce us to roughly two dozen pilgrims making their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To amuse themselves, they engage in a storytelling contest.

Chaucer portrays his pilgrims with a vividness and detail unmatched by any British writer before him (or any but Shakespeare and Dickens since), and religious themes color almost every page. Though a work of fiction, Canterbury Tales has helped historians peek into late-1300s English life. Here are sketches of four of Chaucer’s revealing characters.

The Wife of Bath

Genial rebel

Flamboyantly dressed, with a hat “broad as a shield,” the sunny, talkative Wife of Bath gallops through the Tales as one of literature’s most endearing religious rebels.

The Wife, Alisoun, was married first at age 12—and then four more times after that. She has outlived all five, speaks of them with rough affection, and waits to “welcome the sixth, whenever he appears.” In the meantime, the Wife carries on a vigorous crusade against the church’s attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and women.

Having been criticized for her multiple marriages, Alisoun defends her right to marry as long as she can continue to outlive her husbands. Where does the Bible say we can marry only once? Solomon, Abraham, and Jacob were holy men, and none ...

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