The Canterbury Tales

The Widow's Worthy Ways

Fifteenth-century England, in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, was ruled by a Christian morality that had definite precepts regarding the ideal character and behavior of women. Modesty and chastity in both manner and speech were praiseworthy attributes in any Godfearing, obedient, wifely woman. "The General Prologue" introduces the Prioress Madame Eglantine as an ironic exemplum of avarice and immodesty. The Prioress' worldly aspirations are sharply contrasted by the ascetic lifestyle led by the widow of "The Nun's Priest's Tale." Chaucer provides these diametrically opposed representations of women to convey that women of the day were above all else expected to find content with their positions in the social order of life.

The Prioress fails to embody the sexless meekness expected of her title, but rather is portrayed as a highly affected woman yearning for romance and riches. Madame Eglantine, named after a proud rose, seems overly concerned with appearances. It is suspicious that a woman claiming total devotion to her Lord and church puts forth such an effort to look lovely. Draping her body in an elegant cloak accoutered with a golden brooch, the Prioress emulates the...

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