Peter M. Amadeo
12 February 2017
British Literary Traditions
Close Reading of the Nun’s Priest in the General Prologue of
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
In the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the reader to a Nun’s Priest or Prioress, who, like the other religious figures in the poem, is assigned a set of glaringly secular qualities. The Summoner and the Pardoner, unlike the Prioress, use their position for personal gain, whether monetary or otherwise. The Prioress, however, is situated more ambiguously than her criminally corrupt cohorts. “Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse, That of hir smiling was ful simple and coy. Hir gretteste ooth was but by sainte Loy! And she was cleped Madame Eglantine” (246). In this introductory passage, Chaucer immediately hints at the contradictions he will flesh out in the rest of the introduction. “Smiling and coy” is an incongruous introductory phrase for a character whose position would be traditionally described as chaste and pious. Further, her patron is Saint Loy or Saint Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths and coin collectors and her name “Eglantine” means wild rose. Chaucer injects these subversive, contradictory elements to the prioress to exemplify that there are levels of corruption and contradiction within the church. As there are evildoers, like the Summoner within the ranks of the clergy, there are also those who sin without victims and are complex characters whose motivations remain unknown.
There is a familiarity and ease to painting a character’s motives in terms of material gains; the corporeal motivation of the prioress invites a complexity not seen in the other characters. A closer reading, however, suggests that Chaucer’s Prioress with all her complexities relates closely to the deadly sin of pride. In the lines, “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisiy, After the scole of Stratford at the Bowe-For Frenssh of Paris was to hire unknowe” (246) Chaucer reveals that Madame Eglantine, with her French name “ful faire” use of the language was educated in the French language at Startford in England and didn’t speak Parisian French. In this passage, Chaucer invalidates Eglantine’s genteel...