Expectations vs. Reality of the Prioress
In The Canterbury Tales Prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces many characters that
play a significant role in the Medieval society. While some characters represent their position
well, many do not follow certain rules and codes that are required by their occupation.
Specifically, the nunnery requires a prioress to follow many vows, wear certain clothing, and
perform various religious acts. Chaucer describes certain manners and habits of the Prioress,
Madame Eglantyne, in order to show her non-fulfillment of these requirements. In order to fully
understand her, the readers must know the reasons that women entered nunneries, the duties of a
prioress, and the forbidden luxuries.
The economic background of the nuns remained the same, but the reasons for entering the
nunneries differed. While some nuns belonged to low economic families, most came from
wealthy families because "many convents and nunneries only accepted postulants who were
from wealthy backgrounds" ("Medieval Nuns"). Nuns drawn from a lower class usually failed to
become a nun due to their lack of education (Power 14). Nunneries required women to study
Latin because the bishop addressed communications, notices of visitation, mandates and
injunctions in Latin (Power 246). Some nuns also spoke French, the language of the wealthy
(Power 246). Madame Eglantyne fell into this category. While the church did not require the
knowledge of French, the nuns from wealthy backgrounds found it "hard to change the way of
life, which they led before they took the veil and which they saw all around them..." (Power 74).
Therefore, these women learned French to feel wealthy or socially accepted. On the other hand,
Madame Eglantyne represented the exception. She "[counterfeited] a courtly kind of grace" so
the other nuns would assume her family possessed wealth (Chaucer line 137). She strived to fit