The Canterbury Tales Project (see also Geoffrey Chaucer)

Back to the Yeoman/The Prioress/The Monk

118: Ther was also a nonne, a prioresse,
119: That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;
120: Hire gretteste ooth was but by seinte loy;
121: And she was cleped madame eglentyne.
122: Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
123: Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
124: And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
125: After the scole of stratford atte bowe,
126: For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe.
127: At mete wel ytaught was she with alle:
128: She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
129: Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;
130: Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe
131: That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.
132: In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.
133: Hir over-lippe wyped she so clene
134: That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
135: Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.
136: Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.
137: And sikerly she was of greet desport,
138: And ful plesaunt, and amyable of port,
139: And peyned hire to countrefete cheere
140: Of court, and to been estatlich of manere,
141: And to ben holden digne of reverence.
142: But, for to speken of hire conscience,
143: She was so charitable and so pitous
144: She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
145: Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
146: Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
147: With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
148: But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
149: Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
150: And al was conscience and tendre herte.
151: Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was,
152: Hir nose tretys, hir eyen greye as glas,
153: Hir mouth ful smal, and therto softe and reed;
154: But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
155: It was almoost a spanne brood, I trowe;
156: For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
157: Ful fetys was hir cloke, as I was war.
158: Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
159: A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
160: And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
161: On which ther was first write a crowned a,
162: And after amor vincit omnia.
163: Another nonne with hire hadde she,
164: That was hir chapeleyne, and preestes thre.

Next, the narrator describes the Prioress, named Madame Eglentyne. This is something of an unfitting name for a nun, being as it is the name of a type of rose. This concept of the rose ties in with her bracelet and the theme of romantic love, which runs deep throughout the portrait.

Although the Prioress is not part of the royal court, she 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 speaks French, but with a provincial English accent. Yet sadly these traits are not mentioned in such a way as to show sophistication, but rather pretentiousness and impossible aspiration. Moreover, she aims at what is an outdated fashion. It is qite clear from the description that her convent does not use the fork, which was only beginning to be introduced at this time. It is her almost tragic backwardsness combined with her endearing effort that makes the prioress a sympathetic character.

She is compassionate toward animals, weeping when she sees a mouse caught in a trap, and feeding her dogs roasted meat and milk. This is again inappropriate for a nun, whose compassion should go towards the sick and the needy, not to animals.

The narrator goes on to say that her features are pretty, particularly her grey eyes (which were very fashionable at the time, as shown by their presence in the Kinght's tale) and her wide forehead. On her arm she wears an overly ornamented set of prayer beads, from which hangs a gold brooch engraved with a letter A, surmounted by a crown and the Latin words for "Love Conquers All." Were this to be 'caritas', the charity and love towards all that nuns are supposed to feel, this would be acceptable, but it is clear from her whole demeanour that the love here is very much 'eros', or passionate love. Her pre-occupation here makes her an echo of the squire.

The nun does not travel alone. Another nun, who is her chaplain and confessor, and three priests accompany her.

At wertperch's request, here is a modern English translation, which comes from

There was also a nun, a prioress,
Who, in her smiling, modest was and coy;
Her greatest oath was but "By Saint Eloy!"
And she was known as Madam Eglantine.
Full well she sang the services divine,
Intoning through her nose, becomingly;
And fair she spoke her French, and fluently,
After the school of Stratford-at-the-Bow,
For French of Paris was not hers to know.
At table she had been well taught withal,
And never from her lips let morsels fall,
Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce, but ate
With so much care the food upon her plate
That never driblet fell upon her breast.
In courtesy she had delight and zest.
Her upper lip was always wiped so clean
That in her cup was no iota seen
Of grease, when she had drunk her draught of wine.
Becomingly she reached for meat to dine.
And certainly delighting in good sport,
She was right pleasant, amiable- in short.
She was at pains to counterfeit the look
Of courtliness, and stately manners took,
And would be held worthy of reverence.
But, to say something of her moral sense,
She was so charitable and piteous
That she would weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, though it were dead or bled.
She had some little dogs, too, that she fed
On roasted flesh, or milk and fine white bread.
But sore she'd weep if one of them were dead,
Or if men smote it with a rod to smart:
For pity ruled her, and her tender heart.
Right decorous her pleated wimple was;
Her nose was fine; her eyes were blue as glass;
Her mouth was small and therewith soft and red;
But certainly she had a fair forehead;
It was almost a full span broad, I own,
For, truth to tell, she was not undergrown.
Neat was her cloak, as I was well aware.
Of coral small about her arm she'd bear
A string of beads and gauded all with green;
And therefrom hung a brooch of golden sheen
Whereon there was first written a crowned "A,"
And under, Amor vincit omnia.
Another little nun with her had she,
Who was her chaplain; and of priests she'd three.

Pri"or*ess, n. [OF. prioresse.]

A lady superior of a priory of nuns, and next in dignity to an abbess.


© Webster 1913.

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