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"A heavily satirical portrait": The Prioress in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

A look at the description of the prioress in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

?A heavily satirical portrait? Discuss with reference to the description of the Prioress in {The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.}

The Prioress is the first of Chaucer?s female characters, as well as being the first pilgrim whose life should have been dedicated to the church. She paves the way for the Monk and the Friar, her portrait, like theirs, shows religious deviance, although hers is to a lesser extent.

Chaucer beings the portrait with a compliment on her smile referring to it as ?ful simple and coy.? The adjective themselves lend an air of naivety to her description but nuns should not smile and the adjective most suiting her should have been solemn and sober. He then informs us that ?hir greeteste oath was but by seint Loy.? Another sin as far as nuns are concerned but this may have been overlooked in its ironic gesture, swearing by a saint who never swore himself. Chaucer gives the Prioress a name, ?Egletine? and once again presents us with the antithetical nature of this nun. Egletine is not a the name of a saint but that of both a wild rose and the name of a heroine in a romance story. The name itself connotes the whimsical nature of the prioress as well as highlighting just how ill-suited she is to ecclesiastical life.

Chaucer, in his apparently artless way, compliments her singing, ?entuned in hir nose ful semely.? The word ?semely? has a double meaning here, the first being attractive but the second being fitting or acceptable. The irony here is that none of her behaviour so far is either fitting or acceptable for a nun.

When referring to the ?Frenssh she spak? Chaucer would appear to be admiring her linguistic ability, a great accomplishment for a lady of the court, but both a useless and irrelevant attribute for a nun who spends most of her life in the cloister. This point is reiterated with the mention of her table manners ?at mete wel ytaught was she with alle.?

Chaucer later talks of her conscience. This like ?smelly? is open to more than one interpretation. The first being the modern meaning of it and the second being ?tender-heartedness? and when coupled with ?she was so charitable and pious? it would seem that Chaucer is intending the former. However, the examples of her ?conscience? which follow show Chaucer?s true and satirical meaning. The Prioress displays the tender feelings and sympathies which befit a lady of the court and not the ?spiritual consciousness? that would be appropriate for a prioress.

Towards the close of the portrait Chaucer presents us with the physical description of the Prioress. He tells us that her ?wimpul? was pinched and ?ful semely.? A nun?s wimple should be plain and not pinched so that it was fluted and ergo more attractive to the eye. Her preference her is fashion over function instead of the reverse. He describes her facial features and we learn that she has grey-blue eyes, that ?Hir mouth [was] ful smal, and therto softe and reed;? and perhaps most damning ?sikerly she hadde a fair forheed?, none of these features, especially her forehead, should be seen. A prioress should cover her features and not immodestly display them to all.

The Prioress appears more concerned with the finer details in life than with the more simple things as befitting a nun. Even her rosary beads, a purportedly pious symbol, are ornate, a mixture of green beads to represent ?Our Father ? and red for ?Hail Mary ?. Traditionally the rosary beads found in convents were black to reflect piety.

The serious and respectful attitude with which Chaucer presented the Knight, the Squire and the Yoeman, dissolves when he imparts his knowledge of the Prioress. What is revealed is the satirical side of Chaucer, his artless praise of the Prioress allows the narrator to represent her flaws without openly damning her.

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