The Nun Quotes in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Chaucer's Prioress, emblematic and much-debated. She breaks all the rules of monastic life, while seeming to embody rulebooks for aristocratic conduct. Is she typical of her time? A satirical portrait? This lesson examines how her own words illustrate her character.

The Prioress in The Canterbury Tales

The Prioress
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The figure of Madame Eglantine in The Canterbury Tales is one of the most debated characters in Chaucer's work. She is variously known simply as 'the nun,' or as the Prioress. In the group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, there are two nuns, of whom she is the first. Moreover, she is a prioress, meaning that she holds a position of considerable authority in her monastic house.

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Madame Eglantine is characterized as vain and self-absorbed. Moreover, she is breaking almost every rule for monastic behavior there is: she's traveling, she's expensively dressed, and she's more concerned with elegance than with spiritual simplicity. 'She was in pains to imitate the cheer / Of courtliness, and stately manners here, / And would be held worthy of reverence' (lines 139-141). Chaucer's not without compassion for her, though. Eglantine's silly vanity can be interpreted as an attempt to fulfill social expectations of aristocratic women.

The Prioress' Prologue

The Prioress' Prologue reads like an over-the-top parody of piety: an imitation of genuine devotion that doesn't quite get the tone right. Chaucer draws attention to its artificiality in its opening: 'O Lord, oure Lord, thy name how merveillous / Is in this large world ysprad -- quod she' (453-454). The aside 'she says' highlights the fact that the Prioress is parroting a psalm. Illustrating the ambiguity of women's authority, she claims that her own ability to tell a story is like that of a toddler learning to talk: 'as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse' (484-485). Even this gesture of humility, in comparing herself to a baby, also sets up a comparison between her and the saintly protagonist of her tale.

The Prioress' Tale

Plot and Style

The tale that Madame Eglantine tells illustrates both her vanity and her sentimentality. She throws in first-person interjections in inappropriate places, and uses repetitive vocabulary to play on her listeners' emotions. The child who is murdered in her story is constantly referred to as 'sweet,' 'little,' and 'innocent,' for example. If you're thinking 'Wait, murdered child? That got dark...' you're not alone; the other pilgrims have similar reactions.

The Prioress' Tale is infamous among scholars for its violent anti-Semitism. The narrative itself is simple: a young boy, in a Christian city somewhere in Asia (chosen for being the equivalent of the fairy tale's 'far, far away') is murdered by the city's Jewish inhabitants, because they are angered by his singing of a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The child continues miraculously singing after his death, thus indicting the actions of his murderers and proving the holiness of his own actions. It's brutal. There's a suggestion, though, that Chaucer may be undermining the Prioress' intended message through pointing out the excesses and absurdities of her narration.

Representative Quotes

Several moments in the Prioress' tale illustrate her sentimentality and her total lack of self-awareness. At the most horrifying moment in the story, when the murdered boy is thrown into a latrine, she reinserts herself into the narrative, to make sure her audience is paying attention and having the emotional response she expects: 'I seye that in a wardrobe they hym threwe / Where as thise Jewes purgen hire entraille' (572-573). 'I say,' she insists, 'that they threw him in a privy,' adding the bit about purging guts as though it were a deliberate act rather than a fact of nature. It's emphatically gross, and the Prioress wants to make sure her listeners are properly disgusted.

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