Chaucer’s Pilgrims – The Prioress

Some of the pilgrims described by Geoffrey Chaucer, in his ‘Canterbury Tales’, are typical of people you might meet today. Others described in the ‘Tales’ are people you are very unlikely to come across today and one of them is the Prioress. Although priories no longer exist in England, the lady that Chaucer describes ‘springs to life’ as soon as you read his words.

Chaucer was typical of people of his time. In the 14th century, England had plenty of priories and other religious houses. In a world where the ‘man in the street’ could neither read nor write, there were no social services and any form of medical health service simply did not exist, plenty of people had reasons to be glad of priories.

If you were travelling to a shrine and found that you were becoming ill, a priory would always let you stay for a night or two and they would also provide free bread and soup – if nothing more. A priory was to be found in many town and cities in England. Those who lived there had a policy of ministering to the sick (in their own homes) and caring for those who were destitute. When a member of a religious house was seen visiting a town or village, the residents would always offer hospitality in the form of a bed for the night or a good meal. People were generally well-disposed towards those from religious houses although they did not always want to hear all the religious preaching or attend church services.

Chaucer took quite a cynical view of people from religious houses. He knew that, although they were supposed to live a life of good works and of saying their prayers, that was not always the case. Chaucer was educated enough to know that much of the ‘religious piety’ was often an act and that the money that flowed into religious houses was not always spent on the poor. However, Chaucer also recognised genuine sincerity and was always happy to acknowledge it. Chaucer was also a keen observer of people and their actions. A good illustration of his ability is seen as he describes the Prioress.

There also was a Nun, a Prioress,
Her way of smiling very simple and coy.
Her greatest oath was only “By St. Loy!”
And she was known as Madam Eglantyne.
And well she sang a service, with a fine
Intoning through her nose, as was most seemly,
And she spoke daintily in French, extremely,
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe;
French in the Paris style she did not know.

We see immediately that this Nun was a lady who was used to being in charge. As a Prioress, she ranked just below the Abbess who was head a Convent. It could have, typically, anything up to 200 nuns in it, sometimes even more. Swearing was certainly something that Nuns were not expected to be doing. When startled, her only expletive was ‘By St. Loy!’ – referring to St. Eligius (known as St. Éloi in France).

At this point, we need to remember that Chaucer’s father was French and was also a Vintner. The family home was near the site of today’s Cannon Street Station. Chaucer’s father supplied wine to the Court, at Westminster. Not only had Chaucer been brought up speaking French but, when he took the wine to the Court at the Palace of Westminster, he mixed with people who also spoke ‘High French’. Chaucer, therefore, immediately spots the fact that the Prioress could speak French but he concluded from her accent that she had never been to France or mixed with French people. It would appear there her ‘French’ dialect was a mixture of French and cockney. She had learned French grammar well enough to converse in French but she had a terrible accent. We learn that she either came from or had spent time at the Priory of St Leonard which was at Bromley-by-Bow. In Chaucer’s time, the village of Bromley-by-Bow was close to Stratford and known as ‘Stratford at Bow’.

At meat her manners were well taught withal;
No morsel from her lips did she let fall,
Nor dipped her fingers in the sauce too deep;
But she could carry a morsel up and keep
The smallest drop from falling on her breast.

Although Chaucer had noticed that the Prioress had a terrible French accent when she sat at the table, she had impeccable manners. In Chaucer’s time, even those at Court did not eat their dinner with a knife and fork. Lumps of meat were picked out of a large serving bowl, along with the sauce in which the meat had been cooked. Those who wanted to appear elegant would pick up the meat with their fingers and wait until the sauce had dripped onto the serving bowl before conveying the portion of meat to their mouths. Those with less finesse would just drag the meat, dripping the sauce everywhere, cramming it into their mouths and leaving gravy around their lips.

For courtliness she had a special zest,
And she would wipe her upper lip so clean
That not a trace of grease was to be seen
Upon the cup when she had drunk; to eat,
She reached a hand sedately for the meat.

Unlike the more uncouth people around the table, who left a trace of gravy one their ale-mugs, because of their ill-mannered way of eating, the Prioress was careful to eat more daintily. If she noticed that there was any gravy left on her lip, she would wipe it clean before taking a sip from her ale-mug and, therefore, there no tell-tale evidence remaining on the vessel.

She certainly was very entertaining,
Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining
To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace,
A stately bearing fitting to her place,
And to seem dignified in all her dealings.
As for her sympathies and tender feelings,
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.

As well as being far more well-mannered than most of the 29 pilgrims at the Tabard, on the night before they set off for Canterbury, Chaucer notes that she was also very tender-hearted. She became quite alarmed if she saw a dead mouse caught in a trap. It is quite likely that most inns were riddled with vermin, including mice.

And she had little dogs she would be feeding
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread.
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart;
She was all sentiment and tender heart.
Her veil was gathered in a seemly way,
Her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-grey;
Her mouth was very small, but soft and red,
Her forehead, certainly, was fair of spread,
Almost a span across the brows, I own;
She was indeed by no means undergrown.
Her cloak, I noticed, had a graceful charm.
She wore a coral trinket on her arm,
A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green,
Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen
On which there first was graven a crowned A,
And lower, Amor Vincit Omnia.
Another Nun, the secretary at her cell,
Was riding with her, and three Priests as well.

It would not have been ‘the done thing’ for a Prioress to travel unaccompanied. Chaucer notices that she had another Nun attending her along with three priests. He also notices that she ‘was indeed by no means undergrown’ from which we can conclude that she lived well. Instead of a poor diet of bread and soup – which was what most religious houses were supposed to serve – the diet in the Convent where the Prioress had served obviously provided very nourishing food. She wore a fine cloak and also jewellery which was not what Nuns were supposed to wear. Her set of beads or ‘gaudies’ as Chaucer calls them were almost certainly a ring of prayer beads. The brooch carried the well-known Latin inscription ‘Love Conquers All’.

So, what have we learned about the Prioress? According to Chaucer, she probably had quite a good education. In spite of coming from a relatively poor background, she had learned French when most people would never have even gone to school. She was very well mannered which was a virtue that few of the other pilgrims possessed as they gathered in the Tabard. She obviously liked the good things in life when, living in a Convent, they were things that the Nuns should have renounced as part of their beliefs. In spite of all of this, she had a soft heart, and she was probably a very compassionate person. In short, Chaucer liked her.


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3 Responses to Chaucer’s Pilgrims – The Prioress

  1. Sylvia Lawson says:

    Thank you, for this. It brought back memories of my A level English many, many years ago. Not sure I entirely agree with you about Chaucer’s opinion of the Prioress as I think he is gently poking fun of her exaggerated refinement and soft heart – towards mice and dogs at least !


  2. Great to hear from you. I have to confess that I only did the Prologue for O Level English. One of our tutors used to read sections of the Prologue in the Old English dialect at which he was a specialist. I learned to love the Prologue and all its characters. With the Tabard ‘just around the corner’ from my school it made quite an impression on me.


  3. Claudine says:

    Thank you for all the background on “The Prioress”.
    I love Arthur Szyk’s (1894-1951) illustration of her, here:


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