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The Prioress Vs. The Wife Of Bath

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In Geoffrey Chaucer's, The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer narrates the accounts of several pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at the Cathedral in Canterbury. Through his narratives, Chaucer presents his audience with a broad representation of life and social class interaction in both the pilgrims and the characters in their tales. Chaucer brings to light various ideas, thoughts, and commentary in regards to medieval society. The two most significant characters who provide the greatest insight into contemporary medieval society are the Wife of Bath and the Prioress. Through both the Wife of Bath's Tale and the Prioress's Tale, Chaucer articulates his opinionated views of the etiquette and conduct of women in the 14th century. By examining both the Wife of Bath and the Prioress's tales, we are able to see the stark contrast between their social standards and demeanors. Chaucer's description of the two characters clearly depicts the Prioress as a better woman than the Wife of Bath according to 14th Century standards of conduct for women in regards to their appearance, common manners, and attitude towards men.

The first introduction of the Wife of Bath is in the General Prologue. Chaucer describes her as a woman of exquisite taste, who has donned herself in extravagant garments by saying,

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;

I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound

That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.

Her hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,

Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

Her elaborate headdress, bright stockings the color of scarlet red, and shoes that are soft and brand new are all demonstrations of how wealthy she has become. Chaucer reveals later on that she has acquired her wealth from five previous marriages. The Wife of Bath is a woman of extreme poise, as she wears her finest garments on Sundays. Her extensive travels to Rome, Spain, and Jerusalem multiple times are also another sign of her wealth, as it would be uncommon for a woman to do so independently in a society dominated by men. Her tendency to travel a lot would at first hand give one the impression that she is a spiritual woman. This is not the case, as she is not a religiously inclined or abiding person, so the only reason that she would go on so many pilgrimages would be for the social opportunities that it brings. Since the majority of people on pilgrimages are male, it is safe to assume that she could possibly be looking for her next husband. Since pilgrimages are seen as a holy trip, this totally contradicts and makes a mockery of the religious establishment as the Wife of Bath uses it as an opportunity for her personal pleasures.

Her physical features are described as being decent looking, with gap-teethed and a bold face that was "fair, and reed of hewe. " She is not revered for his physical attributes, but for her beautiful clothing and a powerful and energetic attitude about herself when "in felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe. " Chaucer also mentions that she has been married five times and that through her sexual conquests throughout her life, "of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,/ For she koude of that art the olde daunce. " Though Chaucer mentions that she had some sexual relationships in her youth, this is the first insight he gives us into her in terms of her experience. On the other hand, the Prioress is the complete opposite of the Wife of Bath. Not only is she the leader of a fashionable convent but she is also charitable and virtuous. Chaucer describes the Prioress as being a modest and reserved woman. The fact that she is referred to as "Madam Eglantine" is a strong indication of her high social status, thus placing her on opposite spectrums with the Wife of Bath, who has no title to herself that is recognized by society. The fact that she is referred to as the "Wife of Bath" can also be seen as intentional and perhaps Chaucer making fun of her, as even though she is in no way conventionally ladylike, by calling her "wife" places some social constrain on her, and perhaps punishing her for her promiscuousness. Even though she has left her husbands somehow, she will always be tied to matrimony. Even though she is not married, she is still referred to as the "Wife of Bath." The Prioress's name "Eglantine" also can be connected to her natural beauty, as an Eglantine is a type of rose. Unlike the Wife of Bath, the Prioress has received a high education from the school of Stratford-at-the-Bow, where she learned to speak French fluently. The learning of French was seen as being highly cultured, so this also reaffirms her social status. Though she is very well-educated, Chaucer points out that she may not be the most informed, "For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe. " This goes to show that even though she is very well-rounded, she lacks in her knowledge of what goes on perhaps in the world outside of the nunnery. Chaucer's description of her delicate table manners exemplifies her ladylike qualities as,

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,

Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;

Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe

That no drope ne filled upon hire brest.

In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.

Hir over-lippe wiped she so clene

That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene

Of grece, wan she drunken hadde hir draughte.

Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.

The emphasis on her fine etiquette is also an example of her superior education to that of the Wife of Bath and elevated social standing. While the Wife of Bath conforms to no social standards in regard to the appropriate conduct of a woman, The Prioress is a principal model of a high society 14th century woman. Chaucer also provides no description of any "ladylike" qualities of the Wife of Bath. The Prioress also is shown to have a very sensitive side to herself. Chaucer illuminates this righteous quality of the Prioress by describing her compassion towards animals, by saying,

She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous

Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.

Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde



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