A scientific analysis of the Wife of Bath's Prologue has revealed that Geoffrey Chaucer changed his mind about a key passage in the tale that has blackened the lady's characterfor ever.
The passage, where the Wife of Bath says she satisfies her sexual appetite with whatever man she can, was meant to have been deleted from a working draft of The Canterbury Tales but was instead copied into subsequent manuscripts after Chaucer had died.
The 26 lines in the passage turned the Wife of Bath into a ''monster of carnality'' according to scholars, but Chaucer had a change of heart over his original description of her character, say scientists.
Chaucer's own manuscript, written at the end of the 14th century, has long been lost, so scientists analysed the 88 manuscripts from the 15th century for clues about the original wording.
The team, from the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and De Montfort, employed computers normally used to study the evolutionary relationships between animal species to study the manuscripts, and, in particular, the 58 medieval copies of the Wife of Bath's Prologue.
In research published in the journal Nature, the scientists say they can construct a family tree showing which manuscripts were closest to the original.
''In the process of copying, the scribes made changes that were themselves copied,'' said Dr Christopher Howe, lecturer in biochemistry at Cambridge.
Dr Peter Robinson, head of the Canterbury Tales Project at De Montfort University, said the study suggested Chaucer's own copy was not a finished version but a working draft with alternative sections added later.
Some scribes chose to copy one version, others another, Dr Robinson said. Chaucer had almost certainly meant to delete the 26 lines referring to the Wife of Bath's sexual proclivities but died before this was done, he added.
''The Wife of Bath is the single best-known character in Chaucer and is the key to understanding medieval women. Whether you have the 26 lines or not makes an enormous difference to how she is viewed. We think Chaucer thought it gave an over-the-top picture of her and took it out, but some of the scribes left it in,'' he said.
''Every modern school text includes these 26 lines and everyone has a picture of the Wife of Bath that is not right.''Reuse content