The Portrait Of Prioress Madame Eglantine From Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
The Prioress, Madame Eglantine, is given a very detailed description in “The General Prologue” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Being a clergy member, she is part of the First Estate, and by that law, it is to be assumed that she is afforded a certain type of social privilege and esteem. I personally feel that Chaucer was being satirical in his description of the Prioress, because of the word choice the speaker uses to describe the Prioress’s body, the description of her Earthly possessions, and the description of the way in which she conducts herself. First, Chaucer very explicitly describes several of Prioress Madame Eglantine’s physical characteristic, almost as if he is making fun of her. In lines 152-155, Chaucer tells the reader: “Hir nose tretis, hir yën greye as glas, Hir mouth ful small, and therto softe and reed, But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed: It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe. ” He imparts to the reader that the Prioress had beautiful, well-formed eyes, and even a small mouth with pretty, red lips; but, he mockingly tells the reader that she had a ginormous forehead. It is well known that there were certain physical characteristics that people tended to admire more than others in this time-period, but it is almost as if Chaucer is sharing with the reader that her forehead is embarrassingly large. He goes on to say in line 156: “For hardily, she was nat undergrowe. ” This is Chaucer’s way of telling the reader that she is a very well-fed woman.
I hesitate to think it natural that members of the clergy be so well fed. This description points to the character as possibly being overindulgent and under-active, which isn’t exactly a “Godly” way to be, and certainly not typical for an active clergy (wo)man. Second, Chaucer intentionally mentions to the reader that the Prioress dresses very nicely, and he does not hesitate to share with the reader a list of her possessions. I find his description extremely suspicious. The ideal woman of faith that we typically picture would not concern herself with trinkets that were irrelevant to the Father or the Gospels. The Prioress seems oddly materialistic, concerned with worldly things, and unconcerned with otherworldly things.
In lines 157-162, the speaker shares with the reader: “Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war; Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar A paire of bedes, gauded all with greene, And theron heeng a brooch of gold ful sheene, On which ther was first written a crowned A, And after Amor vincit omnia. ” Here we are told that she wears a very nice cloak and even a bracelet on her arm; but, instead of wearing simple, modest rosary beads, she is wearing a flashy, green beaded piece of jewelry with a shiny gold brooch, sporting the Latin inscription: “Love Conquers All. ” This does not strike me as very becoming for a woman of God. Her ensemble, complete with a pleated headdress (line 152: “Ful semely hir wimple pinched was,”) did not come across as modest. Instead of painting a portrait of a simply dressed, modest woman of God, we are given a portrait of a seemingly gaudy individual, concerned with worldly belongings and appearances. Third, the way that Chaucer’s speaker relates to the reader the way in which the Prioress conducts herself is also something to be found highly suspicious. It seems to me that she is the type of person overly concerned with appearances— so much so, that her actions reek of insincerity.
In lines 127-132, the reader is told: “At mete wel ytaught was she withalle: She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce deepe; Wel coude she carye a morsel, and wel keepe That no drope ne fille upon hir brest. In curteisye was set ful muchel hir lest. ” This section may strike the reader as odd. Chaucer is making a point to share how strangely careful she is when she eats. She doesn’t want to be seen as having even the slightest imperfection. This is suspicious. The reader may be at this point asking, “What could she be hiding, that she would try to come across so perfect?” She is, to the best of her ability, keeping up appearances. Chaucer imparts to the reader, in lines 124-126: “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, After the scole of Stratford at the Bowe- For Frennsh of Paris was to hire unknowe. ” Here, we are left to posit that she walks around speaking a kind of ill-accented French, which we all know would grate on the ears of a well-learned individual. The reader may see this almost foolish image of someone, trying to be something that they very clearly are not, upon imagining this detail. In lines 137-141, the tale reads: “And sikerly she was of greet disport, And ful plesant, and amiable of port, And pained hire to counterfete cheere Of court, and to been stalich of manere, And to been holden digne of reverence. ” These lines tell the reader that, sure, she’s cheerful and pleasant, but it is counterfeit. She is faking a Courtly appearance and merely acting the part of the beautiful, courtly lady. She is taking great pains to imitate a certain way of being, all for appearance sake.
In conclusion, the portrait of The Prioress seems to be a satirical reflection of the moral emptiness to be found in Clergy members. She is, in a sense, an over-fed, over-indulgent, insincere individual, who seems almost as if she neglects to take her work as a servant of God seriously in the appropriate ways. She is concerned so much with appearances that one would think that she scarcely had time to consider anything else. She comes across as quite pompous, and although Chaucer does not seem to explicitly condemn her, he seems to have left it open for the reader to interpret that she is part of the greater theme that one might coin “backwards clergy. ” On the outside, she may look normal and proper at a first glance; under the façade, I believe that she is a very crude woman.
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