Chaucer's Prioress

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Chaucer's Prioress has been an enigma to scholars who have tried to understand her. The fundamental point of contention about the Prioress centers upon the question: "Is Chaucer presenting her as a satiric figure supposedly dedicated to the Church but worldly in her pursuits, or is Chaucer presenting her as a sincere member of the clergy, typical of those who fulfilled the requirements laid down by the Church?” A study of selected critical statements brings one to no resolution of the question. The statement of one orthodox critic, Sister M. Madeleva, who measured the Prioress against the Benedictine Rule, does riot end the search since this critic chooses to discuss only points on which she can score the Prioress saintly, thereby ignoring vital details in Chaucer's portrait.

One must look at historical studies of the English medieval nunnery to see Madame Eglentyne in her milieu. The exhaustive study, Medieval English Nunneries by Power, supported by historical evidence, indicates medieval prioresses generally were strong and pious though worldly. Power feels there is no reason to believe Chaucer's Prioress departed from that norm.

One returns to Chaucer's poetic method to search for further evidence on those areas slighted by Sister Madeleva. A study based on W. C. Curry's work reveals the Prioress as more noble than ignoble, atypical of the norm, but the balance of conviction is on the side of Power's contention that the Prioress is typical of prioresses of her day.



Chaucer, Geoffrey