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, et.al. 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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