‘This Wenche Thikke’
On July 11 2021, a Facebook account shared Tumblr screenshots to a public group which purportedly excerpted a ribald verse that included phrases familiar to the modern ear, including “this wenche thikke” and “I wol nat lye” from one of the 14th-century Canterbury Tales stories:
Screenshots were equally popular on Twitter:
cannot stop thinking about this pic.twitter.com/k2aBK0ixen
— Chirasul (@chirasul) July 17, 2021
The Tumblr thread apparently began on June 8 2021, when u/bimbogollum shared an image of text reading “This wenche thikke”:
After that, u/f-identity provided an image description for low-vision users, indicating the text was a “cropped image of medieval-stylized printed text,” implying that the earlier post was likely a meme placing modern language in an anachronistic format:
Then u/bimbogollum thanked u/f-identity for appending a description, interjecting that the image was “not stylised, but actual Middle English,” “from The Canterbury Tales”:
Thank you for adding this image description! Just wanted to clarify that it’s not stylised, but actual Middle English. The text is from The Canterbury Tales.
Finally, on July 9 2021, u/kiralamouse added:
Okay, had to track it down. It’s from the Reeve’s Tale, and it’s a description of a 20yo young woman:
This wenche thikke and wel y-growen was,
With camuse nose and yën greye as glas;
With buttokes brode and brestes rounde and hye,
But right fair was hir heer, I wol nat lye.
In modern English (had to look up “camuse”, so that’s as good as my source, but I know the rest)
This wench was thick and well-grown
With a pug nose and eyes grey as glass;
With buttocks broad and breasts round and high,
But right fair was her hair, I will not lie.
The fact that Chaucer had “big butt” and “I will not lie” within two lines of each other is causing me disproportionate amusement. Also the fact that “this wenche thikke” works equally well in Middle English and in modern slang.
A few elements of the widely-shared exchange made the veracity of the commentary seem questionable. One part of the discussion was that the conversation in general resembled the series of memes known as the “Medieval Tapestry Edits,” in circulation since 2003 per KnowYourMeme.com.
The other part concerned an implication that the internet at large didn’t discover a close parallel between Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and a well-known title in classic literature (Canterbury Tales) until 2021.
According to Google Trends, searches for “this wenche thikke” began registering about July 13 2021; expanding the search from one week to one month returned no data. However, a different “this wenche thikke” post circulated on Facebook in 2018.
The matter seemed fairly easy to settle given the number of centuries between the emergence of the Tales and a series of 2021 Tumblr posts. A search of digitized academic journals on JStor.org returned nine results for “wenche thikke” in articles dating back to 1972 — well before Tumblr existed.
Likewise, an identical search for “wenche thikke” on Google Scholar yielded 44 results, some of which appeared to have been published in the late 1800s. Adding “Canterbury” to the search yielded 39 results, and a translation of “The Reeve’s Tale” from Canterbury Tales published to a Harvard.edu domain (last updated in 2008) included the original text in Middle English:
3973 This wenche thikke and wel ygrowen was,
This wench was thick and well grown,
3974 With kamus nose and eyen greye as glas,
With pug nose and eyes gray as glass,
3975 With buttokes brode and brestes rounde and hye.
With buttocks broad and breasts round and high.
3976 But right fair was hire heer; I wol nat lye.
But right fair was her hair; I will not lie.
A 1997 paper [PDF], “Sexuality and the Balance of Power in the Canterbury Tales,” mentioned the passage, as well:
When Aleyn sneaks into Malyne’s bed, he takes for granted that there is nothing wrong with deflowering the girl simply because she is common and homely, a “thikke wenche” with “kamus nose” and “buttokes brode”(3973-75). Her virtue seems not to matter because she is neither noble and hyper-virginal, like Emyle or Custance of the Knight’s and Merchant’s tales respectively, nor is she a low-born living saint and martyr like Griselda of the “Clerk’s Tale.” Sadly enough, many Chaucerian scholars and critics agree with Aleyn, presuming Malyne is like every woman of fabliau– loose with her sexual favors and the object around which general merriment and the hero’s sexual exploits should revolve.
Given the amount of literary critique that already exists around the Canterbury Tales and the fact that Chaucer’s short stories have informed cultural references for centuries (and are often taught as part of high school courses), it does not seem unreasonable to consider that Sir Mix-A-Lot was at least influenced by the Reeve’s Tale described here.
In July 2021, a purported excerpt of Canterbury Tales including the lines “this wenche thikke” and “[I will not lie]” appeared on Tumblr before migrating to Facebook; Google searches for “this wenche thikke” began accumulating on July 13 2021. Despite the screenshots’ resemblance to a popular meme format and its similarities to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” published literature about Canterbury Tales dating back decades showed that this has been an established story for far longer than either the song or the internet has even existed. It also adds a literary dimension to “Baby Got Back” that previously went unremarked upon, and shows that throughout the history of humanity some things remain constant.