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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does Chaucer satirize the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales?

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There are at least two layers of satire in Chaucer’s description of the Prioress. First, like the other clerical characters; the Monk and the Friar, the Summoner and the Pardoner (though not the devout and humble Parson), the Prioress is shown to be more concerned with worldly matters than with her religious duties. Her clothes and jewelry are described in some detail, as are her table manners. She has a retinue of little dogs which she feeds with roast meat and cake, a better diet than many people enjoyed in fourteenth-century England. Besides her pampered dogs, she has another nun, a chaplain and three priests traveling with her, altogether quite a stately procession, demonstrating her high position, like her clothes and jewels.

Beyond the inappropriate luxury of her lifestyle, however, there is another level to Chaucer’s satire. The Prioress is trying to act like an aristocrat rather than a nun, but she is not very successful at doing so. Her table manners are ironically praised by the narrator saying that she did not drop food on her breast and that she remembered to wipe her mouth, scarcely impressive achievements, but the type of thing a member of the nouveau riche had to remember, since they were not brought with such etiquette. Similarly, the Prioress has laboriously learned French, a necessary accomplishment for a member of the upper class, but she has learned her French in East London and it is immediately evident that she is ignorant of the “French of Paris.”

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In Chaucer's "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales, he describes and satirizes characters from a variety of social classes and professions, including a number of religious clergy and personnel. He also organizes his introductions to the characters in "The General Prologue" by their social status, beginning with those at the top of the proverbial food chain. 

One of the first characters (the fourth, to be exact) introduced is the Prioress, a nun. She is the first female character described and follows only the Knight and his company. The first question in the reader's mind should be, "Why is a nun so high up on the socioeconomic ladder?" Is it not the case that those who are part of the religious clergy take vows of poverty and lead simple lives? Maybe they should, but in Chaucer's world, there were some members of the church who were from the upper class. One of the targets of satire throughout the Canterbury Tales is the church, namely, the greed and corruption of some of its members. The Prioress is not, unlike the Pardoner and the Monk, taking advantage of the poor for her own benefit; however, she is well-dressed and obviously wealthy. She has dainty table manners and is known as "Madame Eglantyne." She obviously is accustomed to an upper-class lifestyle.

This is not the only aspect of the Prioress's character that Chaucer pokes fun at, though. He targets in more detail the Prioress's obsession with romantic love. Again, we might wonder, "Don't nuns take vows of chastity?" Yes, they do. They are not allowed to have romantic relationships or to be married. They must devote their energy and attention to Christ and to their religious duties. However, the Prioress has a brooch with "Amor vincit omnia" engraved upon it; this means "Love conquers all," and Chaucer implies that it does not refer to the Prioress's love for Jesus. This is a phrase we normally associate with romantic love, something you might find in Arthurian romance. Her "charm" indicates that she is also somewhat flirtatious. 

Finally, Chaucer suggests that the Prioress is fake and pretentious. While she may come from a wealthy background, she also wants her fellow pilgrims to know it. She overplays her manners to give off an aristocratic air. Chaucer writes that she is "Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining / To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace . . . / And to seem dignified in all her dealings" (6-7). The words "straining," "counterfeit," and "seem" all indicate that she must put on a performance to appear "courtly." It should not be important to a nun to seem wealthy and powerful while on a religious pilgrimage. 

Chaucer's critique of the Prioress is a bit more subtle than that of some of the other pilgrims, and he does mention some of her positive qualities. Nonetheless, he satirizes her upper class pretensions and her interest in romantic love, as these are not befitting a woman of the cloth. 

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In the prologue, Chaucer satirizes the prioress by having the narrator praise characteristics that are not representative of nuns.  When we think of nuns, we think of women who have taken vows of chastity, poverty, and faithfulness to god.  The narrator praises none of these qualities.  Instead we hear that she sings through her nose; she speaks French (but not in the Paris style--in other words, not very well); she has nice table manners in that she never spills sauce on her bosom; she gives her animals the finest foods; and she is rather large.  She wears a  gold trinket that says "love conquers all."  In other words, a Mother Theresa, she isn't.

This woman clearly enjoys the finer things of life.  She enjoys a luxurious life.  Instead of taking care of the poor, she is speaking French.  Instead of feeding the hungry, she is eating very well--to the point that she is overweight.  When so many people did not enough food to eat, feeding pets roasted flesh, milk, and fine white bread would have seemed very indulgent indeed.  Her golden brooch would also have seemed out of character for a nun.  It would be the equivalent of a nun today wearing a gold heart rather than a cross.

The method of satire is "damning by faint praise."  In seeming to praise the nun's virtues, the narrator instead exposes her lack of commitment to her religious responsibilities and vows.

Her tale is no less revealing.  It is an exaggerated miracle story showing her intolerance for differences and her narrow-minded thinking.  The Jews are the evil villains in her story, and the miracle is so outlandish--a little boy continues to sing even after his throat is slashed--that it is preposterous rather than inspiring or credible.

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