Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a fantastic piece of literature which tells the tale of a group of travelers who are on a pilgrimage. The “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales is a long passage in which Chaucer describes the characters. The characters’ social stature and general occupations vary greatly and it is clear to the reader that there are some who Chaucer greatly admires and others who he intends to a mockery of. In doing so, he also assigns gender stereotypes, which can be seen in his favorable portrayal of the “Knight” character and very unfavorable portrayal of the “Prioress” character. By comparing the Prioress’ and Knight’s descriptions in the “General Prologue,” the reader can tell this to be true.
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Upon first reading Chaucer’s Prioress description it would seem that she is a favorable figure in his eyes: “Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioress / That of hir smiling was ful simple and coy./Hir gretteste ooth was but by sainte joy!” (lines 118-120). This soon turns to a sarcastic tone and we see how Chaucer uses the Prioress to describe his views on women in general: shallow, unfaithful and desiring riches/higher social status. The Prioress is described as a nun but Chaucer emphasizes her aristocratic manner and public image. The Prioress is trying to act as if she were in a higher social stature than she really is. Her attempts to pretend she is something that she is not is Chaucer’s way to show her shallowness (and his degrading view towards women in general). As hard as she may try to hide them, Chaucer points out her flaws. The Prioress flaunts her education and knowledge of French as if she had traveled there for an extended period of time and was a worldly traveler. When the narrator says, “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetishly, / After the scole of Stratford at the Bowe- / For Frenssh of Paris was to hire unknowe” (lines 124-126), it is Chaucer’s way of telling the reader that she does not know her French from her travels, rather from books and schooling. Her attempts to feign herself as sophisticated only make her character seem even shallower. This pattern continues when the narrator comments on her table manners “At mete wel ytaught was she withalle: / She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, / Ne wette hir fingers in hir sauce deepe; / wel coude she carye a morsel, and wel keepe / That no drope ne fille upon hir brest” (lines 127-131) and again two lines later adding “Hir over-lippe wiped she so clene / That in hir coppe ther was no firthing seene” (lines 133-134). This was clearly meant to be taken as sarcasm rather than a good quality because no one wants to be remembered or described for their table manners. For this reason the reader can infer that Chaucer is using the narrator to slander the Prioress’ character and women in general.
At the time Chaucer wrote this, a woman of the Prioress stature, a nun, is supposed to behave and act a certain way. That is to say, she should act in a manner that the Church would approve of. The narrator describes her in a few ways as the opposite, which would be clearly known to any reader of the day. The first being when the narrator is describing her “brooch of golde ful sheene” (lines 160) which is inscribed with the following, “amor vincit omni.” The “brooch” is a piece of jewelry, and the inscription basically translates to “love conquers all.” Since the Prioress is a nun, she should not have a brooch made of gold. She is not supposed to have anything lavish; rather, she should live a life of simple means. She has supposedly made this commitment to the church. “Love conquers all” is usually used as an expression between a love shared by a man and a woman. As a nun, the Prioress should have no knowledge of this kind of love and to the people and Church of the day this would be considered blasphemous. Lastly (in regard to the Prioress’ lack of following her Church commitments), the narrator describers her headdress known as a wimple “But sikerly she hadde a faire forheed: / It was almost a spanne brood” (lines 154-155). Translated this means that her forehead is showing through her headdress when only her face should be. The reader can assume that she does this in order to make herself more beautiful. Combined, these actions show the Prioresses disregard for the Church, for if she truly cared, none of these would be present. Towards the end of the Prioress’ description, the narrator leaves the reader with “and pained hire to countrefete cheere / Of court, and to been statlich of manere” (lines 139-140). This basically sums up the Priores,s and Chaucer’s view of women: counterfeit. The Prioress consistently fails to act in accordance with the Churches rules although she is a nun, and pretends to be a true socialite and worldly figure when she is nothing more than a student and an image of someone she wishes to truly be.
When compared to the Prioress, the male Knight is depicted rather favorably as an honorable character. Chaucer’s Knight is the true epitome of a soldier. According to the narrators description, he has killed many men and has traveled the world, including Russia, Spain, Prussia, Lithuania, Africa and many other places. Chaucer’s description of the Knight has not one negative aspect. For this reason, it is evident that Chaucer is showing the reader all of the good qualities men have as opposed to the qualities females lack. The Knight’s qualities include honor, bravery, devotion to his lands, and honesty. This is shown throughout the narrator’s description of the Knight, including when he states “he loved chivalrye. / Troughe and honour, freedom and curteisye” (lines 45-46), “He nevere yet no vilainye ne saide” (line 70) and “a verray, parfit, gentil knight” (line 72). According to the narrator, he has been on more missions than anyone else, and no one can compare in terms of reputation. The following excerpt from the “General Prologue” shows this clearly:
“At Alisander he was whan it was wonne;
Flu ofte time he hadde the broord bigonne
Aboven alle nacious in Pruce;
In Lettou had he resised, and in Ruce,
No Christian man so ofte of his degree;
In Grenade at the sege eek hadde he b
Of Algezir, and ridden in Bekamarye;
At Lyeis was he, and at Satalye,
Whan they were wonne” (lines 51-59)
Compared to Chaucer’s flawed Prioress, the Knight has traveled all over the world, and if he had known how to speak French it would be because he had visited the land and learned from experience. The fact that the Knight went on so many missions (crusades) and is held in such high regard by his nation shows his dedication to his country, or what he is supposed to do (it is his obligation to do this as a solider). Since the Prioress is supposed to follow the guidelines of the Church but consistently does not, she is opposite from the Knight in this way. This facet is definitely integrated by Chaucer intentionally to raise the image of men even higher from women. He does his duty despite the dangers he may faces, since only men could serve their country; Chaucer is using this aspect of the Knights character in a twofold way to separate men and women.
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The final comparison between the Prioress and Knight can be shown in terms of worldly possessions and appearances. Both a knight and nun should have little in terms of garments and possessions. As stated previously the Prioress has a desire for lavish items and tries to make herself more physically appealing. In terms of possessions and appearances the Knight is described by the narrator in the following terms: “His hors were goode, but he was not gay. / Of fustian he wered a gipoun / All bismotered with his haubergoun” (line 74-76), meaning the Knight is not very dressed to keep up with current trends, even his armor is worn. This is how it should be for a man of his stature. The only possession the Knight does have is his horse: he would be nothing without it. This is a humbling characteristic that is also lacked by the Prioresses character.
An analysis of Chaucer’s work reveals stark differences between his depiction of male (the Knight) and female (the Prioress) characters. Chaucer ascribes different qualities carrying different connotations to both genders. While Chaucer exposes the Prioress as fraudulent and selfish, the Knight is described in much more honorable terms, truly embodying nobility and adherence to duty. Throughout Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the reader finds that the narrators’ descriptions of the characters are similar, in that the males seem to have a higher level of character when compared to the female characters. All of the female characters are described as deceitful, shallow, lacking faith, and only caring for themselves. For this reason, the reader can see that Chaucer’s true feelings towards each gender are represented throughout The Canterbury Tales. In fact, many have said that when the narrator speaks to the reader and says he is describing the characters as he sees them, Chaucer is giving a clue that he has actually depicted some reality in his work of fiction. Chaucer’s description of the Prioress and Knight, particularly, can be viewed as his commentary on men and women, and their general characteristics/commitment to their respective roles.
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