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Nun Prioress

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Nun Prioress

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the character of the Nun Prioress. He does not dislike her and does not think that she is evil, however, he understands that, as a daughter of an aristocrat, she does not belong in the convent among others serving God. Her vanity, misplaced sympathy, and desire to be in love make her unsuitable to be a nun. Chaucer communicates this through criticism by omission, meaning that he purposely avoids commenting on all the details a reader would expect to find in the description of a nun. Chaucer includes details about the Nun Prioress is to prove that he does not think that she is an unpleasant woman. She is “certainly very cheerful, most pleasant, and amiable in bearing” (137-138). She concentrates very hard on appearing well-behaved and proper. She sings and speaks French well and has very excellent table manners. Her features are sweet and she dresses herself very well in a flattering cloak with a rosary made of expensive coral beads and a golden brooch pinned to her. Chaucer also includes that she has “...tender feelings [and is] so charitable and so full of pity] that she weeps at the sight of an injured or dead mouse or if someone hits one of the lap dogs she keeps. The Nun Prioress hopes that by showing she is capable of proper etiquette and appears “to be stately in manner, [that she will] appear worthy of reverence” (140-141). However, she has not been placed in a convent to be admired. Chaucer does not outwardly comment on the ways that the Nun Prioress fails to obey the rules of the convent; he criticizes her by including the lovely features about her that are inappropriate of her setting. While it is pleasant that she is able to sing with good taste and speak French well, those qualities are of no use in a convent as they are qualities to be admired by others. And her fancy ways of dressing breach a Code of Courtly Love, the rules of how to act in the court of the convent. Chaucer acknowledges that she breaks all the vows of the religious; poverty, humility and obedience to the church, except keeping chaste; by talking about her focus on excellent table manners and dress. The Nun Prioress is not capable of poverty as she is unable to dismiss her vanity in place of reverence for God. And as a violation of obedience to the church, she shows that she is still hoping to find her one true love by wearing “a golden lovely golden brooch on which was written first a crowned A and then, Amor vincit omnia,” meaning love conquers all (161-162). Even her attempt at humility is incorrectly directed in the form of misplaced sympathy; while nuns are taught to feel sympathy and tenderness towards the poor and helpless, the Nun Prioress feels sorry for the unlucky mice and her scolded dogs. And her dogs pose another problem as they are also not allowed as a rule of the Code of Courtly Love. Chaucer knows that the Nun Prioress is unfit to be in the convent, though it is not because she is an evil person. She cannot rid herself of her vanity and desire to find true love. Excluding chastity, she is incapable of adopting poverty, humility, and obedience to the church, the vows of the religious. She will spend the rest of her life in the convent where her aristocratic abilities and misplaced sympathy are of no use.

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