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Caxton Woodcut of the Prioress. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer's Prioress: Simple and Conscientious,
or Shallow and Counterfeit?

Victoria Wickham

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 her.

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, that

"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" (194). 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.

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 listeners.

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 the tale: "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). Cooper maintains, "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 so unmerciful.

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.

Works Cited

  • Ames, Ruth M. God's Plenty: Chaucer's Christian Humanism.
    Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1984.

  • Boitani, Piero and Jill Mann, Eds. The Cambridge Chaucer Companion.
    Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

  • Condren, Edward I. "The Prioress: A Legend of Spirit, A Life of Flesh."
    Chaucer Review. 23 (1989): 192215.

  • Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales.
    Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • "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."
    Chaucer's Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.
    Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T Lambdin, Eds. London: Praeger, 1996, 1999. 3846.

  • 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): 2533.

  • Zitter, Emmy Stark. "Anti-Semitism in Chaucer's Prioress's Tale." Chaucer Review. 25 (1991): 27784.

Text copyright ©1999 Victoria Wickham. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on March 9, 2000. Last updated September 5, 2009.


Middle English Literature
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