General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What is the significance of the "A" on the Prioress's brooch in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales?

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Chaucer's masterpiece entitled The Canterbury Tales, though unfinished, provides a valuable insight into the lives of those living in medieval England. The structural framework of the piece (the pilgrimage) brings together people from all walks of life that would otherwise never interact because of their diverse social stratum. In the Prologue, the reader is introduced to soldiers, workers, merchants, and the clergy. In addressing the members of the Roman Catholic Church, Chaucer took on a very touchy subject: that of the corruption among those who served the one "true" faith (and form of government)—the religion that dominated Europe at that time (well before the Protestant Reformation).

Chaucer describes those of the faith:

...from the Parson, who has taught Christ’s word ('but first he followed it himself') to the Pardoner, a rascally confidence man.

At that time, servants of the Roman Church were supposed to take vows of chastity and poverty: giving up all their worldly desires and possessions, to serve God. 

This is important to remember, for while the Pardoner, the Friar and the Monk are all overt examples of religious corruption, and the Parson is the epitome of the true servant of Christ, the Prioress is one we need to look at more carefully. And it is in this manner that we find the true meaning of the "A."

Chaucer is a "student of human nature," observing even the smallest details of each character. We first learn that the Prioress (a nun) does not swear except to "Saint Eloy," patron saint of goldsmiths—showing her preoccupation with money, a contradiction to her vow of poverty. She is known as "Madam Eglantine," which means "honeysuckle," also not appropriate for a person who has allegedly surrendered everything of this physical earth to serve his or her faith.

The Prioress acts as she thinks one in her position should, rather than from any spiritual commitment.

And went to many pains to put on cheer

Of court, and very dignified appear,

And to be thought worthy of reverence. (19-21)

She also has dogs. Once again, owning dogs is counter to a vow of poverty, as is their menu: she feeds them "white" bread, while the peasants ate only coarse brown bread—this is the food of the wealthy. Rather than caring for the poor, she feeds her dogs better than those starving. She also cares more for her dogs: crying if they are hurt; she never expresses any concern for the "flock" she has pledged herself to serve.

The broach she wears is one of several pieces of jewelry that adorn her person: she has "a coral trinket on her arm" and...

...she’d bear

A string of beads, gauded all round with green;

And from there hung a brooch of golden sheen

On which there was first written a crowned “A,”

And under, Amor Vincit Omnia. (38-42)

This describes her rosary. A broach ("brooch") is generally a pin, but it seems she has one of gold hanging at the end of her rosary, with an "A" on it. The Latin inscription means "Love conquers all." One might expect a sentiment from the Bible, but this quote is from the Roman poet Virgil, written before the time of Christ.

The broach is dominated by the "A" (of amor, or love), so we may infer by her lifestyle that it has nothing to do with her faith, but more of her secular proclivities.

Additional Source:

Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.

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