Meg Roland
Chaucer Seminar
Prof. John Coldewey
30 November 1998

Multimodality: A Visual/Textual Reading of the Ellesmere 'Wife of Bath'


The Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales--and in particular the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale--solicits a "multimodal" strategy of interpretation which relies on the combined semiotic interaction of text, gloss, border decoration, and visual image. The illumination of the Ellesmere manuscript, dated to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, has been described as "the most elaborate found in any manuscript of the poem (Blake 66). As social semioticians, Gunter Kress and Theo van Leeuwen argue:

any text whose meanings are realized through more than one semiotic code is multimodal . . .We seek to be able to look at the whole page as an integrated text . . .We seek to break down the disciplinary boundaries between the study of language and the study of images" (183).
Michael Camille's interpretive strategy in Image on the Edge also considers the interrelatedness of the elements of the page; rather than "looking at the meaning of specific motifs, which are often reproduced as isolated details," Camille focuses on "their function as part of the whole page, text, object or space in which they are anchored" (11).

As textual scholarship gives greater valence to individual versions rather than a unified "work," readings of versions provide insight into specific textual manifestations within the "life" of a given work. Reading the visual images of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale acknowledges the Ellesmere's particular interplay of text and image which produced meanings for a fifteenth century audience--a "textual community"--which had a strong visual vocabulary. As Kress and van Leeuwen point out, we are just emerging from a text-dominated culture, one rooted in Renaissance sensibilities and dominated by the "dense text page." With the advent of hypertext and web-based documents, in which images form an important component, interest is refocusing on visual literacy and the semiotic practice of reading images in conjunction with literary texts. For the better part of the last century, such interplay has, in general, been confined to commercial advertisement and to children's books. Kress and van Leeuwen note that this " multimodality of written texts has, by and large been ignored . . .Today, in the age of 'multimedia,' it can suddenly be perceived again." (39).

In this study of the pages of the Ellesmere manuscript, I first explore the growing critical discussion of reading images as part of texts and consider interpretive implications. The semiotic theories and vocabulary of Kress and van Leeuwen are then employed to suggest an approach to reading the Wife of Bath's Tale in the Ellesmere manuscript based on both image and poetic text. Although Kress and van Leeuwen's work is not specifically directed toward medieval iconography, and indeed points to work in the hypertext medium, their work has a particularly strong resonance for medieval studies in which images play a significant interpretive function. The application of a social semiotic theory of images to medieval manuscripts is yet another aspect of what Rosemarie P. McGerr terms the "growing dialogue" between Chaucerian studies and modern theory (6). The social textual theories of Jerome McGann1 provide a theoretical background for this examination of a particular manifestation of a text with multiple "authors," including poet, limners, artists and scribes.

Reading Medieval Images

The Ellesmere manuscript has both poetic and visual "authors" and provides one of the earliest readings of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Robert Sturges notes a growing recognition of medieval literary production as a communal enterprise:

Because of these recent developments in the editing of medieval works, we may be in a position to recognize and evaluate the resemblances between premodern literary practice and postmodern literary theory. The issue can be enunciated in overtly political terms: whereas post-romantic ideology posits a centralized authority in the author . . .postmodern ideology valorizes instead the freedom from such an authority implied both by Derrida's Utopian/anarchic free play, and by the creative participation in literary creation by an entire community . . . .(130)
Sturges suggests a method which "values both reading and writing as a unified communal experience, and therefore privileges a text as it was actually experienced, rather than as it was intended" (124). It is not enough, therefore, to ask what Chaucer's intention was in representing the Wife of Bath, but rather to consider the semiotic exchange between poet, artists, and readers.

Drawing on the visual semiotic theory of Kress and van Leeuwen (whose work, in turn, is based on the semiotic theories of Roland Barthes and Michael Haliday), I will argue that the Ellesmere manuscript presents a unique reading of the Canterbury Tales based on the interplay of the modality cues which comprise the semiotic system, or "text." Kress and van Leeuwen argue that the key to understanding texts with visual components lies in "an understanding of the visual semiotic means which are used to weld these heterogeneous elements into a coherent whole, into a text" (55). The page, then, is composed of "lexis" which can include words, blocks of text-as-image, images and the relation of these elements.

In the Ellesmere manuscript, the gloss, border motif, and equestrian portrait of the opening page of the EllesmereWife of Bath's Tale (72r) speak to layers of interpretation that present complexity and dynamic interaction. The opening page of the Ellesmere Wife of Bath's Tale includes a border motif which amplifies her fecundity, and a gloss which presents a tension between text and margin, representing the Wife of Bath's Tale as fundamentally concerned with issues of interpretation. In being portrayed as riding astride, rather than sidesaddle, the equestrian image visually distinguishes the Wife from her female companions on the pilgrimage and heightens the sense of the Wife's aggressive sexuality. What is only implied in one line of the poetic text becomes a major visual cue that provides a commentary on the Wife's character. Further, the equestrian portraits of all the pilgrims increase the perceived "reality" of the represented participants (the fictional pilgrims) as the narrators of their tales. The equestrian portraits in the Ellesmere accentuate a sense of movement both on the page and symbolically, thus amplifying the metaphor of pilgrimage. Rather than mere illustration, the image, gloss, and intertwining vines create a visual interlacement which both distracts from and points to the text, enhancing a poetic reading of circularity and interpretation. I will argue, then, that reading the visual and textual lexis of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale creates additional meaning and insight into Chaucer's earliest audience and literary collaborators.

The practice of reading images in medieval texts as part of the semiotic code is a strong critical interest in contemporary Chaucer studies. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor, in their preface to Women and the Book call for visual evidence to be added to the repertoire of New Historicist critical tools, arguing that "visual evidence must be used along with the texts it supports or illustrates, as well as with the fruits of other disciplines, economic, political, or theological" (16). But Camille rightly recognizes that visual texts do more than merely support or illustrate: "Once the manuscript page is no longer one of flowing linear speech, the stage is set not only for supplementation and annotations but also for disagreement and juxtaposition--what the scholars call disputatio" (21). Rosemarie McGerr uses the concept of disputato to argue for multiple interpretations, of which visual images are an integral part:

the juxtaposition of images in a diptych or a triptych, or in the margins around a manuscript miniature, each image creates a dialogue in which each image "comments" on the other or suggests a different set of values as a basis for interpretation. (42)
Further, Smith and Taylor recognize the visual images as sign--one which carries all the interpretive possibilities as text:
Whereas semioticians long ago . . .realized that the value of the word as sign was ambivalent and ambiguous, the visual image as sign has only latterly been subjected to the same exegetical process. (15)

V.A. Kolve searches the Canterbury Tales for the visual images imaginatively created by Chaucer's text, using visual analogues to support his explication of garden, prison, horse, and the rudderless boat. Kolve recognizes that "pictures often carry meaning other than the purely representational" (vii) and describes his book as one in which "pictures and text are seen to cast a mutual light" (vii). But Kolve stops short of reading the images as part of the dynamic meaning-making within the context of the tales themselves. Kolve's work lacks the terminology for successfully integrating a reading of the images on the page as anything more than support for the images created by the words on the page. While Kolve notes that medieval illuminations have been recognized by medieval scholars as not "purely representational" (vii), there clearly has been a critical tendency to read images solely in light of their faithful adherence to the text rather than as generators of meaning (possibly conflicting) in their own right. For example, Kolve dismisses the value of two of the Ellesmere portraits as failed representations of the poetic text. In regard to the Miller's portrait, he states: "The image is entirely discordant with the narrative assigned. Nothing about the sullen figure hunched over the bagpipes . . . suggests a narrator capable of the high energy and genial affirmations of The Miller's Tale" (219). Kolve regards the portrait as at odds with the narrative, characterizing it as inaccurate, but doesn't explore the reading dynamic this tension creates. Kolve's conclusion is limited to the judgement that "the Cambridge portrait is more faithful than its Ellesmere equivalent" (Kolve 222). Similarly, Charles Owen states that the Ellesmere "takes a far more responsible attitude [than Lansdowne] toward Chaucer's text" (13), reducing the problematic interpretation of images to the more narrow question of whether they are faithful or not to the textual images. Such a view does not consider the visual artist as an autonomous or co-creator of the more broadly-defined concept of "text"--a concept which includes the signs generated by both the verbal and visual elements. Camille argues that the "margins were not only the site for representing 'the other" . . .but also the place of self-inscription for the medieval artists" (150). Camille further comments that the margin is where the "artist played games with representation that . . .were deeply self-conscious" (154). The margin, gloss, and equestrian portraits merit careful study, then, to discover this self-conscious sign-making of the visual text.

Before turning to the terminology of visual semiotic theory and its application to the Wife of Bath's Tale, one additional element must be considered. What are the implications of reading images of medieval women? Feminist scholarship encourages the practice of investigating, in particular, the unique function of feminine images in medieval manuscripts. Smith sees images of women functioning in a dual role as "construction and as constructor," a role which "must be particularly born in mind when the images are of a largely disempowered group such as medieval women" (Smith 16). Thus, the Wife of Bath's equestrian portrait is not merely one of 22 portraits, but, as only one of three women represented in the poetic and visual texts, emblematic of cultural attitudes toward women in general and of a particular artist's representation of that construction. Because of the equestrian portrait's high salience on the page, the hermeneutic gap between poetic and visual portrait offers an interpretive space in which to consider the congruencies and tensions of the multimodal representation of the Wife in the Ellesmere. Therefore, an exploration of the opening page of the Wife's Tale in the Ellesmere might consider the intersection of the constructed image of a medieval woman and how that construction, in turn, effects the interpretive response-by fifteenth-century and contemporary audiences. The intersection of feminist scholarship and visual theory can not be extensively considered in the context of this study 2; however, the issues of the representation of women in poetic text, gloss, and image are inseparable from any inquiry into the Wife of Bath's Tale.

Multimodality - Vocabulary of the Visual

In Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, Kress and van Leeuwen argue for a grammatical terminology which recognizes the multimodality of texts and which argues that images form an essential part of the 'text." Among other elements, Kress and Van Leeuwen address the interpretation of vectors, shapes, salience, framing, left to right reading, represented and active participants, actor and goal. While Kress and van Leeuwen's theory is not specifically addressed to manuscript culture, their grammar of the visual provides useful terminology and an effective means of applying the language of interpreting images to literary works.

Kress and van Leeuwen approach spatial composition or "visual structuring" as "creating meaningful propositions by means of visual syntax" (45). They describe representation as a complex process which arises "out of the cultural, social and psychological history of the sign maker, and focused by the specific context in which the sign in produced . . .it is never the 'whole object' but only ever its critical aspects which are represented" (6). This Ellesmere equestrian portraits embody this point exactly: they are not "whole objects" to be judged by their success or failure to wholly represent each pilgrim, but rather are critical representations. The very point is to open these figures up to a similar critical inquiry as the verbal text.

Some of the elements of Kress and van Leeuwen's visual syntax include the formation of vectors by bodies, limbs, or tools "in action" (56). When participants are connected by a vector, "they are represented as doing something to or for each other" (56). Kress and van Leeuwen argue that vectorial relations are one way of determining meaning. What is the significance of the horses' heads apparently moving toward the text? Because of the vectors formed by the horse' heads, the terms "portrait" or "miniature" seems less satisfactory for the pilgrims' images of the Ellesmere than Rick Emmerson's term "equestrian portraits" which captures both the portrait and visual narrative aspects-created, in part, by vectors-of the page. Related to the term vector is that of "actor" to denote the figure taking action and "goal" to denote the object or person who is the recipient of that action.

Kress and van Leeuwen make the useful distinction between the "interactive participants" (those who "speak and listen or write and read, who make images or view them . . .those who communicate with each other through images") and the represented participants (the people, places, or things represented by the writing, speech or images) (48). Not a new distinction, to be sure, but one which brings the reader into the interpretive paradigm. Chaucer, the limners, scribes, artists, fifteenth-century readers and nineteenth-century readers are all interactive participants, while the Wife of Bath is a represented participant.

The effect of visual elements such as vectors, framing, shapes, and salience on a page disrupts the hegemonic left to right movement across the page imposed by Western reading practice. "In densely printed pages of text," Kress and van Leeuwen argue "reading is linear and strictly coded." But with visual texts, pages "can be read in more than one way. Their reading path is less strictly coded" (218). In the Ellesmere, the linear progression of the verbal text is disrupted by vines which curl back on themselves, by a marginal gloss which interrupts and challenges, and by the high salience and vectorial narrative of the equestrian portraits. The term "salience" is used by Kress and van Leeuwen to denote elements "made to attract the viewer's attention to different degrees" (181). The presence or absence of "framing," according to Kress and van Leeuwen, "disconnects or connects elements of the page, signifying that they belong or do not belong together in some sense" (183). In considering these visual signs, Kress and van Leeuwen raise the question of "whether the meanings of the whole should be treated as the sum of the meanings of the parts, or whether the parts should be looked upon as interacting with and affecting one another" (183). They argue for the latter, in which verbal text--as one portion of the semiotic code-is not considered as a discreet element, but rather part of the overall composition. The visual grammar of Kress and van Leeuwen provides essential interpretive tools for further study of the Ellesmere and for any illuminated medieval texts which incorporate the visual as a central semiotic function of the whole text.

On the opening page of the Wife of Bath's Tale, there are at least eight components of the total "text:" the decorated frame, the introductory statement (Here beginnith . . .), decorated rubrics marking paragraphs, the "body" of the verbal text, the wide right-hand margin, the running head which identifies the story teller ("Wife" on the verso, "of Bathe" on the recto pages) and the equestrian portrait of the Wife of Bath. On the pages of the Prologue and other pages in the tale, there is the additional element of the marginal gloss which also contains rubricated letters. A schematic "map" of the page recognizing the shapes employed in the page's design would encourage a circular movement of the eye around the page, a vectorial relation between the equestrian portraits( actor) and the body of the text (goal), and an interrupting reading "jump" between gloss and body. The circular movement of the page can be understood in terms of the world view of the late fourteenth century. "With God as the center of the medieval panopticon . . . most models of the cosmos, society, and even literary style were circular and centripetal" (Camille 14). In the Ellesmere, the body of the text forms a visual center, but other elements assert a relational presence to that center. Three major visual components: frame, gloss, and equestrian portraits provide a means of interpreting the semiotic codes--written and visual--of Chaucer's represented participant, the Wife of Bath.

Decorative Frame

The decorative frame of the Ellesmere is distinct from many late fourteenth- early fifteenth-century manuscripts in that it does not contain the whimsical and subversive figures such as those studied by Camille. Only on the first page of the General Prologue does the limner include a whimsical griffin in the lower right hand portion of the decorative frame-a lone iconographic presence in the manuscript. For the rest of the tales, the frame consists of flowers, vines and foliage only. In this regard, the Ellesmere appears to be a transition manuscript between the imaginative, playful manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the greater realism of the fifteenth century along with the standardization of the page which marked the development of the early book trade.

The decorative border is a three-sided frame, enclosing the text at top, bottom, and along the left, signifying a lower order of formality than a fully framed page.3 Emmerson speculates that the three-sided border, notably unusual for a late fourteenth- early fifteenth-century luxury manuscript, imposes a highly consistent, a-hierarchical order on the manuscript with none of the tales, not even the General Prologue, having greater authority or importance than any other. For the recto pages, this enables the gloss and portraits to be in interaction with the body of the text rather than being set outside a closed frame. But on the verso pages, this does not hold true: gloss and equestrian portraits which fall on verso pages are situated in the left margin, "outside" the frame of the decorative border. However, on the verso pages, the limners deviated from the standard border motif, adding additional vine scrolling so as to incorporate the gloss into the framing device (see Franklin's Tale, f123v). It is evident, therefore, that the design of the Ellesmere places a high value on the proximity to and incorporation of the gloss with the main poetic text. Care was taken that, where the design constraints of the verso pages could have created a frame which disconnected the floss from the text, visual cues were added to override the possible interpretation that the two elements did not belong together. Clearly, the interpretive exchange of gloss and verbal text are a meaning-producing element of the Ellesmere. Whether the gloss was provided by the scribes or was Chaucer's own meta-commentary, the semiotics of the page are that of interpretation and commentary situating the Canterbury Tales in the intellectual debates of the fifteenth-century.

The decorative border of the Wife of Bath's Tale is similar to the border motif used for the other pilgrims. It is the same structure and is composed of a twisting vine with foliage, trumpet flowers, cinquefoils, trefoil leaves, vine and leaf sprays, and some daisy buds.4 However, within this motif, there are distinctive features of the Wife's decorative frame that distinguish it from the other pilgrims in the Ellesmere manuscript. The shape of the vine forms, for example, for the Man of Law's Tale is tightly curled, while for the Prioress it is quite spare and simple. The shape of the vines is similar between the Knight's page and that of the Wife's, raising possible connections between the two tales. The foliage and gold leaf on the Knight's vine, however, is heavier and more tightly curled, giving a greater sense of weight and formality.

On the Wife's page, the vine shapes curl in relatively open shapes with the exception of the vine connected to the rubricated letter which begins the tale. Here the border has a distinctive heart-shaped motif, not repeated elsewhere in the Ellesmere with any other pilgrim. The vegetation of the vine projects an image of abundance or fecundity as it is thick in foliage-this is especially noteworthy in contrast to the relative simplicity of foliage on the pages of the Prioress' or Second Nun's .

Margin and Gloss

The right-hand margin of the Ellesmere manuscript is a generous, open space, itself suggestive of the wealthy patron behind the production of the manuscript. The wide margin offers a visual respite from the dense border and text. It is also the locale in which the gloss is placed alongside the text, a broad two and seven-eighths-inch column running vertically on the outer edges of the page. The gloss is one of the distinguishing features of the Ellesmere manuscript; not all of the manuscript versions of the Canterbury Tales contain the gloss.

According to Camille, the marginal gloss functions as a force of dynamism on the page. He cites Hugh of St. Victor's comments on interlinear gloss:

'The word gloss means tongue (ligua) because in a way it speak (loquitur) the meaning of the word under it.' The marginal gloss, by contrast, interacts with and reinterprets a text that has come to be seen as fixed and finalized. (20)
Glossing in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale gives evidence of manuscript pages that are dynamic, rich in movement and intellectual exchange.

While there are no glosses for the opening page of the Wife of Bath's Tale, the gloss for the Wife's Prologue and the subsequent pages of the tale are among the most heavily glossed of the Tales. 5 Each gloss begins with a rubric similar in size to those of the main "body" of text and in the same pattern of alternating blue and red ink with alternating gold leaf. In this manner, the glosses are once again closely linked visually with the main "body" of the text. The size of the gloss has been erroneously identified as being as large and as carefully executed as the main text 6but the letters of the gloss clearly are smaller, with the column width allotted to the glass proportionally smaller as well. The gloss has a powerful effect on the reading of the tale, furthermore, because the Latin phrase hover in space and visually stand out on the page, floating, as it were, in the space of the margin. The gloss is accorded near equal status with the poetic text, but there is no mistaking the hierarchy of main text and gloss.

The verbal significance of the gloss is discussed in full by Carolyn Dinshaw who asserts that "woman is associated with the body and the text . . .and is opposed to the gloss, written by men, learned, anti-pleasure and anti-body" (114). Based in part on the physical presence of the gloss, Dinshaw interprets the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale as describing "a marriage relationship--and allegorically a relationship between text and glossator" (129). The wife specifically refers to glossing in the Prologue:

He schal no gospel glosen here no teche . . .
My joly body schal a tale telle . . .(1180-1185)
Dinshaw sees the wife as opposing her 'joly body' to the masculine "oppressive teaching and glossing" (113). Dinshaw asks "How should we read the body of the text? Must all glossing be violent, an unwelcome deformation of the letter?" (129). Dinshaw primarily considers the gloss as another form of verbal text, which it is, to be sure, but the verbal gloss has signification at the image level as well. The interpretive exchange between gloss and text, scribe and author (or author and meta-author), arise particularly from reading the visual as well as poetic text of the Ellesmere.

The presence of the gloss visually and interpretively alters the sense of the Wife's prologue and tale, placing greater emphasis on the "issue" of the proper role of women in marriage and minimizing the wife's voice as merely one voice, and possibly an erroneous one, in that debate. It effectively casts her voice as "Other," arguing against the combined weight of church authority and tradition. Reading the Wife's Prologue with the constant statements of "truth" from Christian and Classical texts has the effect of making the wife's statements more outrageous or even ludicrous. For example, the Wife accuses men:

Thou liknest eek wommenes love to helle,
To bareyne lond, ther water may nat dwelle. (ln 370-372)
The very sentiments the Wife rails against are somberly reiterated in Latin in the marginal gloss "Like a worm in wood, so a (wicked) woman destroyeth her husband."7 In the Ellesmere, Chaucer and his glossator--perhaps Chaucer himself--set up two polarities in the "voices" of the Wife of Bath and St. Jerome. Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum was itself a controversial text and one that was not accepted as unproblematic. These two extremes are set literally side by side on the page to bring this interpretive debate to the fore.

Equestrian portraits

The equestrian portraits of the Ellesmere have a high salience on the pages on which they appear. The reader of the page is immediately drawn to consider the representation of the image. The reader will have first encountered a verbal representation of the pilgrims in the verbal text of the General Prologue. The Wife of Bath is described:

Upon an amblere easily she sat,
Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.
In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe.
Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce.
The Wife of Bath's equestrian portrait selects some, though not all, of the verbal images as part of its representation. The Wife appears younger than she is portrayed in the verbal text, with additional features such as a gold belt, riding whip, and blue skirt, but without depicting the "hosen of fyn scarlet reed" (ln 456). The equestrian portrait serves to re-create that imaginative image at the point that the teller begins their tale's prologue. The reader of the Ellesmere, then, has certain key attributes visually recollected for them at the beginning of each tale, and a visual reinforcement that the tale provides not only a narrative, but equally provides a commentary on the teller of the tale.

The effect of depicting the pilgrims on horseback bring a strong dynamism and sense of movement to the page. Whether on verso or recto pages, all of the pilgrims face into the main body of the text creating a tight focus on the poetic text and on the created world of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. The equestrian portraits of the tale tellers on the recto pages "move" counter to the narrative expectation of left to right, in other words, counter directional to the reader turning the page to continue the pilgrimage. In addition, despite a nearly three-inch margin, the equestrian portraits on the recto pages are drawn within the column reserved for the main body of the text.8 The figures are so close to their verbal text that the noses of their horses or their own heads or limbs virtually touch the letters of the verbal text, piercing, as it were, the body of the text, by virtue of their triangular shape. Pilgrims whose tales begin on verso pages are depicted in the margin, but--despite being separated from the verbal text by the decorative border--possess a spatial intimacy with the verbal text. They are drawn as though on the verge of entering into the border and moving through to the text, and, like the figures on the recto pages, with limbs and/or horses' heads touching leaves of the border. In the case of the Prioress, her horse's head actually shifts the first few lines slightly to the right, appearing to move the text by force of his directionality into the "space" of the verbal text. The images in the Ellesmere do more than ornament the page, they actively interact with the verbal text with perceivable spatial consequences. This tight spatial relationship and the vectorial movement of the portraits into the text create a sense of intimate cohesion with the verbal/visual text. The only exception is the Knight who was consciously moved away from his text (the initial placement is still visible) into the margin space, creating a more formal and commanding relation to the verbal text. The portraits reinforce the sense of a created world; the figures are not allowed to wander off the edges of the page, but rather the vector created by the horses' direction and the triangular shape of the heads refocuses the reader toward the verbal and visual text and into Chaucer's imaginative pilgrimage.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the equestrian portrait of the Wife is that, unlike that of the Prioress or the Second Nun, who are portrayed as modestly riding sidesaddle, the Wife rides astride her horse. In contrast with the nuns who barely ride their mounts, the equestrian portrait of the wife amplifies a reading of the wife which sets her in striking contrast to the lady like demeanor--albeit strained--of the prioress and of the second nun. Beryl Rowland, also noting this contrast between the Wife and the other women on the pilgrimage notes that the mention of the wife's spurs ("And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe," ln 473) is the source of the artist's conception of the wife as riding astride. Based on such details, the scribe or designer closely read and considered the Prologue, as is generally accepted.

What is the significance of the Wife of Bath's depiction as riding her horse astride? Is it merely faithful representation of the verbal text, or, as I will argue, does it amplify a representation of the wife as overly sexual? The medieval association of the horse with unbridled passion was a strong verbal and visual icon. Kolve cites the "Porphyrian tradition in which the horse stands for all that is not rational or spiritual in man's nature" (239). St. Gregory used the imagery of the horse to convey the metaphor of controlling the flesh: "Indeed the horse is the body of any soul, which it knows how to restrain from illicit action with the bridle of continence and to release in the exercise of good works with the spur of chastity" (as qtd by Kolve 241). Analogs of the representation of horses as metaphoric flesh exist in numerous texts and manuscripts. In one fifteenth-century illumination, Prudence (shown as a man) "holds a horse by its bridle to indicate that prudence likewise requires control over one's carnal nature" (Kolve 243). Likewise, in a fourteenth-century illumination the horse, labeled Caro is shown mounted by Anima (the soul) and equipped with allegorical armour. Such images lead Kolve to conclude that the image of the runaway horse in the Reeve's tale would be a strong visual cue to "some part of a medieval audience [which] would have been quick to detect emblematic significance in a runaway horse" (247). (Note, too, that the equestrian portrait of the squire in the Ellesmere (f115v) shows his horse rearing up--i.e. not fully under control.) Similarly then, the representation of the pilgrims on horseback present medieval readers with a powerful semiotic association which does more than merely place them as riders on their way to Canterbury, but as spiritual beings actively engaged in the moral battle between flesh and spirit. Additionally, the intrusion of the horses into the verbal text could be construed as the intrusion of the flesh into the realm of the letter, i.e. the spirit.

(See additional footnote for illumination sources.)

How would readers of the Ellesmere interpret the image of the Wife, then, astride on her "ambelere"? If, as Kolve asserts, the horse is emblematic of "appetite or passion," it could be argued that the Wife is riding a horse (an ambelere) which has been trained to walk at a comfortable pace and to override its natural gait by moving both legs on one side simultaneously. Also, the Wife's spurs--the only such mentioned in the verbal text (and reproduced in the visual text)--could be seen as implements of restraint (spur of chastity). But other, conflicting, associations in the visual representation offer other opposing and more compelling interpretive possibilities when considered in context of poetic text and image. The first, and perhaps strongest visual cue, would have been the fact that the Wife was rising astride.

Beryl Rowland explores late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century illuminations of women riding horses and concludes that while analogs of women rising astride exists, 9 "Contemporary illustrations . . .show ladies riding sidesaddle, sometimes accompanied by solicitous young men. Not surprisingly the palfrey is the mount of the worldly Prioress and her nun" (113). Rowland notes: "Gower in his Tale of Rosiphilee in the Confessio Amantis (IV, 1309-1311) says that a troop of ladies on beautiful horses all rode on side, and such fashion may indeed have been considered more ladylike" (118).

While Chaucer does not explicitly state that the Wife is rising astride, Rowland--and clearly the Ellesmere artist--interpret the reference to spurs as implying the equestrian posture of the Wife. Rowland raises the possible association of the dead mara "who turns her victim into a horse and rides him in the most exhausting way. The figure is often used to denote the woman who tries to reverse the positions of the sexes" (131). To further seal the association between the mara and the Wife of Bath, Rowland notes that the connotation of the seal of Venus and the mark of Mars were commonplace to astrophysiognomists, but "the secret mark came to be relied upon as the most certain method of detecting a witch, and among the various forms that a mara might take the most common was that of a witch who plagued men with her solicitations, riding on them and using her spurs" (138). As the wife describes herself:

I had the prente of seinte Venus seel
As help me God, I was a lusty oon,
And faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon,
And trewely, as myne housbondes tolde me,
I had the beste quoniam might be.
For certes, I am al Venerian
In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.
Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;
Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars therinne.
Allas, allas! That evere love was synne!
I folwed ay myn inclinacioun
By vertu of my constellacioun;
That made me I koude noght withdrawe
My chambre of Venus from a god felawe.
Yet have I Martes mark upon my face,
And also in another privee place. (ln 604-620)
The image of the mara, the Wife's reversal of the acceptable sexual order, and the carnal association with images of horses, point to the representation of the wife as vigorously, even dangerously, sexual. Camille, too, notes that in medieval society "women were associated with the dangers of excess, with speaking too much and too loosely, and with the artifices of representation-their fashionable clothes and cosmetics" (53). The image of the fashionable wife astride a horse foregrounds her carnal nature in an immediate and highly salient manner.

This particular reading of the Canterbury Tales emerges from the relation of the images and poetic text of the Ellesmere manuscript--a text rich in visual context and meaning. The multimodal cues of gloss and portrait serve to create a reading of the Wife of Bath that works against Dinshaw's interpretation of the Wife as embodying Chaucer's literary endeavor to engage the feminine mode of reading and interpretation. This is not to say that Dinshaw is not correct in her assessment of Chaucer's literary intentions; rather, it is to say that the multimodality of the Ellesmere manuscript argues against such an interpretation based on the interpretive focus of this particular visual text. The strengthened role in the Ellesmere of the gloss as a counter-voice to the Wife's and the strong visual associations with the sexually dominant mara cast the Wife as a potentially dangerous and extreme voice for the Ellesmere's fifteenth-century audience. The Ellesmere raises the intensity of concern with interpretation, and the equestrian portraits in general amplify the metaphoric journey of the soul, depicting the inevitable struggle between the carnal and the spiritual that such a journey entails.

Works Cited

List of images

Equestrian portrait of Wife of Bath with surrounding text
Wife of Bath's Tale: opening page
Wife of Bath's Prologue: opening page
Isolated equestrian portrait of Wife of Bath

Equestrian portrait of Prioress with surrounding text
Isolated equestrian portrait of Prioress

Equestrian portrait of Second Nun with surrounding text

Knight's Tale: opening page
Isolated equestrian portrait of Knight