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Chaucer’s excessively overt satire of the Prioress in the General Prologue is undeniable. With so much emphasis drawn to her misplaced ideals, the words scream of something terribly amiss. A cursory examination reveals a woman severely out of touch with reality and the faith she professes to represent. Keeping this powerful depiction in mind, her ensuing tale must be interpreted with character in mind. Based on this, I will attempt to argue that Chaucer deliberately used the tale as an extension of the Prioress. Her portrait defies the basis of her religious order and her tale ultimately represents a religion that defies its own principles. The subtlety involved in discerning the latter rises because it not only challenges the beliefs of the Prioress, but also extends to question the priorities of its audience’s faith.
Standing alone, The Prioress’s Tale does not drastically differ from the standard miracle of the Virgin. But the reader must always be conscious of Chaucer–the author–and his attempts to expand the English language. For when her story is seen in correlation with her description, nearly every aspect of it assumes a new identity. And with graceful mockery towards her in the Prologue, Chaucer – the narrator – makes sure to plainly expose to superficiality of the exalted sister. The opening six lines mark the only time she in completely free from ironic undertones; the remaining majority advances her character through gentle satire.
Chaucer’s delicate use of language only serves to heighten the reader’s understanding of the Prioress in this satire. For he elegantly builds up her persona then comically undermines it with a singular unbiased truth: “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,/ For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe” (ll. 124,126), “At mete wel ytaught was she with alle;/… In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest./…And peyned hire to countrefete cheere/ Of court, and to been estatlich of manere,…” (ll.127-141), “…She was so charitable and so pitous/ She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous/ Kaught in a trappe,…” (ll. 142-150). The letdown reinforces the notion that the Prioress is trying to be somebody she isn’t. Even her picturesque beauty is subject to flaw – she is “nat undergrowe”. While he never criticizes her, Chaucer makes it obvious that the Prioress is disillusioned by the dainty manners of the fashionably lady. Her exaggerated empathy and lust for social ascension mar her image as a server of God.
Perhaps more influential to the connection more so than the mockery is the phrase with which Chaucer’s ends her sketch: “Amor vincit omnia”. By choosing this ambiguous Latin idiom to conclude his intriguingly imperfect portrait, he creates a lingering question mark that resonates through her tale. While the “amor” unlikely stands for sensuous love (brotherly or heavenly love seem more appropriate), the vague nature of the word allows the mind to wander until she is introduced in her tale. By the time this happens, the translation is insignificant, for the adage carries much more magnitude – it directly opposes the substance of her story.
With the reader still mulling the Prioress’s depiction, Chaucer twice fortifies his portrait before her tale begins. The first instance spins out of Harry Bailly’s excessive patronizing:
…and with that word he sayde,
As curteisly as it had been a mayde,
“My lady Prioresse, by your leve,
So that I wiste I sholde yow nat greve,
I wolde demen that ye tellen sholde
A tale next, if so were that ye wolde.
Now wol ye voucke sauf, my lady deere?” (ll.445-451)
The repetition of these submissive statements (by the Host of all people) is no doubt meant to poke fun at her supposed lofty stature and insistence on good manners. The other distinguishing trait emerges at the end of her invocation to Mary. Equating herself to “a child of twelf month oold, or lesse” she essentially states that her comprehension of the ensuing story is limited, if even present at all. And while she only prays for guidance from the “blisful Queene”, her aforementioned inability to perceive seemingly guarantees divine intervention upon her tale. Thus her song can presumably do no wrong.
At this point in the argument the ubiquity of the author Chaucer must again be examined. Any yarn could have been chosen for The Prioress’s Tale. The fact that the miracles of the Virgin were popular at the time only reiterates why the story was chosen for her – she had a reputation to uphold. The concordance with its analogues further shifts the focus of the story. Chaucer didn’t have to modify the plot, for it coincides with the storyteller. This unmodified tale is precisely the model of story a character with such temperaments would relate. The meaning is now lodged in the voice and character of the Prioress.
A reading of the story rapidly resolves two of the lingering questions that remain from beforehand. The assistance that the Prioress prayed for is nowhere to be found; her tale is littered with bigotry and would border on blasphemy were it not for her incredible ineptitude in understanding her own words. This blindness leads into another crucial flaw that again mocks her ignorance. “Amor vincit omnia”, which she so prominently displays, can be called nothing less than the antithesis of her moral. Love among men is nowhere and the scene of the sentencing acts as a complete exposure of the Prioress as a fraud:
With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this modre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
“Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve”;
Therefore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng hem by the lawe. (ll.628-634)
This passage is so brutal and contrary to the doctrines of Christianity that one wonders how it was so widely accepted. Apparently Chaucer wondered too.
With further scrutiny into the text, the last piece of the link is completed. The foundation of the analogous plot fits perfectly when put into the Prioress’s context. Given her affinity towards the courtly, the high rhyme scheme (seen elsewhere only in The Man of Law’s Tale) would indeed gratify the ears of her “lowly” companions. Likewise the collective association of Christians with exorbitant goodness and Jews with abominable baseness is explained by her overly emotional disposition. The selectivity of her language draws on the readers pathos and makes her truth even harder to resist. For the repetition of “litel” and “innocent” in describing the “clergeon” and exaggeration of the mother’s reaction when she cannot find her lost child naturally evoke sympathy. And in the one noticeable digression from the analogues, the Prioress’s child is seven and not ten or older. She carefully makes sure to emphasize this, as evidenced by use of commas: “a litel clergeon, seven yeer of age,” (l. 503). The allusions to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and mentioning of Hugh of Lincoln were sentiments most all of the listeners undoubtedly picked up on. When these stirring depictions are merged with the atrocious Satanic behavior of all the Jewish community (the entire text is example enough), the reaction of the pilgrims is certainly understandable: “Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man/ As sobre was that wonder was to se” (ll. 691-692). But the reader is armed with knowledge of the speaker and should have a remarkably different response.
And in the end, Chaucer understandably questions the underlying motif of the tale – the importance of simple devotion. While laudable in a child, its suitability for an administer of God is horribly inappropriate. The Prioress’s heedless acceptance of this notion renders her very faith contradictory, so much so it borders on emptiness. Likewise, her story purports an idea that ignorantly opposes the dogmas of Christianity. Through this ingenious form, Chaucer asks the reader to see through the image of both teller and tale, in hope that their faith does not become blind.
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