Chaucer's Prioress: Simple and Conscientious,
or Shallow and Counterfeit?
The character of the Prioress in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a woman of two faces. She is introduced
in the General Prologue as an aristocratic, genteel, pious nun, but she
is a raving bigot, because her tale is full of anti-Semitic attitudes.
It is what her tale says about her, however, that is at the core of Chaucer's
intent in her depiction: she is shallow, unworldly, un-Christian, and childish
of character, and this is what Chaucer wants the reader to understand about
"the Prioress's tender
care for her hounds argues the gentleness of her nature, but raises questions
about her perspective — we are startled by the kind of food she feeds her
animals — since [books of the time recommend] soft meats and bread softened
with milk as ideal foods for weaning infants, we wonder if frustration
has not perhaps directed the Prioress's maternal instincts toward her pets"
As we shall see, the Prioress's loving
nature towards animals is at odds with her vindictiveness and unmerciful
attitude towards the Jews in her tale. Her maternal instincts will also
be shown to be highly relevant to a discussion of her contradictory character.
Chaucer tells the reader of the Prioress's fascination with helpless animals,
and her kind treatment thereof, to show a paradox of this lady's character.
There are four main points of reasoning
in determining the above as the true character of the Prioress. The first
is an examination of her attributes as described in the General Prologue,
and how they relate to her character. Next, and most vital to any understanding
of the woman inside the nun, the reader sees an obvious assumed connection
of the Prioress to the innocent characters in her tale, the small boy and
his mother. Her connection to motherhood is also shown in her prologue
and tale, and shows a desire for what she cannot have, and her disassociation
with the true nature of a nun. Another must when examining the character
of the Prioress is a close look at Chaucer's intent in her depiction, and
his own religious and social values, which had an influence on how she
tells her tale. By looking at the levels of irony and satire in his other
tales, and by comparing the Prioress to other characters in the Canterbury
Tales, such as the Wife of Bath, one can see Chaucer's intent in her
depiction. Finally, the nature of the tale itself must be studied. Analogues
of the tale show that the Prioress's version is much more violent and bloody
than other circulating versions.
This last element of the Prioress's
tale, its violence, which is what the modern reader first notices upon
reading her tale is, on the surface, an example of obvious bigotry. The
Prioress's tale is "deeply and mindlessly anti-Semitic", and there are
many different opinions as to the cause and source of this (Cooper 292).
On one side of the fence of criticism is that the Prioress is anti-Semitic
because this was the prevailing opinion of the time. Robert Worth Frank,
Jr., claims, "The repellent anti-Semitism is offensive to us, and some
critics see it as a bitter comment on the Prioress. But it is an unhappy
fact that anti-Semitism was endemic in the late Middle Ages" (154). England at the time of Chaucer's writing was mostly Roman Catholic,
venerating the Virgin Mary, who was seen as the antithesis to Judaism,
a religion that does not accept her as anything other than a mortal woman.
Other critics argue that the Prioress's
tale far exceeds the levels of anti-Semitism in much of the other literature
of the time, and that her levels of violence and gore in the tale show
a predilection to be harsher to the Jews on her part than was the custom
of the period. To these and other modern readers, the anti-Semitism is
a glaring and obvious part of the Tale. However, whether the Prioress is
simply reflecting anti-Semitic views of the time, or she is more bigoted
than the average peasant of the Middle Ages, is not as important as the
revelations about the Prioress's character that come out during her tale,
aided by her bigotry and the observations that the reader is able to make
by the words and phrases that she uses to tell the tale. To examine these
revelations, it is necessary to visit in detail Chaucer's introduction
of the Prioress in the General Prologue, which is a "portrait — full of
humor and pleasant jibes" (Manly 219).
One of the most significant elements
of the Prioress to be introduced in the General Prologue is her name. "[S]he
was cleped madame Eglentyne," a name that symbolizes the Virgin Mary, as
the englentine, a flower, was a common symbol for Mary (121). This naming
of the Prioress by Chaucer after a flower symbolizing Mary is ironic, because
Mary is the embodiment of love and mercy, two things that the Prioress
shows, in her tale, that she does not value overmuch. This in itself is
a satire on the part of Chaucer; he chose a name for his Prioress that
was at odds with her actual character.
Contrary to the very religious nature
of her name are other elements of her character that are introduced in
the General Prologue. This introduction describes an attractive lady in
a nun's habit. Much is made, by Chaucer, of her aristocratic manners and
of the persona that she puts forth to the other pilgrims. "Hir gretteste
ooth was but by Seynte Loy," meaning that she seems to have a repugnance
to swearing; her harshest curse is in the name on a saint (120). Manly
points out that "she swore by the most elegant and courtly saint in the
calendar, one thoroughly representative of the feminine tastes which she
preserved in spite of her devotion to religion — the Prioress's [oath to
Saint Loy] is mild indeed and indicative of her extreme delicacy" (213
- 215). An important indicator, in this introduction, of the Prioress's
focus on manners is shown in her knowledge of French: "And Frensh she spak
ful faire and fetisly/ After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe/ For Frensh
of Paris was to hire unknowe" (124 - 126). Her French is from schoolbooks,
not from any experience in Paris. The Prioress is putting on airs by flaunting
her French, an indication of her shallowness and preoccupation with aristocratic
ways. The Prioress shows another aspect of her character in her table manners:
"At mete wel y-taught was she with alle/ She leet no morsel from hir lippes
falle/ Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe/ Wel coude she carie a morsel,
and wel kepe/ That no drope ne fille upon hire brest" (127 - 131). Her
manners are exquisite; not a crumb falls from her lips or a drop seen on
her plate when she is done eating. Her fastidiousness could conceivably
be in keeping with the character of a pious nun: "Hir over-lippe wyped
she so clene/ That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene," however the extent
to which Chaucer speaks of her table manners shows the reader that the
Prioress is concerned more with being ladylike and gentle, two affectations
of the aristocratic class, than with being pious and a religious figure
(133 - 134).
The Prioress imitates these courtly
manners of royalty, and she also shows sensitivity to the innocent: she
"wolde weep, if that she sawe a mous/ Caught in a trappe, if it were deed
or bledde" (144 - 145). She has little lap dogs with her, and she is in
great distress if they are mistreated. She feeds the dogs "[w]ith rosted
flesh, or milk and wastel-breed," indicating a well-bred upper-class woman's
tenderhearted feelings towards pets (147). Condren asserts, significantly,
Along with these affectations of
courtly manners and her tenderness to the weak and helpless is the questionable
nature of the Prioress's dress. She wears a wimple that shows her forehead,
which, according to Maureen Hourigan, was an error of large proportion:
her "veil is supposed to be pinned so tightly against her own eyebrows
that none of her forehead shows, yet clearly hers is visible, for Chaucer
as narrator mentions its breadth" (Lambdin & Lambdin 45). This indicates
that the Prioress was more interested in showing her fine forehead, a sign
of good breeding in the Middle Ages, than she was in being pious and correct
in the nun's mode of dress. Eglyntyne's outer clothing is also ambiguous;
"Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war/ Of smal coral aboute hire arm she
bar/ A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene/ And theron heng a broche of
gold ful shene" (157 - 160). Her cloak is elegant, and her coral-bead rosary
is more of a piece of jewelry than a religious artifact. Ruth Ames points
out that "[t]he symbolism of [her] habit was apparently lost on the Prioress,
who had instead taken advantage of the system to rise to a position of
importance" (176). These are also indications that the Prioress is more
concerned with material possessions and a comfortable life, than with the
bare, impoverished life of a nun, free of wealth and fine clothing. According
to Ames, "Chaucer's criticism of the Prioress is leveled — at her clinging
to the silliest part of the feminine stereotype, love of jewelry and expensive
clothes. A woman who chose the religious life was expected to put away
such nonsense" (176).
In further examination of the Prioress's
appearance, also of importance after the Prioress's habit is her jewelry.
The rosary is significant; the Prioress "gives [the boy in her tale] the
very colors of her green and coral beads to symbolize his chastity and
martyrdom" (Condren 203). The Prioress speaks of the boy: "This gemme of
chastitee, this emeraude/ and eek of martirdom the ruby bright" (175 –
176). As we shall see, it is this parallel that the Prioress draws between
herself and the innocent in her tale that speaks the most about her immature
character. The Prioress's ambiguous brooch is also suspect, with its inscription
of "Love Conquers All." This brooch has sparked much debate among critics
of Chaucer; does it refer to earthly love between a man and a woman, or
does it refer to celestial, heavenly love? If it were the latter, then
the brooch would be an acceptable article to be found on the person of
a nun. If, however, it was the former, than the Prioress would be despicable,
for nuns were, of course, not to know anything of earthly love. Friedman
calls the brooch a piece of "delicious ambiguity," and to some critics
the brooch is merely a piece of jewelry that suggests that she is not what
she seems (120). The brooch is, however, much more than that. It is a symbol
of the Prioress's unChristian character, her connection to laymen and the
peasantry, rather than to any religious vocation.
One of the most telling phrases in
the General Prologue as concerns the Prioress's character is "And peyned
hire to countrefete chere/ Of court, and to been estatlich of manere" (139
– 140). The word "countrefete" says quite a lot about Chaucer's intent
in his depiction of the nun: "the word and the line lie at the heart of
the sketch; this single line, in good Chaucerian fashion, epitomizes the
Prioress" (Moorman 26). This line, and especially the word "countrefete"
are crucial to the reader's understanding of the Prioress; she is "put[ting]
on airs in the grand manner" and therefore it should be understood immediately
that she is not what she seems (26). The Prioress is not authentic; the
reader sees this, and is put off by it. All of her inconsistencies can
be summarized in that one word, "countrefete." Kolve and Olson translate
the word "countrefete" as "imitate;" the Prioress is imitating the courtly
ways that she wishes to project as her own. Also, the Oxford English Dictionary
cites the word "countrefete," used during the period of the Middle Ages,
as meaning "of things immaterial: pretended, feigned, false, sham." The
Prioress's whole persona that she shows to her fellow travelers is a sham.
The inconsistencies of the Prioress's
character are brought out even further, and unavoidably, when she tells
her tale. In the General Prologue, only hints and suspicions are revealed
as to her character. In her tale, however, her rampant anti-Semitism and
refusal to bestow mercy on the villains shows a different woman than that
introduced in the General Prologue. One important indicator of how the
Prioress views herself is in the prologue to her tale. In that prologue,
the Prioress speaks of the holiness and worthiness of the Virgin Mary.
She speaks of her own unworthiness to fully put forth a tale of Mary's
blessing, saying that "For to declare thy grete worthinesse/ That I ne
may the weighte nat sustene/ But as a child of twelf months old, or lesse/
That can unnethes any word expresse" (48 - 51). She is saying that, in
her worthiness to speak of the Virgin, she is as weak as a year-old child.
"[S]he confesses her unworthiness to declare the Virgin's greatness, protesting
modestly that in the face of her task she feels herself an infant," Friedman
says. "By describing herself as [such], the Prioress — lays herself open
to charges of 'arrested development' from hostile critics" (124).
What is significant about this particular
prayer to the Virgin is that the Prioress is describing herself as innocent,
unworldly, and immature. These are all qualities that Chaucer wants the
reader to pick up on, as they are central to her character, and therefore
to the understanding of the message in her tale. As a further indication
of the Prioress's connection with innocence and childhood, in her prologue,
"[i]n praise of God and his Blessed Mother, [she] will labor to tell a
story — [in the tale,] In praise of the Blessed Mother the clergeon struggles
to learn, and finally sings the Alma redemptoris mater" (Condren
201). This shows the connection that the Prioress feels towards the child,
as she draws a parallel between herself and him.
The Prioress's tale is designed to
elicit sympathy for the young Christian boy murdered by the Jews. The Prioress
clearly identifies the most with the young boy in her tale, another indication
of her childish nature. As Friedman says, "one may reasonably argue that
her sentimental sympathy with the little clergeon lacks mature detachment,
that she enters too completely into the child's world, indeed that she
identifies with him" (124 - 125). The key to understanding this is to realize
that the Prioress's main storytelling trick is the use of pathetic language
to gain sympathy from her listeners. Pathetic language can be described
as using emotionally-charged words to gain sympathy or some other emotion
from the listening audience. While this would ordinarily be normal when
telling a religious tale, the Prioress goes too far by not extending the
mercy and compassion that she asks for the boy and his mother in the tale,
to the villainous Jews. At the end of her tale, the Prioress prays, "Preye
eek for us, we sinful folk unstable/ That, of his mercy, God so merciable/
On us his grete mercy multiplye/ For reverence of his moder Marye. Amen"
(253 - 256). When the Prioress asks for mercy for herself and for all of
the sinners listening to her tale, she does not comprehend that she is
contradicting herself. By asking for mercy for herself and other Christians,
and ignoring the idea of giving that selfsame mercy to the Jews, her bigotry
becomes blatant. Ames says, "the Prioress does not see that her prayer
for mercy on 'us sinners' is inconsistent with this zeal for 'justice'
against the Jews" (200). Chaucer has the Prioress use the word 'mercy,'
or a derivative thereof, three times in the four lines of this final prayer.
In this way Chaucer is making a bold statement about how he himself feels
about the Prioress, and how he wants his readers to see her: as a hypocritical,
shallow, sad figure of a woman.
A prevailing question when examining
this pathetic language usage of the Prioress's is: How does it affect the
reader, and why does Chaucer have her use it in the telling of her tale?
One of the most effective tools that Chaucer uses via his characters in
the Canterbury Tales is that of pathos. The tales of the Clerk and
the Monk are tales of pathos, as is the Prioress's tale. These tales "make
greater demands on a modern reader's historical sense and imaginative sympathies"
(Boitani & Mann 143). They would have had a similar effect on readers
and listeners in the Middle Ages. Robert Frank says that "Chaucer's principal
artistic concern [in using pathos] is to produce a strong emotional effect
— [s]pecial attention is given to the emotional reaction of the central
character, and, often, of witnesses, and of the narrator as well — [t]his,
of course, is the essential nature of the pathetic" (143 - 144). The Prioress
is using this pathetic language to elicit sympathy from her audience and,
at the same time, generate admiration and reverence for herself among her
Crucial to understanding this concept
is an examination of the elements of a standard pathetic tale that is significant
in the Prioress's tale: "the central character is a suffering figure, and
this suffering arouses [the reader's] sympathy. If the suffering is totally
undeserved, even stronger feeling is evoked, and so innocence is a characteristic
of the pathetic victim" (144). This pathetic victim is obviously the small
boy who is murdered in the tale. Inarguably his suffering is 'undeserved.'
The focus on innocence has a special meaning for the Prioress, who is herself
as "a child of twelf monthe old, or lesse" (50). These explanations of
the pathetic nature of these certain tales of Chaucer's show a design structure
that is essential to determining the characters of the tellers. This is
especially important when examining the motivations and personality of
the Prioress; in her tale, she uses words such as "litel," "small," "yong,"
"child," and "innocent." These words are repeated constantly; they indicate
a connection that the Prioress feels towards the young and immature. As
Ruth Ames points out, "some of [the Prioress's] lines are charmingly lyrical
in a convincingly childlike way — the Prioress is attracted to the infantile"
(48). This attraction is first documented in the Prioress's tale, with
her allusion to herself as a child of less than a year old. Her tale is
a very straightforward example of what Donaldson calls "[e]motionalism
that excludes the intellect" (933). Thus, the Prioress's attraction to
the child in her tale, and in her comparing herself to a child, combine
to show the reader that her appearance of shallowness and immaturity is
in reality her true nature. Donaldson asserts that Chaucer "could not have
believed that such a story [as the Prioress's tale] represented the supreme
form of Christian narrative — [h]e made the Prioress's Tale in some
ways as pretty as her own brooch, but it is the failure of her character,
not his, which makes the poem so imperfect an expression of the motto [Love
Conquers All]" (933 - 934). Chaucer chose the tale of "The Chorister" to
comment on the Prioress's character; another Christian tale would not convey
the same information about her, and would therefore not be appropriate
for Chaucer's purposes.
In addition to the Prioress's seeming
connection to innocence and the helpless is her apparent desire for motherhood.
The Prioress seems to feel a connection with in her tale to the mother
of the slain boy. The realization of this comes out through her pathetic
language use. Although the Prioress would obviously not have any children,
being a member of the clergy, she shows her mothering instincts in the
General Prologue when she treats her small dogs as children, as previously
seen, and by her protectiveness towards the child in the tale. Eglyntyne
makes a point to introduce the chorister in her tale as a "widwes sone,"
(68) and points out that this widow taught her son the song that gets him
murdered: "thus hath this widwe hir litel sone y-taught" (75). The repetition
of the word 'widow' is designed to elicit sympathy for the woman in the
tale, not merely as a descriptive word. The widow is depicted in the Prioress's
tale as helpless when trying to find her son: "She frayneth and she preyeth
pitously/ To every Jew that dwelte in thilke place/ To telle hire if hir
child wente oght forby/ They sayde 'Nay'" (166 - 169). It is only when
the widow seeks the assistance of the magistrate that the Jews cooperate
with the search for the boy. This is significant in that the Prioress relates
to the widow in the story, and the fact that the widow is unable to do
anything but cry, beg, and swoon by the boy's bier, says something about
the Prioress's own helplessness and weakness of character. Also, "[t]he
widow's inability to locate her son parallels, both thematically and structurally,
the Prologue's claim that no tongue can express Mary's attributes" (Condren
201). This is another connection to the Prioress, who in the prologue is
most concerned with her own inability to correctly praise the Virgin.
The way that the Prioress refers
to the Virgin Mary in her tale also shows her connection to earthly motherhood;
she overwhelmingly refers to Mary as "Cristes moder," and mentions the
earthly concept of birth in connection to Mary. The phrase of "Cristes
moder" is repeated constantly. While as a woman it seems natural for Eglyntyne
to have feelings of mothering instinct, as a nun she should have made a
much greater effort to suppress those urges; her feelings should be focused
entirely on Jesus and Mary, and she should be content with her lot in life
and her choice of vocation. There is a difference between the Prioress's
maternal feelings, and the gentle nurturing nature of a nun. The repetition
of the word 'mother' in her tale is a glaring indication of her un-nunlike
bearing and her desire for a laywoman's life, one that would include children
of her own. Another example of the Prioress's attraction to motherhood
is shown in these lines of her prologue: "But by the mouth of children
thy bountee/ Parfourned is, for on the brest soukinge" (23 - 24). The prologue
to her tale is full of imagery that shows her desire to venture towards
"[the Virgin] Mary's virtuous world of childlike spiritual perfection,"
yet the infantile imagery also connects the reader with the Prioress's
desire for a womanhood that she cannot have (Condren 200). This desire
is another example of the Prioress's unChristianity, her lack of devotion
to her calling.
Chaucer uses Eglyntyne's connection
with the woman in the tale, and to the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother, to
make a statement about her as a woman, as well. In his Wife of Bath's
Tale, the Wife speaks of strong women who desire control over their
lives to be happy. This is in direct contrast to the Prioress's tale; her
depiction of the mother in the story is of a weak, crying woman who has
to seek assistance to find her son. That Eglyntyne relates to this character
in her tale speaks directly of her character as a woman, as Chaucer wants
the reader to see it. Eglyntyne is on the opposite end of the womanly spectrum
from the Wife of Bath: a weak, timid, helpless woman. The Prioress does
not make an effort to see above the assumed social concepts of her time,
that women might be of more value than of wife and mother, and in that
she can be seen as shallow and unwordly. Also useful when comparing the
Prioress to other female characters of Chaucer's is the language that the
Prioress uses in her prologue and tale; it is vastly different from that
used by the Wife of Bath, and this was specifically designed by Chaucer
to highlight the difference between the two women.
When combining the Prioress's affection
for the helpless, and her desire for motherhood, through the use of the
pathetic language, one can see contradictions with the violent nature of
"To have ended the
tale with a conversion [of the Jews] would undoubtedly have made the story
less pathetic; it would have lacked the clear-cut boundary between good
and evil, martyr and devil, Christian and Jew, that gives the tale its
impact. As a literary structure, however, it would have been more spiritually
uplifting to a Christian audience and more in keeping with the character
of a truly Christian nun" (Zitter 279).
The Prioress sacrifices the Christianity
of her tale in order to elicit a sympathetic response in her audience.
She does not see that she is also revealing damaging elements of her character
by being unmerciful. The Christian listeners of her tale are touched and
sympathetic after hearing her tale, but they are also shocked that the
Prioress is so vehemently against the Jews, as is evidenced by the silence
immediately after she finished speaking.
The Prioress's use of pathetic language
is one factor in the effectiveness of her tale. It is important, however,
to also examine Chaucer's intent and his view of her. Her tale is highly
religious, and therefore Chaucer's own religious views are highly relevant
in any examination of her character. There are those who assert that Chaucer
was deeply religious and portrayed that side of himself in his Prioress.
Robert Frank claims that "there is no reason to doubt that [Chaucer] shared
the religious faith of his time. Such evidence as we have suggests that
he was directly, devoutly religious, with a special love for the Virgin
Mary" (Boitani & Mann 146). The critics who ardently support Chaucer
in the face of anti-Semitic accusations claim that he chose the story of
"The Chorister" for the Prioress to tell in order to "demonstrate the Virgin's
power and her surpassing tenderness and mercy" (154). The tale is obviously
not about tenderness and mercy, though. It is about vengeance and Christian
superiority. The argument to the claims that Chaucer was deeply religious
and meant no satire in his Prioress's tale is this: why would there be
such discrepancies between the depiction of the Prioress, and the woman
revealed in her tale, showing a "bold and obvious satire of anti-Semitism,"
as Friedman puts it, if Chaucer was one hundred percent behind her beliefs
(119)? There are those critics who clearly see irony and satire in Chaucer's
depiction of the Prioress. For example, in her tale, the Prioress condemns
an abbot for not being as religious as he should be: "This abbot, which
that was a holy man/ As monkes been - or elles oughten be" (208 - 209).
Concerning this, Friedman asserts that "Chaucer doubtless wants us to relish
the irony of the Prioress's contempt for the improper style of life of
which she is also in lesser degree guilty" (120). While there is a minority
of critics who claim that Chaucer intended no satire of the Prioress, the
general consensus seems to be that Chaucer intended to poke fun at the
character of the woman, and to make a statement about the conditions of
the medieval Church through her.
This is evident by examining, briefly,
the levels of irony and satire in some of Chaucer's other Canterbury
Tales. In the Knight's Tale, for example, Chaucer is clearly
making fun of the notions of chivalry and courtly love. In the Miller's
Tale and the Reeve's Tale, he is satirizing class distinctions
and prejudices. He probes his character, the Parson, in much the same way
as he does the Prioress. As Benson asserts, "The General Prologue
rarely provides characterization that is specific or clear enough for the
reader to have any confidence that it will be more than generally useful
in understanding the tale that follows" (Boitani & Mann 97). In other
words, Chaucer uses the discrepancies of his character introductions in
the General Prologue, compared to the nuances of character brought out
in his tales, to make statements about the Knight, the Miller, and so on.
It is only natural, then, for him to portray his Prioress as something
other than what she seems.
Ruth Ames sees another side to the
argument concerning Chaucer's intent: "[the Prioress's] tale reads like
an unhappy chapter in the history of thirteenth century England, seen through
the eyes of a sentimental, pious, and bigoted woman; and that may be as
Chaucer meant us to read it" (198). In other words, Chaucer used the increase
in violence in the Prioress's story to make a statement about her character,
that she is a bad example of a pious, religious nun. It is unlikely that
Chaucer would not have noticed that the Prioress was coming across as a
hypocrite, or that he would not have intended it thus.
This is another question that arises
in Chaucer's depiction of the Prioress: the increased violence of her tale
when compared to other versions. One of the damaging elements of this tale
is the manner in which the Jews are treated. The story is not Chaucer's,
but was circulated around England during his time; according to Robert
Worth Frank, the story is known by the title of "The Chorister" (187).
"the violence of
the punishment meted out [in the Prioress's version of the tale] to the
Jews is unparalleled. In the Vernon version, the murderer is 'jugget,'
judged, presumably meaning condemned to death; in the Latin versions preceding
Chaucer's, the worst fate mentioned for the Jews is that they cannot hear
the miraculous song. In the legend as it appears in other forms, they are
occasionally punished but more often converted" (289).
The version to which Cooper is referring
is from a Vernon manuscript, a "vast miscellany of religious or didactic
pieces, written in Middle English [author unknown]" (Kolve & Olson
423). In another version to the tale, one from the fifteenth century, translated
in Kolve and Olson, the Archbishop, the punisher of the offending Jew,
"was more eager for the saving of a soul than for the punishment of the
crime; he baptized the Jew and entrusted him to the church; having marked
him with the sign [of Christianity], he remitted the penalty and pardoned
the crime" (423). This ending is quite different from the Prioress's version.
A question arises when comparing previous versions of the story to Chaucer's
Prioress's interpretation: why is her version so much more bloody and vindictive?
The answer seems to be that the Prioress's character is the culprit; she
is unable to extend mercy and compassion, two traits commonly associated
with her own beloved Virgin Mary, to the Jews in her tale. One reason for
this is the Prioress's anti-Semitism, but it is more than that. It is her
shallowness and immaturity in the ways of the world that bring her to be
Cooper does not condone the "viciously
inhumane punishment being meted out to the villains without producing any
apparent ripple in the pathetic response demanded by the narration" (292).
There is a paradox to the Prioress's character here: while on one hand
she praises and obviously values innocence, placing emphasis on the virginity
of the slain boy, and by her own parallel pointing out her own innocence,
combined with her apparent lust for blood and vengeance. As Condren asserts,
"[t]he sympathetic reader would not deny the disturbing ferocity of the
tale, but claim simply that the Prioress does not recognize its horror.
The harsh reader would emphasize the horror and conclude that a woman in
the Prioress's position ought to know how unchristian it really is" (193).
This is at the heart of a reader's understanding of Chaucer's depiction
of his Prioress: is she truly naïve of the bigotry and unmerciful
attitude of her tale, or is she aware that the true nature of her character
is coming out when she tells her tale?
All of these factors combine to show
the dual nature of the Prioress. It has been shown that the Prioress as
described in the General Prologue is very different from the woman whose
true character comes out in the telling of her tale. Also addressed is
the most important factor in determining the Prioress's true motivations,
that of her association with childhood, innocence, and motherhood, which
show her lack of piety and nunlike aspirations. The next factor that has
been looked at is Chaucer's intent in his depiction of the Prioress. Vital
to her character are his own religious values and satirical voice in his
characterizations of other pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's
use of irony in other tales strongly suggests a propensity to do the same
in his description of the Prioress. Finally, the tale itself has been carefully
studied, and analogues have also been examined in order to show the violent
nature of the Prioress's version, and what that says about her character.
A close look at the possible motivations for the Prioress's tale being
so bloody, when compared to other versions of the story, shows her unChristian
character and unmerciful attitude.
These elements combine to show a
clear picture of the Prioress: shallow, vindictive, unChristian, childish,
and immature. She is the antithesis of a truly pious nun of the Middle
Ages. Chaucer uses this characterization of her to show his own religious
trepidations, and to make a statement about the clergy of his time. His
portrayal of the Prioress as a woman of many contradictions is the true
reason for her presence as a pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales.
- Ames, Ruth M. God's Plenty:
Chaucer's Christian Humanism.
Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1984.
- Boitani, Piero and Jill Mann,
Cambridge Chaucer Companion.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
- Condren, Edward I. "The Prioress:
A Legend of Spirit, A Life of Flesh."
Chaucer Review. 23 (1989):
- Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides
to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales.
Oxford: Oxford University Press,
- "Counterfeit." The Oxford
English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1961.
- Donaldson, E.T. Chaucer's Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader.
New York: Ronald Press Company, 1958.
- Frank, Robert Worth, Jr. "Miracles of the Virgin, Medieval Anti-Semisism, and the Prioress's Tale."
Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Martin W. Bloomfield.
Larry D. Benson and Siefried Wenzel, Eds. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982. 177-88.
- Friedman, Albert B. "The Prioress's Tale and Chaucer's Anti-Semitism." Chaucer Review. 9 (1974): 118-29.
- Hourigan, Maureen. "Ther Was Also A Nonne, A Prioresse."
Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.
Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T Lambdin, Eds. London: Praeger, 1996, 1999. 38–46.
- Kolve, V.A. & Glending Olson, Eds. The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
- Manly, John Matthews. Some New Light on Chaucer: Lectures Delivered at the Lowell Institute.
Gloucester: Henry Holt & Co, 1926.
- Moorman, Charles. "The Prioress as Pearly Queen." Chaucer Review. 13 (1978): 25–33.
- Zitter, Emmy Stark. "Anti-Semitism in Chaucer's Prioress's Tale." Chaucer Review. 25 (1991):
Text copyright ©1999 Victoria Wickham. All Rights Reserved.
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