The Prioress

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”.

The Wife of Bath

In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.

Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.

That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.

The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if  her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.

In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.

The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.

Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.

Hence, even if  “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.