The Nun in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Character Analysis

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  • 0:00 A Counterfeit Nun
  • 1:12 A Nun or a Lady?
  • 2:12 Religious or Courtly?
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

In the character of the Nun, Chaucer describes a woman who should be concerned with charity and prayer, but instead has the air of a lady. With her courtly manners and false sentiment, the Nun is more concerned with appearances than anything else.

A Counterfeit Nun

Have you ever known someone who pretends to be something they aren't? The Nun in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is just such a person. She goes to great lengths to show others what she wishes to be, rather than who she is.

Chaucer uses the word 'counterfeit' to describe the Nun, whose real name is Madame Eglantine, and indeed much about the Nun is downright false. The name Eglantine, which means 'sweetbriar' and is derived from the Latin word for elegant, which doesn't lead the reader to picture a religious woman. Also, Chaucer calls her Madam, a respectful French title, when by rights she should be addressed as Sister.

She likes to imitate the ways of the court, which is something a nun should reject as too worldly. She's fluent in French, though they wouldn't understand her in Paris, so her French is somewhat fake, too. She is also hypocritical. Chaucer tells us how she will make a great fuss over a poor, dead mouse caught in a trap, but then tells us how she feeds roasted meat to her little lapdogs. Her pity over the poor, dead mouse is as false as everything else about her.

A Nun or a Lady?

Like her behavior, the Nun's appearance is the opposite of what she actually is. She wears rich clothing, a gorgeous cloak, and expensive beads. Her choice of jewelry reveals her secularity, too. Her costly, coral bead bracelet bears the inscription 'Love conquers all,' which is a strangely romantic choice for a woman who should be sworn to love only God. In fact, she should be wearing a rosary.

Chaucer paints a picture of an elegant woman. However, though she pretends to be dainty, Chaucer reports that she is 'hardly undergrown.' In fact, her forehead is downright huge. Chaucer tells us it's a full hand-span across.

The Nun enjoys her food, too, and never lets a single crumb fall. In fact, Chaucer spends ten lines talking about her eating habits. Her manners are great, her smile both 'simple and coy,' and she has a pretty (if nasal) singing voice. But everything she does is all for show, like her crying over the mouse.

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