General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Who are the female characters in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales?

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There are two primary women introduced in the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The first woman to be introduced is the Prioress. Her given name is Madame Eglentyne and she is described as imitating the manners of the royal court. This is significant because she occupies a social position within the clergy, not the aristocracy. Thus, she attempts to transcend her social boundaries by mimicking the social behaviors of the aristocracy. The narrator describes the Prioress as speaking French “ful faire and fetisly,” dining in the most elegant manner and, in general, having the “contrefete cheere / Of court” (ll.127, 139). In other words, the Prioress has all the mannerisms of the aristocracy and takes great pains to align her etiquette and countenance with the royal court. It is also noteworthy that she wears a golden brooch with the words “Amor vincit omnia” or “Love conquers all.” A prioress, who is a nun, would be expected to wear prayer beads, not a golden brooch proclaiming the motto of a courtly lover. It is also noteworthy that the Prioress is accompanied by a second nun. This woman is not described in length in the General Prologue; however, the second nun later narrates the Christian legend of the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia.

Another major female character introduced in the General Prologue is the Wife of Bath, named Alice. The Wife of Bath, who is slightly deaf, has had five husbands. She is a seamstress and has taken three separate pilgrimages to Jerusalem. She has also visited Rome, Cologne and other religious shrines. This information tells readers that her marriages have left the Wife of Bath as a wealthy widow. The narrator suggests that “Of remedies of love she knew perchaunce, / For she doude of that art olde daunce” (ll.475-476). To put this another way, the Wife of Bath knows a lot about love because she has been married, and widowed, five times. Later, the Wife of Bath relates a tale about how and why women should dominate in marriage.

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