The Pilgrim Profile: Prioress

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The Prioress of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a kind, pious, and gentle nun- at first glance. However, Chaucer’s characterization of Madame Eglantyne reveals that she is not simply a devout nun. Through the description of her character and the tale that she tells, it is possible to infer that the Prioress is not as kind-hearted or pious as she would have others believe. While she is not mean or malicious, she is cognizant of the effects of the way comports herself. She unwittingly contradicts the image of the utterly devout Christian nun by being shallow and superficial. The central characteristic of the Prioress is that she is “seemly” (6), meaning that she shallowly conforms to the societally acceptable ideas of status. While she does seem kind, elegant and pious, it is because she is expected to be and because she wants to be perceived well. She appears to be sympathetic and soft-hearted, but in her tale, shows her true colors; she is biased and lacks sympathy. The touchstone line for her character is; “She used to weep if she but saw a mouse/ Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding. And she had little dogs she would be feeding/With roasted flesh or milk or fine white bread” (7). This line reveals that the Prioress is selective in her sympathy, weeping over an injured mouse while feeding “roasted flesh” to her own pets. It also reveals that she likes extravagance and luxury as she feeds her dogs food fit for humans, though she should be more conservative as a simple nun. While she has the good manners, dress and education one would expect of a nun, her fascination with the styles of the Court and a few other incongruities in her behavior and appearance are indicative of Chaucer’s use of inappropriate details. For example, Chaucer sarcastically comments that the Prioress sang in a nasally way by describing her “fine Intoning through her nose”
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