When we think of Geoffery Chaucer, we think of The Canterbury Tales, a work loved by literary scholars and passionate readers the world over (and loathed by undergraduate English majors). We do not, however, think of “a teenager wearing leggings so tight one churchman blamed the fashion for bringing back the plague.”
According to The Guardian, Associate Professor of English at Jesus College, Oxford, Marion Turner, who is Chaucer’s first female biographer, is also the first to look in depth at Chaucer’s fashion choices. While The Guardian notes that scholars have long known that Chaucer wore a ‘paltok’, bought for him as a teenager by his employer Elizabeth de Burgh, Turner notes that nobody seems to have investigated what exactly a ‘paltok’ was!
image via telegraph.co.uk (credit: ap)
Turner has discovered that paltoks were tunics, but not just any tunics! They were “extremely short garments… which failed to conceal their arses or their private parts.” She explains:
“No one had ever thought about what they were before [but] I found these were completely scandalous items. The paltok was skimpy and scanty, and underneath that there are these long leggings, or tights. Contemporary sources say they emphasised the genitals, as they were laced up very tightly over the penis and bottom, so you could see everything.”
IMAGE VIA THE GUARDIAN (DR. MARION TURNER)
Turner’s biograhpy, Chaucer: A European Life notes that the theologian John of Reading “explicitly blamed [paltoks] for causing the plague,” and “feared judgment from God for such outrageous sartorial choices.”
There were many biographies, written by men, throughout the years focused on Chaucer’s masculinity due to how he writes sympathetic women in his stories and poetry, in a time where toxic masculinity was the norm. Chaucer was someone who was ahead of his time and was with independent women, like his wife, who made her own money, and they lived independently rather than the traditional ways of marriage like most people lived by. Turner speculates that he took care of his daughter and always visited her at the nunnery where she was staying.
image via theconversation.com by Mrs H. R. Haweis
I loved it when Marion Turner gave a thoughtful explanation and connection to Chaucer’s feminism (at least I believe he’s a feminist) and his flamboyant fashion choices and make sense of it in his most recognizable work, The Wife of Bath. The most famous female figure in his work, the academic said “becomes an authority figure, which is great, because one of the things she talks about in her prologue is how men wrote all the stories and history is biased against women, and Chaucer makes her into an authority figure with gravitas. Of course she’s not a real woman, she’s Chaucer in drag, but he’s still emphasising the importance of recognising the bias of the literary canon.”
Read more of the article from The Guardian if you want to learn more of this fascinating find in literary history!