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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE PRIORESS

Some believe the Prioress is a woman on whom Chaucer (or at least the narrator) had a crush. It certainly seems so from the description of her, which is more fitting to a beloved lady in a romance than to a nun. The description makes it seem that she's a gentlewoman, who possibly entered a convent because she had no marriage dowry. Her smile is "simple and coy" (modest and sweet), words that come straight out of a romance, as Chaucer's audience would instantly recognize. She doesn't curse (or at least, only slightly, by "St. Loy," who happens to have been a handsome courtier before he turned to religion). Even her name, "Madame Eglentyne," meaning "sweet briar," is a demure one that appears in several popular romances. Again, Chaucer refers to a beautiful worldly heroine, implying behavior that is far from nunlike. But is she evil, just because she speaks French very well, has perfect table manners, and likes being proper? She is "so charitable" that she would weep "if she saw a mouse caught in a trap." Some think this implies that she cares more about animals' suffering than people, especially in the fight of the tale she calmly tells about the way the Jews are punished for supposedly killing a Christian child. She also keeps small dogs as pets (strictly forbidden in a convent) and feeds them the finest meat, milk, and bread.

NOTE:

Notice how here and elsewhere Chaucer shifts from describing the person to being inside his or her head. He hasn't seen Madame Eglentyne cry over a mouse, or feed her dogs, yet he describes exactly how she does it.

The description of her table manners comes straight from the French Romance of the Rose, which Chaucer translated and which his audience would have known. The joke here is that in the romance this description is from a scene on how women attract and keep lovers! In fact, it is ironic that the Prioress is along on a pilgrimage, since she should have remained inside the cloister walls.

Her physical description, too, comes straight from French romances. Chaucer uses every cliche in the book: her nose is "tretys" (shapely), her eyes "grey as glass," her mouth "small, soft and red." Her forehead, which technically shouldn't even be visible in a nun's habit, is fair and broad, a style so fashionable that women in Chaucer's day used to pluck their hairlines to make their foreheads larger. Perhaps most intriguing of all, she wears a large gold brooch (jewelry is forbidden in convents) that reads, Amor vincit omnia ("love conquers all"). It's not clear how Chaucer means us to interpret the phrase. The original motto (from Virgil) referred to earthly love, but it was used by the medieval church to mean God's love. How does the Prioress interpret it? It's possible that she would think only of the godly connotations, but some readers believe the double meaning is no accident. The Prioress retains some vanities of her preconvent days, but does Chaucer intend to show her as a hypocrite? Or, because of her lack of charity, as intentionally cruel? Certainly she is not everything a nun should be-compare her in idealism to the Knight-but you can also find a great deal of affection in Chaucer's picture of her. Isn't it understandable that a well- bred young woman should want to keep some of the innocent pleasures of worldly life in a convent? Reforming bishops often warned even heads of convents against keeping pets and wearing jewelry, but the frequency of the warnings indicates they were pretty much ignored.


THE MONK

The Monk's description is the first that is really noticeably sarcastic. Monks are supposed to stay apart from the world, not go out for "venery" (hunting)- a word that, along with Venus, carries sexual connotations, since it also means "hunting" women. All the comparisons are ironic: his bridle bells are as clear as the chapel bell he's supposed to be in charge of; his face seems "anointed" like one of the blessed, which he's clearly not; he's not "pale as a ghost" or spirit, which a monk should be. There's a "love knot" under his chin, which Chaucer, ever polite, merely calls "curious" (downright suspicious might be more like it).

The narrator naively agrees with the monk, or pretends to, that there's no earthly reason to sweat over books or manual labor as decreed by St. Augustine, founder of the Monk's order. The Monk, in saying this, knows (more than the Prioress does) he's going against his calling. Others know it, too, for the Host, in the Monk's Prologue, teases the Monk that he doesn't look like one, but more like someone in charge of the food and drink, or like a rooster with plenty of hens. This reinforces the piggish, selfish picture we have of him. The Monk takes it in stride and tells a tale, actually several, describing the ups and downs of fortune's wheel in the lives of Satan, Adam, Hercules, and others-so boringly that the Knight begs him to stop and the Host asks him to discuss hunting instead. Does the company and Chaucer see more about the Monk than he sees of himself? There is evidence in the way he talks, in the way he seems to believe it's pointless to follow his monastic duties. But you could also find ways of showing that while the Monk is stupid about his priorities, he is not truly evil, just misguided.

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