The Nonne, a Prioress - Prologue and Tale #
Nun’s are called on to sacrifice their personal needs, swear an oath of abstemious poverty and trained to be the humble servants of God. Rules frowned on going for solitary walks, pilgrimages or independent thinking. Questioning of authority is criticised as “pride”. You are expected to keep quiet, deny your individuality, sacrifice your primal needs and suppress your intellect. God uses the weak to confound the strong and the unintelligent to confound the knowledgeable, so it was almost lack of faith to try and use your head. Rome will decide all significant issues for you. Submission and acceptance are the highest virtues.
The assumption that God’s loving care would protect them is used by the Church to justify a dangerous lack of freedom, foresight and progress.
Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse,
That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;
Hire gretteste ooth was but by seinte Loy, And she was cleped madame Eglentyne.
Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely;
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe. At mete wel y-taught was she with-alle:
She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe. Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe
Thát no drope ne fille upon hire brist;
In curteisie was set ful muchel hir list.
Hire over-lippe wyped she so clene
That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene (cup)
Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte. > Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.
And sikerly she was of greet desport,
And ful plesáunt and amyable of port,
And peyned hire to countrefete cheere
Of court, and been estatlich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence.
But for to speken of hire conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel breed;
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte.
Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was;
Hire nose tretys, her eyen greye as glas, tretys (shapely)
Hir mouth ful smal and ther-to softe and reed;
But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
It was almoost a spanne brood, I trowe;
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
Ful fetys was hir cloke, as I was war; fetys - (fashionably)
Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
And ther-on heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after, Amor vincit omnia.
Chaucer’s portrait of the Prioress is ambiguous at best and hypocritical at worst. As a Prioress, she represents high standing in the hierarchical institution where position grants privileges. Ordinary Nuns were not to take pilgrimages, expected to dress modestly, cover their foreheads, act with decorum, not swear oaths, not have pets, or wear jewelry. Eglentyne (sweet briar) manages to contravene all.
Perhaps Chaucer’s most ironic comment concerns her conscience:
“She was so charitable and so pitous/ She wolde wepe if that she saugh a mous/ Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Her pretentious manner of speaking, eating and courtly manners suggest a superficiality and affected posing. She displays the qualities and affected manners of a lady of fashion rather than an abstemious religious model.
Most telling is: “countrefete cheere” to describe her pretence.
The is little evidence of genuine piety or compassion.