Chaucer’s Prioress

Whose bearing and tale regretfully tell us much of the period

The Prioress's portrait from the general prologue
Gloriana’s exploration of the Prioress's character and tale

The Prioress' Portrait from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (remember - Middle English is fun):

Prioress manuscriptTher 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 ytaught 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
That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.
In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.Hir over-lippe wyped she so clene
That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.
Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.
And sikerly she was of greet desport,And ful plesaunt, and amyable of port,
And peyned hire to countrefete cheereOf court, and to 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 mousKaught 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,Hir nose tretys, hir eyen greye as glas,
Hir mouth ful smal, and therto 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.
Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned a,
And after amor vincit omnia.

From the outset, the character of the Prioress certainly keeps one guessing. Most of the ecclesiastical characters in “The Canterbury Tales” are clearly either truly pious or, more often, blatantly avaricious and hypocritical. The Prioress seems to be a perfect lady - or is she? Is her tale the product of a simple mind, or of one poisoned by anti-Semitism?

During the Middle Ages, one's entering the religious life often had little relation to a desire to dedicate one's life to prayer. (Dedication to active service was not yet a path open to nuns, whose lives were of the cloister... and one wonders why Madame Eglantyne was able to join the crowd of pilgrims at all.) The wealthy often endowed monasteries, and, frequently, installed relatives as their heads. The monastery also could be a refuge, where a wealthy lady could live in relative comfort, often becoming educated in the process should the spirit move her. Most nuns certainly were pious, but, as the Prioress shows quite accurately, this well could be a sentimental religiosity rather than a solid grasp of the truths of the faith.

As Chaucer tells us, “she certainly was very entertaining, pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining, to counterfeit a courtly kind of grace, a stately bearing fitting to her place.”

Madame Eglantyne seems a most fashionable sort, curiously social for the prioress of a cloister. The tenderness described in the next stanza, that tells us of how our Prioress would cry at the thought of a dog's dying, will seem rather puzzling in the light of quite different sentiments expressed in her tale.

Anyone who is at least old enough to remember the 1960s can recall the medieval nun's habit - its form unmodified for many centuries. Though, in 1380, a nun's habit would not vary as drastically from any woman's usual garb as it would in modern times, it was sombre, highly modest garb, which often was intended to be a penance to don. One wonders how our Prioress's forehead shows, much less how she displays the artificially high brow that was the height of fashion at the time. Her rosaries and trinkets seem more jewellery than religious objects.

This lady is a romantic, as we learn from the close to her portrait. The sort of brooch with which her rosaries are adorned, a common item for religious devotion, carries, not a verse from the scriptures or liturgy, but the courtly love anthem: “love conquers all.”

The Prioress's prologue and tale contain strong elements of anti-Semitism. This unfortunately was rampant at the time, and both the sentiments and their being expressed in the context of a religious story would not have seemed strange to Chaucer’s pilgrims. However, on a less depressing note, her tale can tell us something of the medieval attitude towards simple piety and miracles, which also was quite prevalent.

Of all the pilgrims, many of them religious figures, only the Prioress offers a tale that is from the hagiography (saint’s... ah, history, to use the term rather loosely) that was well known to any medieval Christian. Indeed, her tale of Little Hugh of Lincoln is hardly original, as I shall show in the following section.

The Divine Office and Mass would have been the centre of monastic prayer, and, considering that the wealthy cherished their books of Hours, it is doubly appropriate that the Prioress's prologue contains a quotation from Psalm VII. These words, in what is surely no coincidence, are used in the Mass for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (the small children who were murdered at the orders of Herod the Great when the Magi informed him of their seeking “He who is born king.”) The Prioress will present her tale of Hugh as the sad story of a totally innocent child, murdered through no fault of his own, indeed, as the result of his great devotion. But this shall be as questionable as the Prioress's own piety!

Devotion to the Virgin Mary had increased greatly in the Middle Ages. Previously a strong devotion in the Byzantine lands, it was now becoming a strong force in Western Europe. For the Prioress to devote the rest of her prologue to sentimental praises of the Queen of Heaven is understandable... though one wonders if the Prioress recalls that this lady she venerates was a Jew.

Chaucer's PrioressThe Prioress refers to a small boy "in Asia", but her later references to Hugh of Lincoln make him appear to be the basis of her tale. The story of Little Hugh, who was “martyred” in 1255, would have been familiar to the audience. This child, who is murdered by the Jewish Koppin, was a popular topic for ballads. In some versions, he was said to actually have been scourged and crucified.

There is no historical evidence of ritual murder of Christian children by Jews, but that would not have mattered to the pilgrims. Anti-Semitism, directed at a people thought to have both rejected and murdered Christ, was distressingly deep-seated. It is also of note that, at that time, canonization was based mainly on popular devotion. Hugh indeed existed, and his alleged murderer was executed on the orders of the same Henry II who caused the death of Saint Thomas Becket, to whose shrine the pilgrims were en route. Yet the details of Hugh's story, and the embellishments the Prioress adds, clearly are the work of fervent medieval imaginations.

It is unlikely that any of the pilgrims would have so much as known anyone who was Jewish, given King Edward's having (deplorably) banned them from England in 1290. (They were not admitted again until 1655, during Cromwell's dictatorship.) But many a site had tales of ritual murders, particularly at the Easter season (though the real Hugh died in August). Undoubtedly, any one of Chaucer's pilgrims would have known these stories.

Bernard Grebanier, in "The Truth About Shylock" (New York: Random House, 1962, pp.24-25), provides the true story of Hugh of Lincoln:
"Hugh was the son of a widow named Beatrice. One day while playing ball, Hugh ran after the ball and by accident fell into the cesspool in the yard of a house belonging to a Jew. There his body remained for 26 days. Unluckily, it happened that during these days a great many Jews from other towns had convened at Lincoln for important festivities .... On the day after,.. the body of the child, having risen to the surface of the cesspool, was discovered. The Jews must have been only too well aware of what havoc that little corpse could cost them; understandably, they lost their heads and foolishly tried to dispose of the body elsewhere. Three days later, a woman passing the place where little Hugh's corpse had been laid, saw the body. Inflamed by the suggestions of John of Lexington, canon of Lincoln Cathedral, the population at once accused the Jews of ritual murder."

Medieval man thrived on tales of the saints - whether the details were pious, naughty, or, best of all, magical. Elements of the legends, which usually contained truth but with huge additions, generally focused on an aspect of the saint's holiness. Hugh, as the prioress makes clear, is to be revered for his innocence and virginity. Virginity hardly seems a rare “virtue” in a child of nine (“O martyr, wedded to virginity”), and presenting the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto with a daily concert of “O alma redemptoris” is far from innocent!

Having the Virgin Mary let this child, “innocent of mouth”, sing her praises in death would seem strange even to the most pious mind today, but would not have been foreign to medieval piety. Those in the Middle Ages were very conscious of divine power and the miracles attributed to the saints. Magic itself may have been condemned by the Church, but the common man loved and used magical formulae, and the magical became holy when one who used it did so by invoking God. Indeed, the holy always had many miracles attributed to their works... and who more so than the Blessed Virgin, venerated above all saints?

It did not matter that the prioress was more finish than fabric, nor that Hugh's actions, at least as described here, were clearly devilish. Martyrdom guaranteed one's place in heaven, and also made one a strong intercessor for those on earth. As Chaucer tells us, directly after the tale's conclusion, “every man was sobered - it was marvellous to see.”

The pilgrims to Canterbury, as the entire work clearly shows, were hardly saintly characters. Nonetheless, all have faith, and are seeking heaven whether or not their lives adhere to every Christian principle. This may seem a contradiction, as is the character of the prioress, but it does give our more sophisticated minds a point to ponder.


© 1996 by Elizabeth G. Melillo, Ph.D.


"All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." - C.S. Lewis