General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Who is the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales?

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The monastic tradition thrived within the medieval Church and was very much alive and kicking when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th-century. This meant that the role of prioress was a very important one indeed. Being in charge of a community of nuns was a very responsible job as it involved pastoral, teaching, and administrative work. As a nun herself, the prioress was expected to set an example for the other nuns and novices in the convent to follow.

However, as was often the case in the medieval Church, actual practice frequently fell short of high ideals. Chaucer's Prioress provides an example of this. Though supposed to be a meek and gentle woman of God, it's notable that she wears expensive, luxurious clothes, the very latest fashions. Instead of carrying a rosary, as we might expect her to do, she carries vanity beads, which would appear to indicate that her real priorities in life are more earthly than spiritual. Chaucer's imputation of hypocrisy to the Prioress is further reinforced by her affectation of sorrow at the death of a mouse. This comes from a woman who has no problem whatsoever with feeding meat to her pack of dogs.

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The prioress is a rank for a woman who is the head of a Priory, a religious place in Christian community or Convent for nuns. She holds the same monastic rank as that of a Prior (man). Bearing such an important and respectable position, a Prioress is supposed to be devout, serious, responsible, uncorrupt, religious, dainty, virtuous, etc.

The description of Prioress in Chaucer’s A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is somewhat different. She is a large sized woman with a wide forehead. She is dressed in elegant attire, but not exactly like a monastic head. Some of her clothing and accessories do not correspond with her religious rank. She speaks poor French. In total, it seems that she is just trying to imitate courtly manners. The Prioress’ tale is nothing but a small hymn or prayer to Virgin Mary.

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