The General Prologue - The Prioress

There was also a nun, a prioress,
Who, in her smiling, modest was and coy;
Her greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!”
And she was known as Madam Eglantine.
Full well she sang the services divine(5)
Intoning through her nose, becomingly;
And fair she spoke her French, and fluently.
At table she had been well taught withal,
And never from her lips let morsels fall,
Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce, but ate(10)
With so much care the food upon her plate
That never driblet fell upon her breast.
In courtesy she had delight and zest.
Her upper lip was always wiped so clean
That in her cup was no iota seen(15)
Of grease, when she had drunk her draught of wine.
And certainly she was of great disport
And full pleasant, and amiable of port
And went to many pains to put on cheer
Of court, and very dignified appear,(20)
And to be thought worthy of reverence.
But, to say something of her moral sense,
She was so charitable and piteous
That she would weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, though it were dead or bled.(25)
She had some little dogs, too, that she fed
On roasted flesh, or milk and fine white bread.
But sore she’d weep if one of them were dead,
Or if men smote it with a rod to smart:
For pity ruled her, and her tender heart.(30)
Full properly her wimple pleated was.
Her nose was straight, her eyes as grey as glass,
Her mouth full small, and also soft and red;
But certainly she had a fair forehead;
It was almost a full span broad, I own,(35)
For, truth to tell, she was not undergrown.
Full stylish was her cloak, I was aware.
Of coral small about her arm she’d bear
A string of beads, gauded all round with green;
And from there hung a brooch of golden sheen(40)
On which there was first written a crowned “A,”
And under, Amor Vincit Omnia.

Footnotes

  1. All of the characteristics that the narrator catalogues here are typical of descriptions of noble women. This suggests that Chaucer characterized the Prioress as a noble woman forced into a nunnery in order to create a social satire.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Here Chaucer juxtaposes the Prioress' moral senses, that make her pity trapped mice, with a rather gruesome description of the "roasted flesh" she feeds her dogs. Flesh at this time would have been an extremely fancy meal for a dog, that might have been better used to feed the malnourished poor. This juxtaposition and view of her extremely pampered dogs further demonstrates that the Prioress' moral compass is askew.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Here the narrator focuses most of his description on the Prioress' table manners rather than traits of her religious devotion. Some have suggested that the Prioress' upper class etiquette suggests that she was a daughter of a noble family who was sent to a nunnery when she was unable to get married. In focusing on her upper class upbringing rather than her religious devotion, Chaucer satirizes this social practice.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. French was the language of culture and law until about 1300, at which point English displaced it. The Prioress' ability to speak French demonstrates both learning and upper class culture.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. "Eglantine" means sweet briar, a type of pink flower. When nuns take their vows they choose new names, generally religious names. However, the Prioress chooses a name that symbolizes beauty rather than religious connotations. This further supports reading her character as social satire.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Because she is a nun, it is odd that her greatest oath is "but" to Saint Eloy, the saint of metal workers and goldsmiths. This oath is out of place for nuns as they weren't supposed to go on pilgrimages or swear oaths. The presence of the oath could suggest that the Prioress' character is meant to be a social satire.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. "Coy" here means modest and did not carry connotations of flirtatious in Chaucer's time. Rather, it was an adjective often used to describe heroines from French Romances.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Latin for "Love Conquers All." It's a strange thing for the Prioress to wear, given her status in the Church, and, like her gaudy bracelet and her fondness for wine, should indicate to the reader that she's not as pious as she might seem.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor