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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What is Chaucer's opinion of the nun in The Canterbury Tales?

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The place to construct the answer to this question is in the general prologue, the part of The Canterbury Tales where Chaucer introduces the characters.

From the outset, it is clear that Chaucer finds the nun to be a fake, even using the term "counterfeit." Her smile is "ingenuous...

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and coy," and her manners are noted to be well-practiced, while her French was perfect but not the French spoken in Paris. The nun gives the impression of someone trying too hard to put on airs. When Chaucer mentions that her "only oath was to Saint Loy," the reader is meant to understand that the nun, like Saint Loy (a Merovingian-era saint who wouldn't take an oath) cannot be trusted to take an oath at all.

Further, Chaucer gives us clues through the name and titles he assigns to her. Being named Eglantine, a word derived from the word "elegant," hints at her worldliness, while referring to her as "Madam," as opposed to "Sister," is meant to lead the reader further in that interpretive direction.

She dresses elegantly, eats well, keeps personal pets, and wears a fancy rosary with the inscription "love conquers all." All of this underlines Chaucer's judgment that this woman has not entered religious life for the sake of piety but instead is using religious life as a means of achieving various pleasures and social standing.

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What do you suppose Chaucer is trying to tell us about the nun in "The Canterbury Tales"?

A Nun is a woman of God.  She is to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The Prioress is the head nun--in charge of the all the others.  The nun is interesting since she does many things a person wouldn't expect of a nun.  She smiles in a  "coy" or flirtatious manner, and she swears an oath, "By St. Loy!"  Nuns should not swear oaths to anything, but especially not the patron saint of perfect manners.  It's as if she cares more about her appearances than her duties to God.  She appears to put on airs--speaking inferior French, not allowing any morsels to fall from her lips (she is not undergrown Chaucer points out--a fat nun who should not be a glutton by the standards of the Bible...hum), and acting as though she were at court like all the nobles of the land instead of heading to Canterbury for a cathartic spiritual experience.  She attends more to her dogs than she does to the poor.  Her forehead is fair of spread--in Chaucer's time this would be a sign of good breeding and intelligence.  Women would actually shave their hairlines further up than normal to indicate their family lineage--Chaucer is either mocking her here or pointing out her pretentious nature which should not be present in a nun.  She has lots of worldy luxuries--the nice veil and cloak, and her coral trinket engraved with "Love conquers all" makes us think that she does not deny herself love, either.

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