Notes – The Prioress

Notes – The Prioress



‘This delicate, precise, and sentimental lady is drawn in the manuscript with a wimpel neatly pinched, and a ‘fetyse’ or handsome cloak, which is black over a tunic of white in conformity to the dress of the Benedictine nuns. On her left hand are the beads, and her right hand is uplifted, as if she was desirous of calling the particular attention of her hearers to what she was reciting’ (Todd, op. cit. p. 233). Except in orders confined to women, it was more common for the head of a nunnery to be a Prioress than an Abbess, since, to help the nuns in managing their affairs, most nunneries were in some kind of dependence on an abbey of monks of the same order. The Prioress was, thus, the head of her house, and as such would have to entertain its guests. For this reason and because girls of well-to-do families often received part of their education in nunneries (see note on 1. 124), to be able to ‘counterfeit the cheer of court’ and have stately manners were thought essential qualifications in the head of a nunnery. Many prioresses were ladies of rank, their rank helping to gain them their position. This was apparently not the case with Chaucer’s, or we should have been told of it, so she would be all the more careful of her dignity. Just as Chaucer hints that his lawyer pretended to be busier than he was, so he suggests that there was some little affectation both in his Prioress’s religion and in her fine manners. But his satire is very gentle.

120. Hire gretteste ooth was but by seint Loy. “There has been much discussion,” writes Professor Hales (Folia Litteraria, p. 102), “why the good lady should swear by St. Loy of all the saints in the calendar, inasmuch as St. Loy, or Eloy—for Loy appears to be a clipped and more familiar form of the name Eloy, which is the French form of Eligius—is commonly known as the patron of ‘goldsmiths, blacksmiths, and all workers in metals, also of farriers and horses.’  It is natural then that the carter in the Friar’s Tale should invoke God and St. Loy when his horse is struggling to pull his cart out of the slough, but what is his saintship to the Prioress or she to his saintship ? “The answer which Professor Hales suggests is that the Prioress swore by St. Loy because, according to a story told of him by his friend St. Ouen, he had refused to take an oath even when pressed to do so by King Dagobert. To swear by a saint who objected to swearing would thus be swearing of a very apologetic kind, and Professor Hales even thinks that Chaucer meant that the Prioress never swore at all.

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      Seint: for the pronunciation of this word see Introduction, p. lvii., note.

121. And she was cleped madame Eglentyne. The title ‘madame’ was given to all Nuns. [According to the Lincoln Order for consecrating Nuns (Lansd. Ms. 388, written about 1480) the Bishop after the Benediction offered a few words of advice to those whom he had consecrated, beginning: ‘Dowghters and virgyns, now that ye are maryed and despowsed to hym that is above Kyng and Kaysor, unto Iesu Cryste, mete it is and so must you from hensforth yn tokyn of the same be callyd Madame and Ladye’ (Maskell, Monumenta Ritualia, iii. 357 n.).]

122. Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne; i.e. the canonical hours (Lauds, Matins, Prime, Tierce, Nones, Vespers, Compline) of the Breviary. On high festivals a priest would usually be present at Lauds and Vespers; at other times the nuns might conduct the whole service themselves.

123. Entuned in hir nose ful semely. Church singing, except that of trained musicians, is usually nasal, and Chaucer is here simply stating a fact, not in itself ludicrous. He gives it, however, a ludicrous turn by mischievously adding ‘ful semely.’

124. And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe. It seems reasonable to take these lines in connexion with Chaucer’s subsequent remark that the Prioress ‘peyned hire to countrefete cheere of court and been estatlich of manere.’ Although the battle of the two languages had resulted in the final defeat of Anglo-Norman French by English, the fact that Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, wrote one of his three long poems, besides numerous ‘balades,’ in French, suffices to prove that it was still in use, while all its associations would be aristocratic. There was a Benedictine nunnery, some three centuries old in Chaucer’s time at Bromley near Stratford-le-Bow (now called ‘Bow’ simply), and we are intended to imagine that the Prioress had been educated at the convent school there, and trained in the pronunciation of the Anglo-Norman French, which in her young days was certainly spoken at Court. If Chaucer was laughing at the Prioress at all, he was thus certainly not laughing uproariously, as if he had suggested that she was speaking ‘Frenssh of the further end of Norfolk,’ which was no French at all. But he was seldom quite matter-of-fact in these allusions, and probably intended a hint that the Prioress was rather behind the times, just as when he tells us that Absalom in the Miller’s Tale could trip and dance ‘after the scole of Oxenforde tho,’ we may guess that our court-poet had it in his mind that the dancing of the Oxford clerks was probably more vigorous than graceful.


127. At mete wel y-taught was she with alle, etc. [“The following circumstances of behaviour at table are copied from Roman di la Rose, 14178-99:

‘Et bien se garde qu’elle ne moeille

Ses doys au brouet jusqu’ es jointes, etc.,

Si sagement port sa bouchee

Que sur son pied goutte n’en chee

De souppe, ne de saulse noire.—

Et doit si bien sa bouche terdre

Tant qu’el n’y laisse gresse aherdre

Au moins en la levre desseure.’” (Tyrwhitt’s note.)]

142. conscience: Chaucer seems to use this word much as people in the eighteenth century, and Miss Austen, used ‘sensibility,’ for refinement of feeling in matters of affection, tenderness of heart (cp. 1. 150) erected into a principle.

159. A peire of bedes: the name bead (bede) was transferred from ‘prayer’ to the small globular bodies used for ‘telling beads,’ i.e. counting prayers said. A series of these small balls, in Chaucer’s time called a pair of beads, is now known as a Rosary. The beads were of two sizes, the larger being for the Lord’s Prayer (Pater noster), the smaller, of which there were ten times as many, for the ‘Hail Mary’ (Ave). The large and more ornamental beads were called Gauds or Gawds, probably, according to New Eng. Dict., from the Latin gaudia (joys), from the fact that the first five of the fifteen mysteries to be meditated on in reciting the fifteen sets of prayers were ‘Joyful Mysteries.’

      gauded al with grene: having the Gaudies green. [Tyrwhitt compares Gower, Conf. Amant. f. 190 [Bk. viii. 11. 2904-7].

“A paire of bedes blacke as sable

She toke and hynge my necke about,

Upon the gaudees all without

Was wryte of gold, pur reposer.”

Prof. Hales has drawn my attention to several bequests of Beads in the vo1. of Bury Wills and Inventories and that of Wills from Doctors’ Commons published by the Camden Society. See, e.g., p. 36 of the Bury vol., A.r>. 1463 : I yeve & beqwethe to the seid Dame Margarete a payre of bedys with pater ñris of gold & on eche syde of the patrñris a bede of coral & the Aue Maryes of colour after marbil with a knoppe, othir wyse called a tufft, of blak silke.’ lb.: ‘ To Richard Fest of Bury my beedys of jeet with ii patrñris of crystal. lb. p. 82: ‘A payre bedys of jeete gaudied wt corall, paternosters sylur & gilt.

Doctors’ Commons Wills, p. 6: ‘A litell pair of bedes of white amber gaudied with vij stones of gold.’ and ib. ‘a pair of bedes of lxj rounde stones of golde gaudied with sex square stones of golde enameled,’ etc.]

162. Amor vincit omnia: ‘Love conquereth all things.’ [To this device and poesy there is some resemblance, as Mr. Ritson has also observed, in The Squyr of Lowe Degree, ver. 211, etc.

“In the myddes of your sheld ther shal be set

A ladyes head with many a fret;

Above the head wrytten shall be

A reason for the love of me ;

Both O and R shall be therein

With A and M it shall begynne.”

                                                Todd, op. cit. p. 235.]


These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

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