The physical appearance of the Prioress described her as anything but nun-like; rather, the portrayal of her beauty manifests how she was from her inside. As depicted, her smile was simple and coy, her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-grey, and her mouth was very small but red; her manner of dressing was highly revealing for a nun especially. She wore a “graceful” cloak trinket on her arm, beads and a golden brooch that read: “amor vincit omnia” (162), in other words meaning “love conquers all”. She is young in age, has a striking beauty, and clearly invests a lot of money on clothes, presenting her consciousness towards her appearance. Reflected in the nun Prioress were small physical characteristics which depicted irony, seeing as, every minor detail that made her perfection as a whole ironically caved way to her flawless perfection meaning the opposite.
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Nuns have a sense of modesty to them, although, in the case of the Prioress nun, and all of her attributes come off as rather sinful as well as contradictory (lucid by her appearance).The Nun, also recognized as Madam Eglantine, is one of the arrogant and ultimately flawed characters; seeming more in preference of the aristocratic rather than devotional life. Chaucer portrays her as trying to induce people that she is charitable to the poor, but is later described pampering her dogs: “Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde, with rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed” (146-147). Tender hearted, it is not human suffering that moves the Prioress, it is her immense love is for her little dogs; there is no mention of her doing anything for the poor, though.
The prioress nun is illustrated by the author as a person with a reverse outlook of the world, giving much importance to minor things. Despite the fact of not being part of the royal court, the Prioress does her best to imitate its manners. She takes great care to eat her food daintily, to reach for food on the table delicately, and to wipe her lip clean of grease before drinking from her cup. She communicates using the French language, but has an English accent. Through Chaucer’s mockery of the nun’s etiquette, her conception of sophistication is also ridiculed. The details of her dainty manners prove to the reader that she indeed believes that she appreciates courtesy, making her seem even more naive. Chaucer continues in his description, adding comments in regard to her emotional state, ” She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous, kaught in a trappe” (144-145), and her neat appearance. The combination of these elements illuminates a woman whose courtesy could only ever be attempted to be found, yet never truly achieved. The depiction of the nun Prioress is rife with subtle witty commentary which through irony shows that the Prioress is not the coy, charming, conventional church figure Chaucer may have perceived her to be, but rather the pseudo aristocratic nun whose devotion to manners were ludicrous and useless in where she was and her foolish sentimentality.
The Prioress and the Wife of Bath, being the two most noteworthy characters, provide great insight into contemporary medieval society. Articulation of Chaucer’s opinionated views of the etiquette and conduct of women in the 14th century is exposed through both the Prioress and the Wife of Bath. The manners and appearances given by Chaucer to the female characters drastically bring them to life. Chaucer’s description of the Prioress demonstrates that she would never behave anything like the Wife of Bath would. The Wife of Bath has an excessive amount of experience with men and in business, whereas, the Prioress has lived a life that is predominantly confined to the church. The Prioress is nothing like the Wife of Bath in that respect; she is described as “al was conscience and tendre herte “(150). The life experiences of the two women differs vastly; the Prioress is sheltered from most common life experiences like marriage and children whereas the Wife of Bath has had an abundance of life experiences with a wide range of different husbands, experience in business and has had an opportunity to travel. (T.B)
Examination of both females’ prologues sparks the stark contrast between their social standards and demeanors. During the 14th century, women’s rights and roles in society were subsidiary to medieval men. Chaucer portrayal of the Wife of Bath is as an extravagant and lusty woman, whereas the Prioress is well mannered with a lady like demeanor. Seeing as the Wife of Bath is a woman who can hold her ground, her outlook of the Prioress would be as spineless, given that the Prioress “She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous, kaught in a trappe” (144-145). Presumably, the Wife of Bath would have set the trap for the mouse to begin with. Encompassed by the Prioress is the ability to speak the noble language of French, which in medieval society, places her in a superior class than the Wife of Bath, while the Wife of Bath’s nature of education acquires no social status. Rather, her conflicting, liberal and feministic ideals drive society away. Chaucer delicately, hand paints a tenuous woman Prioress nun whist vigorously painting a robust Wife of Bath. (T.B)
The archetypical 14th century woman is not illustrated by the Wife of Bath due to the fact that in Chaucer’s era divorce was not looked upon the same way as it in today’s society where it is an accepted occurrence. In regards to female stereotypes, the Wife of Bath represents the liberal extreme of the Middle Ages; she is equip with confidence, creating quite the disparity with the archetypal medieval woman; men and women alike are intimidated by her radiant self-confidence. On the other hand, the ambitions of the Prioress were clearly opposing to those of the Wife of Bath. There is no question in mind that the Prioress would absolutely disprove of numerous partners, not to mention divorce. With her devout beliefs, the Prioress nun is wedded to the Lord, and in addition, sexual demand will never cross the virtuous life or mind of the Prioress; her holy vow to chastity makes her look at women and men alike. A dutiful Christian was obviously favoured in the religious centred culture of the Middle Ages rather than a woman of divorce. The Medieval Society, in which both the Prioress and the Wife of Bath reside, approves the characteristics of the modest Prioress as opposed to the unpleasant behaviours of the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath, even in society today, would be viewed as somewhat immoral. Thus, one can only envision how she is looked upon in a time where the Catholic Church had an upper hand in influence of civilization. The descriptions Chaucer provides catering to the appearance, etiquette and particularly their interactions with men, frankly represent the ideal women of the 14th century. (T.B)
Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath surely does not hold true to the Christian qualities of women in the 14th century. She had married five times and divorced, which to women of the archetypal medieval times was frowned upon. The wife is described by Chaucer as a devoted Christian who does on pilgrimages frequently, although ironically enough, she is the complete opposite of a true Christian. (T.B)
Social Morals and Ethics
There was a strict code of conduct in the medieval times where women were cast into very distinct roles. A woman’s place was seen to be in the home carrying on the responsibilities of cleaning, serving, cooking, etc; being submissive to their husbands and following their lead also fell into their domain. The Wife of Bath was one who deviated from these culture-set norms. She was not submissive to her husbands, rather made them obey her or just divorced them, gained her own success and wealth without the help of a man, and was a representation of what all 14th century women secretly strived to be. (T.B)
Chain of Being
Women of the 14th century were considered subsidiary to men therefore strived for dominance. They wanted to be above men for once; closer to God. The Wife of Bath was considered of middle class, but her chain of being classified a lot lower than her social class. The character of the wife is respondent to a deliberation that has been ongoing for centuries in regards to women’s place in society and the universe; although it is the values of the Wife of Bath that classify her in the chain. (T.B)
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