What Is Implied About The Prioress In These Lines From Chaucer’S Prologue To The Canterbury Tales?

Updated 30 September, 2023
The Prioress, also known as Madame Eglentyne, is a woman of dual character. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes her as a polite, aristocratic, and a godly nun but realistically, she is a bigot whose stories are full of anti-Semitic attitudes. The attitude of the Prioress described in the General Prologue contrasts the description of her in the Prioress tales. Chaucer uses irony and satire to depict Prioress as a woman of many contradictions whose characterization demonstrates the religious trepidations of the clergy in the Middle Age.
Detailed answer:

In The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales the narrator begins by describing the Prioress’s disposition in a somewhat saccharine way and contrasts her seemingly coy demeanor with her less courtly tendencies such as singing with a perturbingly nasally voice or speaking French poorly in an attempt to conceal her noticeable English accent. The narrator reveals that the Prioress is most concerned with appearing courtly by illustrating her painstaking efforts to seem eloquent, modest, and well-versed, 'And ful pleasant, and amiable of port / And peyned hire to countrefete chere / Of court, and to been estatlich of manere'. The narrator enforces how she presents these scrupulous efforts to appear courtly through an anecdote about her demeanor while dining, 'At mete wel y-taught was she with alle: / She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, / Ne witte fir fingres in hir sauce depe. / Wel coulde she carie a morsel, and wel kepe / That no drope ne fille upon hire brest'.
Additionally, as it is described in the General Prologue, the Prioress is obsessed with her personal hygiene and general etiquette which she says to be “her greatest pleasure”. This is, as we learn, is because of her upbringing where she learned “good table manners” to the extent that she scrubs her upper lip furiously before every drink. For a woman that is so preoccupied with decorum and cleanliness everywhere in her life she tells an exceptionally filthy tale in which we see blood, feces and other events that one can be sure she would condemn hearing from other people’s mouths at the dinner table. Looking at the contrast between how she chooses to portray herself in her daily life and her excessive neatness it is peculiar that the moment she gets a chance for a creative outlet she tells a tale that is exactly the opposite for everything she stands for. Bodily contaminations of different kinds occupy this tale and perhaps preoccupy her mind.
She is also childlike in many ways, even, maybe unconsciously, saying it herself: “I’m like a child twelve months of age, or less, scarce able to yet to utter or express any word at all.” And quite like a child her whole character seems to be a game of playing pretend and dress up.
In the General Prologue, the author describes Prioress with tenderness and depict her as tender-hearted. She values innocence and come across to unsuspecting readers as a pious nun with remarkable social and Cristian values. However, in the tale, her narration reveals a fierce bigotry. Violence is at the center of her tale. She is very vindictive, portraying the Jews as people thirsty for blood and vengeance.

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