Research Paper: Characterization of Chaucer

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Chaucer: The Prioress

The Pious and Contemptuous Prioress

In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Prioress tale delves into the piety, propriety and prejudiced of a senior nun. Her tale examines the murder of young and innocent choir boy, who was killed by the town's Jews for singing aloud in praising Mother Mary. Much attention is placed on the words and sentiments (especially anti-Semitism) expressed by the Prioress in terms of assessing her character traits. Nevertheless, her social skills, dress and physical appearance also reveal much about the character of the Prioress, particularly that she is a human being who strives to maintain piety and spirituality, but is subject to human desires and weaknesses (Stone 58)

In the General Prologue the reader is privy to glimpses of the paradoxical nature of the Prioress' personality. She is quick to point out her proficiency in French (Chaucer 124) and her pristine table manners (Chaucer 128), two indications that she is quite sophisticated and that she desires to be accepted by the aristocracy. That she is of such ilk is impressive, but that she would find it necessary and appropriate to identify these as strong character traits directly evidences a lack of true piousness as piousness would be portrayed by a sincere interest in more spiritual matters (Murphy). Further, she did not acquire her French in Paris, but in a school in London, an additional indication of her trying too hard to impress the aristocratic world to which she does not truly belong (Murphy).

The choice of wardrobe for the Prioress has been interpreted to demonstrate that she valued vanity more than a good Christian should (Power 77). There is a consensus that opinion among Chaucer scholars that the Prioress' would rather prove her good breeding by baring her forehead under her veil than wear the veil so tight to the head that the forehead was not visible, as was proper and truly pious according to the standards of a nun during the Middle Ages (Haurigan 44).

Some, however, defend the headdress worn by the Prioress as proper within the ambit of convent rules and medieval literature (Hodges 46). Also, it is important to consider the view that the Prioress likely was the head nun or assistant head over an abbey (Zatta). Her duties as the Prioress, would have included managing the abbey's internal affairs and maintaining contact with the outside world (Zatta). The Prioress probably would have come from a prosperous family, perhaps an aristocratic family with several daughters that would have made it unlikely for her to marry or from a fringe aristocratic family that could not afford to pay a proper dower (Zatta). It stands to reason, in this world view, that she would have more possessions than might seem appropriate for a nun (Zatta). Therefore, to consider her character as ostentatious and materialistic would appear to lose sight of the world she was born into (aristocracy), but also her role as the nun's link to the outside world (Zatta).

The preferred oath of the Prioress is the oath of St. Loy (Chaucer 120) and this choice has been identified as a foible of her character, one that separates her from her spiritual calling (Wentworth 268). St. Loy was by all accounts a man of great earthly accomplishment, not the patron saint that one would expect for a lady who's most earnest pursuit is to praise the Virgin Mary (Wentworth 269). That Chaucer embedded in the Prioress the admiration of St. Loy's good looks, fine clothes and jewelry and other aristocratic features, is further evidence of the Prioress split allegiance to those desires spiritual and secular (Wentworth 269).

Likewise, the selection of her jewelry also is revealing of the Prioress' essence, though her essence in this instance appears to be spiritual (Lynch 440). The emerald is the stone for the month May, widely held to be the birth month of Mary, and thus the emerald has come to be seen as representative of the virtue of chastity (Lynch 440). It is natural that the Prioress would place great emphasis on that trait and want it to demonstrate her belief in a chaste lifestyle by wearing the emerald (Lynch 440). The emerald was also believed to protect mothers during childbirth (Lynch 440). Hence, the emerald at once, represents purity and motherhood, the duality associated with the Virgin Mary, who the Prioress longs to exalt (Lynch 440).

The Prioress' ruby represents the crucifixion and subsequent martyrdom of Jesus, a correlation not lost on Chaucer or the Prioress (Lynch 441). The pearl that Chaucer references in the Prioress' tale depicts virginity, a symbolism owing to its whiteness (Lynch 441), as well as Mary's perfection as she was born without the "stain of Adam and Eve upon her soul" (Lynch 441). Taken together, the gems portray the virginity, martyrdom and perfection that defines what the Prioress' sees in the Virgin Mary and sets as the ideal for herself (Lynch 441).

In the Prologue, the Prioress recognizes that as a mere human, she is not capable of properly articulating the greatness of God, Jesus Christ or Mary (Chaucer 475-76 and 481-83). Further, she stresses human traits that all sincere Christians are supposed to possess: virtue and humility (Chaucer 475). Lastly the Prologue stresses the value of purity and motherhood (Chaucer 461-66). In the first few stanzas of the Tale itself, the Prioress recounts how a 7-year-old choir boy learned the importance of praising Mary and how to sing hymns praising her from an older classmate (Chaucer 518-29) The child proceeds to sing the hymn aloud in the streets of his town (Chaucer 544-49). This too, indicates a genuine devoutness to Christian values by the Prioress.

The impiousness on the Prioress is further emphasized by her likening herself to an infant (Murphy). It has already been demonstrated herein that she appears to identify with and sympathize more with young innocent children than adults. This is in and of itself a sign of adult immaturity (Murphy). Chaucer affords the prioress very deferential in the Prologue to her tale, which contrasts sharply with the treatment received by The Shipman in the preceding story (Delahoyde). While respectful, the Prioress is nonetheless characterized as being very childlike throughout her Prologue, which combined with the tangible pursuits she was noted for in the General Prologue, further cast doubt on her genuine spiritual essence (Delahoyde).

The Prioress professes to have genuine depth and sincerity in her faith and her commitment to Christian ideals (Murphy). Sincerity in these beliefs and dedication to the observance of Christian practices would elevate these aspects of her lifestyle to character traits. This is because, if genuine, her devoutness would define her as a person and motivate all of her daily and long-term decisions (Hodges 78). While many parishioners pray and believe because they believe they have to or need to for salvation, the Prioress would have the readers believe that absolute piousness and the quest for perfect faith are the only real calling in life (Hodges 80).

The gentle affection she has for animals and the doting motherly affection she expresses towards the choir boy, stand in stark relief against the unmerciful and incessant attack on the virtue of the "cursed Hebrews" (Frank 153). To be anti-Semitic alone in the Roman Catholic world of the middle ages would not justify a condemnation of the Prioress character (Frank 154). It is the virulent and incessant nature of the anti-Semitism; however, that creates such a bad impression of the Prioress. The Prioress thirst for blood and vitriolic feelings towards the Jews in retribution belies her pious nature and proves that her character is quite flawed (Ames 200).

A final glimpse into the character of the Prioress: the players in her Tale are either good or bad. The little boy who is killed is "little," "young" and "tender" and the Jews who killed him are "cursed" and dwell in the "wasps nest of Satan" (Murphy). This is also evidence by the allegation of the Jews usury, to assert their evilness to a base level (Murphy).

The Prioress concludes the Tale by removing the pearl from the mouth of the slain boy which has allowed him to continue singing the hymn to Mary after his death (Chaucer 671) and by making a martyr out of the boy (680). Both of these events signify the Prioress' utter lack of humility and understanding of what true piety is. Mary herself laid the bead in the mouth of the boy, so that he could find comfort and dignity in his last moments. Mary told the boy that she will come for him when 'they' take the bead.

The character of the Prioress is quite a study in contrast for a number of reasons. First, she is a victim of circumstance in that she was born into a rich family and then entered the convent. Speaking French and wearing nice clothes does not make her a bad person, but it does appear to a bystander that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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