If I told you to think about a woman who is commonly considered extremely elegant, refined with a great sense of fashion, one who enjoys food and a good company where she often delights in displaying her good manners and knowledge of languages, I am sure you would presume, and with reason, that I’m talking about myself, because I am all such things. But, if I told you that the subject in question is not actually Mrs Tink, but a nun, I am likewise sure that you would understand that there must be something weird in what I am saying, as our image of a “nun” does not , cannot match that description. The Prioress of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is exactly all this: a character that does not fit stereotypes.
Chaucer’s description of the pilgrims, actually, is all about detecting their weirdness in behaviour or look, rather than giving you an exact picture of their physical account, as if only spotting their singularities, the poet could read their true nature. Chaucer proceeds with great elegance making a crafty use of gentle satire, which consists in the case of the Prioress in a sequence of flatteries, which actually mean quite the opposite of what it seems .
Since the very first lines we understand that this Prioress is somewhat ambiguous. The poet appears to be attracted by her way of smiling, which he describes as “ simple and coy”. Nothing odd, you would say, this first image fits the behaviour of a nun perfectly, but then he soon adds that she is known as “Madam Eglantine” and eglantine is wild rose with fragrant leaves and flowers, which was in the Middle Age a symbol of Christ but also of passion and love, and, well, this is weird. Hence, we wouldn’t be far from the truth if we assumed that her being “simple and coy” would refer to another more secular stereotype : the chaste, angel like woman of courtly love tradition.
Chaucer goes ahead telling us how beautiful she sings, even if she intones straight through her nose and also notices that she speaks English with a French accent, even if she is not French at all and very likely she has never been to France. So, we understand that this nun wishes to impress the people she interacts with, thus suggesting that she was once lower-class. Her strange mannerisms can be noticed also at meal time. In fact, she displays excellent table manners: she never lets a morsel of meat fall from her mouth onto her breast, nor does she dips her fingers into the sauce. She wipes her lips so clean that not a trace of grease remains after a meal and eats slowly as if she were not hungry. It is clear that the Prioress’s intent is that of imitating courtly manners and in a way, thus being noticed….. by men.
A nun must be “charitable”, of course, and Chaucer, I am sure, sneered , while emphasizing how sensitive this woman was. She wept if she only saw a mouse bleeding and used to feed “with roast meat, milk and fine white bread”……..her dogs. Chaucer’s satire lies here in what he omits to say, as her humane attitude is displayed only to animals, but there is not a single word of Christian compassion for human beings.
It seems hard to believe, but Prioress is not indifferent to the fashion of the time, and this is strange indeed. She loves gathering her veil “in a seemly way, thus, keeping the veil higher to let her forehead and the sides of her face uncovered, she goes against monastic rules. That is why Chaucer tells us he appreciates the “graceful charm” of her neck, because he saw it and this was quite an unusual exhibition for a nun.
She also indulged on a little make up, as her soft and red lips suggest the use of lipstick which was considered, of course, unacceptable. Furthermore, she wears beautiful, expensive clothing and jewelry, while monastic rule forbade nuns to wear ornaments. The coral rosary with green beads, from which hangs a golden pin with an engraved “A” with the Latin phrase “Amor vincit omnia”- “Love conquers all”- reveals her materialistic interests, which are far away from being spiritual. This attitude is emphasized through the fact that her “greatest oath was but by Saint Loy”, a saint who worked as a goldsmith .
In conclusion, this Madame Eglantine is more interested in profane things rather than fulfilling her religious role. Even the fact that she is far away from her monastery on a pilgrimage, a practice which had been forbidden by bishops several times in history and condemned by the Lollards, proves it . Hence, the target of Chaucer’s criticism is not the lady, but what she represents, that is, the increasing secularization of the church in the late Middle Ages, which by no means could be seen as “dainty”.