The Role of the Prioress

Topics: The Canterbury Tales, Nun, Geoffrey Chaucer Pages: 8 (1367 words) Published: September 3, 2014
Expectations vs. Reality of the Prioress

In The Canterbury Tales Prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces many characters that

play a significant role in the Medieval society. While some characters represent their position

well, many do not follow certain rules and codes that are required by their occupation.

Specifically, the nunnery requires a prioress to follow many vows, wear certain clothing, and

perform various religious acts. Chaucer describes certain manners and habits of the Prioress,

Madame Eglantyne, in order to show her non-fulfillment of these requirements. In order to fully

understand her, the readers must know the reasons that women entered nunneries, the duties of a

prioress, and the forbidden luxuries.

The economic background of the nuns remained the same, but the reasons for entering the

nunneries differed. While some nuns belonged to low economic families, most came from

wealthy families because "many convents and nunneries only accepted postulants who were

from wealthy backgrounds" ("Medieval Nuns"). Nuns drawn from a lower class usually failed to

become a nun due to their lack of education (Power 14). Nunneries required women to study

Latin because the bishop addressed communications, notices of visitation, mandates and

injunctions in Latin (Power 246). Some nuns also spoke French, the language of the wealthy

(Power 246). Madame Eglantyne fell into this category. While the church did not require the

knowledge of French, the nuns from wealthy backgrounds found it "hard to change the way of

life, which they led before they took the veil and which they saw all around them..." (Power 74).

Therefore, these women learned French to feel wealthy or socially accepted. On the other hand,

Madame Eglantyne represented the exception. She "[counterfeited] a courtly kind of grace" so

the other nuns would assume her family possessed wealth (Chaucer line 137). She strived to fit

in not only with the other nuns, but with the other well-born women of that time. Women entered

nunneries for various reasons. Devotion to god acted as only a small focus of their reasoning

(Power 29). Instead, families often placed them into the nunnery ("Medieval Nuns"). The

nunnery acted as a prison because their families "wished to be rid of them" (Power 25). Women

like this often remained as a nun forever without hope of leaving (Power 34). If a woman joined

out of choice, three main reasons motivated them. The majority of women joined as a career

simply because of the absence of other options (Power 29). Also, the nunnery acted as an

alternative to marriage or a place of peace for the widowed (Power 25). Women either did not

want to marry or their family could not afford the price of a marriage (Power 25). Lastly, women

chose the nun life due to the Cult of the Virgin ("Medieval Nuns"). "During the Medieval times

of the Middle Ages, the belief, fostered by St. Augustine was that every person was born guilty

of the original sin", and because Eve committed the original sin, men disrespected and blamed

women ("Medieval Nuns"). Pursuing the life of a nun demanded some considerable respect. Due

to the wide variety of reasons for entering a nunnery, Chaucer does not provide enough

information to explain why Madame Eglantyne did. But, the historians do conclude that most

nuns came from the upper class.

A nunnery required many duties from a prioress. The daily life of a nun developed from

three vows: the Vow of Poverty, the Vow of Chastity, and the Vow of Obedience ("Medieval

Nuns"). Chastity "enables a nun to give her whole love to God alone", poverty creates a life of

humbleness, and obedience allows for a life completely devoted to God (Broadley). The vows

reflect the life of Christ because he led a life of these values (Broadley). The Prioress in The

Canterbury Tales Prologue...

Cited: Broadley, Jacob. "The Role of Catholic Nuns." Opposing Views. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales Prologue. The Adventures in English Literature,
Pegasus Ed. William Keach, Dallas; HBJ, 1989. Print.
"Medieval Nuns." Middle Ages. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Power, Eileen D. Medieval English Nunneries. New York: Macmillan, 1922. Web.
Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought.
Zatta, Jane. "The Prioress 's Tale." English Comparative Literature. University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
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