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Fifteenth-century England, in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, was ruled by a Christian morality that had definite precepts regarding the ideal character and behavior of women. Modesty and chastity in both manner and speech were praiseworthy attributes in any Godfearing, obedient, wifely woman. “The General Prologue” introduces the Prioress Madame Eglantine as an ironic exemplum of avarice and immodesty. The Prioress’ worldly aspirations are sharply contrasted by the ascetic lifestyle led by the widow of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Chaucer provides these diametrically opposed representations of women to convey that women of the day were above all else expected to find content with their positions in the social order of life.
The Prioress fails to embody the sexless meekness expected of her title, but rather is portrayed as a highly affected woman yearning for romance and riches. Madame Eglantine, named after a proud rose, seems overly concerned with appearances. It is suspicious that a woman claiming total devotion to her Lord and church puts forth such an effort to look lovely. Draping her body in an elegant cloak accoutered with a golden brooch, the Prioress emulates the posturing of a regal lady. Her physical appearance should be tertiary to her spiritual presence and pious nature, but the narrator makes scant reference to her holy disposition. “The General Prologue’s” introduction of the Prioress is, in fact, dedicated almost solely to descriptions of her very temporal and materialistic mannerisms. When the narrator describes Madame Eglantine as “so charitable and so pitous” (143), and all “conscience and tendre herte” (150), he is clearly making an ironic jab at her vanity. The narrator has enough wit and education to quickly pierce the schmaltzy facade of Madame Eglantine, noting that her French is a backwaters variety, used by the Prioress to flaunt her learnedness. The Prioress is clearly unsatisfied playing holy roller. She does not yet realize that her ambitions have made her a mockery.
The widow, on the other hand, is grateful for her wretched lot in life. She is a guileless character, not dependent on delusional pretenses as a means of dealing with life. On the contrary, the widow is both self-reliant and sufficient. She has not just submitted to the role she has been given, the widow is grateful: “The goute lette hire nothing for to daunce” (74). Not even severe arthritis can stop this woman from expressing her joy in the form of dance. Here Chaucer presented the ideal woman of character. The widow lacks any social ambition. The widow does not seek a replacement husband; the widow works her meager dairy and sets the examples of moderation and temperance for her daughters.
Both the narrator of the “General Prologue” and the Nun’s Priest spend a considerable number of words describing the eating habits of the two women. A comparison provides an interesting glance at what really matters to the women. At meals, the Prioress will “leet no morsel from hir lippes falle” (128). The destitute widow has equally conscientious eating habits, although she is motivated by self-preservation rather than vanity, as would be anyone whose daily meal “was served most with whit and blak,/ Milk and brown breed” (77-8). Madame Eglantine’s pallet relishes more varied delicacies than the widow’s. “No daintee morsel passed thurgh [the widow’s] throte” (69). These dainty indulgences that the widow neither partakes in nor desires probably include that aromatic sauce into which the Prioress refuses to deeply dip her fingers (129). Madame Eglantine, in the eating sequence, further reveals the lengths to which she will go to preserve her sense of refinement. The simplicity of the widow’s meal, on the other hand, reflects her decrial of gluttony and avarice. It is this decrial and refusal to yearn for more that makes the widow the ideal woman: her treasure trove is not on earth.
The widow, despite her impoverished home and skimpy meals, is not a pitiable character. She aims for nothing higher than to maintain her unembellished standard of living. Contrastingly, Madame Eglantine elicits a bemused pity from the reader. In her brief introduction, she repeatedly embarrasses herself by revealing lush, overindulgent quirks. While the widow is thankful for burnt bacon and the occasional egg (79), the Prioress coddles her hounds. Only a profligate would feed her dogs “rosted flessh, or milk and wastelbreed”(147). She revels in the profane instead of practicing the abstinence and restraint of a holy woman. It is this delusional refusal to conform to the role of nun that makes the Prioress pathetic.
The strength of the women is also put into perspective. The Prioress is nebbish in the face of loss. “She woulde weepe if that she saw a mous / Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde” (144-5). She is weak and better suited to perform her ostentatious role within a court. However, she is not the subject of a knight’s wooing. Her unrealistic expectations make it impossible to see her as anything beyond a one-dimensional, desperate woman. The widow, conversely, does not lament and snivel when approached by life’s trials. Rather than crying, the widow acts when faced with loss. Upon her rooster Chauntecleer’s abduction by the fox, it is the widow who leads the men in a brave pursuit. While Madame Eglantine cowers, the widow breaks a sweat defending what is hers. The widow values life over objects and endurance to pampering.
It is interesting that the widow is a character created by the Nun’s Priest. The disparity between the widow and the Nun’s Priest’s associate Madame Eglantine is marked and intentional. Having a lavish romantic like the Prioress as a near-constant companion inspired the Nun’s Priest’s frugal character. The widow is saved from the worldly appetites that afflict the Prioress because she is the Nun’s Priest’s brainchild. It is fitting that the Widow appears to be the antithesis of Madame Eglantine. The widow is old and exemplifies modesty while the Prioress is young and is a symbol of effete decadence. Each of the widow’s virtues is matched by a vice of the Prioress’. The widow serves no definite purpose in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” neither hindering not advancing the story of Chauntecleer. Surrounded by avaricious strivers, the Nun’s Priest’s seeks to create a woman who was without the ivory-tower yens of his fellow female pilgrims. The window serves as a gentle reminder to the pilgrims that true satiation lies not in earthly pleasures. Social scaling and pretentious posturing are not the attributes of the holy. The ideal female, in her complacence and consent to the life she is given, ultimately exists for the Nun’s Priest only as a character.
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