Monday, 18 June 2018

The Prioress in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

The Prioress in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

 

 

The Prioress is one of the few female pilgrims, which is, in itself, interesting; present in her and the Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s judgement on women. This is particularly true due to Chaucer’s use of the superlative, idealised form. Each pilgrim is the ultimate example, the epitome, of their kind. Therefore, the Prioress is the nonpareil of women of her position. Chaucer, the pilgrim, understands the Prioress as a “semely” woman of grace and spirituality, yet subtextually he reveals her to be far less diaconal than she would have him believe.

Chaucer writes the Prioress as a character who attempts to conceal her nature behind the guise of spirituality and devotion to God. The majority of the words used to describe her are paronomasial, such as “semely” and “counterfete”, which shows the skill of Chaucer as a writer. His use of particular words reveals the complexity within her character, the truth of “Madame Eglentine”. She is a woman who revels in her power over men, and seems to enjoy their gaze on her. However, her hidden sensuality is not nearly as successful as she would believe, as we, the reader (or the listener, as was originally the case) can see through her guise of spirituality. From line 119 of the prologue the Prioress is sexualised by Chaucer, her smile “ful simple and coy”. Being coy is to make a pretence of shyness or modesty, intending to be alluring. This one word is apropos to the character of the Prioress, and is only further supported by each subsequent line. Madame Eglentine’s “gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy”. St Eloy’s most prestigious trait is that she never swore and was courteous. This quote, in the style of Chaucer, has a double entendre which gains intrigue once you understand St Eloy’s reputation. The quote could mean two things; either that the Prioress’s worst swear is by St Eloy, which is ironic, considering the Prioress would be swearing by a saint who herself never swore, which would show the Prioress’s desire for courtliness. Or, alternately, and a far more modern approach, that her religious vows are actually to St Eloy- which is backed up by the Prioress’s love of the “cheere// of courte”, and also her chosen name, “Eglentine” meaning ‘wild rose’, which was supposedly Mary’s flower, but also a name taken from courtly romance. Again, the Prioress puts up a façade of devotion to God, yet succumbs to her desire and conforms to the courtly love, or ‘fin amours’ tradition.

The Prioress’ singing of the “service divine” is noteworthy, as Chaucer is ambiguous about whether she merely sings the divine service, or whether she, in fact, is singing this service divinely, “entuned in hir nose flu semely”, “semely” having a dichotomised meaning, as either ‘attractively’ or ‘properly’. Considering the pilgrim Chaucer’s seeming admiration of her, it is likely that he is commenting on her as an object. Chaucer’s ambiguity heightens her status, given that “divine” in Latin meant ‘godlike’. Chaucer the pilgrim speaks of the Prioress similarly to how Ferdinand deifies Miranda in The Tempest. However, while the Prioress is deified, Chaucer, the writer, does so ironically, commenting that her French is from the “scole of Stratford atte Bowe”, i.e. with a poor accent. French, in 18th century literature such as Jane Eyre, is often associated with corruption and sexuality. While, clearly, Chaucer wrote far before this, it is possible that there is an understood link between France and depravity. Therefore, the Prioress’s understanding of French, albeit with a “Stratford atte Bowe” accent, signifies the underlying sensuality of her nature.

Chaucer, the pilgrim, is absorbed with her, his erotic interest pervading his description and colouring each word, altering our the reader’s perception of her until she is nothing but a series of features. First her smile, then her nose, and finally when she eats, his gaze is directly on her, scrutinising each action. The description of the Prioress eating is extremely sexual, almost voyeuristic. She “leet no morsel from her lippes falle// ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe// wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe// that no drope ne falle upon hire breste”. Chaucer’s description objectifies her, reducing her to features, focussing on individual elements and therefore detracting from the whole woman. The link between sexuality and dining is worthy of note; and many critics have explored the connection between the two. In Sarah Gordon’s Culinary Comedy in Medieval French Literature she writes that “food…has the power to satisfy, to entertain and to construct identity…eating and fasting were tied to religion and morality [in Medieval times]… what one ate or abstained from eating could alter one’s spiritual identity”. Another critic states that the meal is an “exteriorization of mental sexual play”. These critics help elucidate the potentially euphemistic connection between sensuality and eating, and show the Prioress’ appetites. The Prioress’ appetites seem conflicted, as, In Chaucer’s description, the Prioress does not leave a scrap left on her plate, yet line 145 states that she gives her hounds “rosted fleshh, or milk and wastel-breed”. This is, perhaps, an inconsistency in Chaucer’s writing, but I do not believe that this is the case. The contrast could show either the intentional sexuality of the Prioress while eating, or that she lies to the other pilgrims about her “charitable and pitous” heart, and her actions towards the dogs, or, finally, that she is corrupt. Nuns must take a vow of poverty, obedience and chastity, and are meant to give all excess wealth to the poor. However, the Prioress has control of the purse of the Priory, and according to Chaucer’s description, wastes it away on pets and expensive food with which to treat them. Therefore the Prioress feeding her pet dogs is a sign of excess wealth and meat as opposed to her abstaining from consuming food. The “charitable” Prioress can then be reconciled with the dining Prioress. While Chaucer’s description of the eating woman is disturbing, it is possibly that his gaze is indeed what the Prioress is seeking. She acts “coy”, takes “peynes” in order to imitate courtly manners, and dresses in a way that emphasises her attractive features. Chaucer comments that her “semely… wimpul [was] pinched”; in essence that she is showcasing her forehead. In Chaucer’s time, large foreheads were seen as attractive, many women even plucking at their hairline in order to appear more semely. The Prioress is participating in this, refusing to renounce her beauty. Chaucer subtly reinforces the assertion that the Prioress is far too worldly for a woman of her position. Chaucer the pilgrim then goes on to describe her physiognomy, “hir nose tretis, hir eyen greye as glas// hir mouth ful smal, and thereto softe and reed.”, again reducing her to a compilation of characteristics as opposed to a person. Yet, while Chaucer speaks of her beauty, he mocks her obsession with the courtly tradition. Arthur K. Moore suggests that the fin amours is “insipid courtly verse” filled with “denatured amour courtois and allegorical conceits”, which women were far more interested in embodying than men. The Prioress attempts to encapsulate the courtly tradition which gives rise to the act which she took “peynes” to put on. Chaucer seems to revel in the flaws within her character, criticising her act, while not vilifying it. He uses a very Horation form of satire.

Horation satire is prevalent within Chaucer’s description of the Prioress, almost echoing his description of the Squier. The Squier is juxtaposed with the Knight, much as the Prioress is juxtaposed with the Parson. These exemplars are necessary in order to show the gap between the ideal and the true. Chaucer seems to take great pleasure in the inconsistencies, or ‘gap’ between what the Prioress ought to be, and what she espouses to be. She is frivolous, but in no way malicious, unlike pilgrims such as the Merchant or the Miller. She is gently mocked by Chaucer, in a true Horation fashion, and in lines 142-150 is described as “charitable and pitous…al was conscience and tender herte”, transforming her into a somewhat cliched stock romantic figure, a soft feminine ideal. These 8 lines have a great deal on assonance and rhyme “deed…bledde…fedde…breed…deed”, Yet, even in this description, where her compassionate character is meant to be revealed, the reader can see the flaws in her actions; surely the Prioress ought to be feeding villeynes as opposed to her pets. Chaucer somewhat misleads the reader in like 142, claiming that the Prioress is “pitous”. This adjective is unexpected, as “pitous” and “pious” are homonymous, and therefore Chaucer surprises us with “pitous”, as opposed to “piety”. Pitous is far more courtly, as opposed to spiritual piety.
Finally, the Prioress has a set of “smal coral about hire arm// a pair of bedes gauded al with grene// and theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene… Amor vincit omnia”. Interestingly, Chaucer never mentions rosary beads. In Middle English, gaud could mean one of three things; an ornamental bead in a rosary, a trick or pretence, or a purely ornamental object. These meanings all reflect on the Prioress; again there is the gap between what she ought to be and what she truly is; the Prioress is, herself, the analogous ornamental rosary bead, pretending to be spiritual, yet only managing to be a deconstructed object, however beautiful. The “grene” is also of note, as green in Medieval times was considered the colour of love, yet in Christianity also represented demons and evil serpents, poison and unrestrained feminine sexuality. The Prioress’s choice of the colour of her rosary beads shows her nature.

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