Look up in the sky! It's a bird…it's a plane…it's SUPER KNIGHT! Seriously, this guy is one perfect knight. If there's been a battle in the past twenty years, chances are good he was there. In all of Christendom and Heathendom, there's no man who's ridden farther. Alexandria, Belgazir, Prussia, Lieges – you name the battle, he's fought in it. And not only that, he's probably been the hero of the battle and won a prize or two, or a place of honor at the victory banquet, as well. He's sort of like a football hero; you know the type – the guy who makes every touchdown and gets carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates.
But not only is the Knight a stellar battlefield athlete, he's also a genuinely nice guy. Chaucer tells us that he's never, in all his life, spoken a harsh word to anyone. On the pilgrimage, he's the peacemaker of the group, calling for reconciliation between the Host and the Pardoner when the Host takes offense at the Pardoner's attempt to sell fake relics to the pilgrims.
Unlike with some of the other characters, we can be sure that this knight is exactly what Chaucer says he is. How do we know? Well, because although he's got a really beautiful horse, he's wearing a tunic that is still stained with the blood of his last battle. He's literally walked straight off the battlefield and into The Canterbury Tales . Also, the story the Knight tells is exactly what we'd expect of a perfect knight: it's a tale of two friends who pine away for the same noble woman, replete with jousts, battles, and courtly love. And finally, the Knight's son, the Squire, reflects well upon the Knight because he, too, is a perfect gentleman. That kid was raised right. It would be hard to be otherwise when your dad's such a perfect knight.
In The Canterbury Tales , the Knight is a representative of those who belong to the very high social class of the nobility. His behavior – peacemaking, speaking like a gentleman, telling a polite romance – is probably meant to provide a point of contrast with the very different "low-born" behavior of characters like the Miller and the Reeve.
The Prioress is trying to be very, well, dainty . She has all these funny habits, like singing through her nose, speaking incorrect French, and eating so carefully that she never spills a drop. She does these things, Chaucer tells us, because she "peyned hir to countrefete cheere / of court" (139 – 140), or tries very hard to seem courtly. When she sees a mouse caught in a trap, she weeps, perhaps believing that this is how a damsel of the court would behave. Of course, two lines later, we learn that she has no problem feeding her hounds flesh, so her weeping over the trapped mouse is probably, like most of her habits, an affectation – a behavior the Prioress adopts to seem a certain way (in this case, like a courtly damsel), but which doesn't really reveal her true feelings.
Though the Prioress may try to seem dainty, in point of fact she's a very large woman: Chaucer tells us her forehead is a full hand-span broad and, come to think of it, she's not underfed. In keeping with her goal of seeming courtly, the Prioress is very elegantly dressed, with a string of coral beads attached to a pendant that reads "Amor Vincit Omnia," or "Love Conquers All." The beads and the pendant are interesting because this being a prioress, or nun who is in charge of a convent, we would expect her to be carrying rosary beads with a crucifix on the end. But instead she is carrying vanity beads. The pendant, which could refer to God's love, in her case more probably refers to the courtly love between a damsel and hero in one of the romances that were popular reading material for women of this time period.
So here's the thing about the Prioress: as a religious figure, she should be all kinds of things that she very clearly is not. What are these things? Well, take a look at the Parson's portrait, which represents an ideal religious figure in the General Prologue, to find out the answer. With the Prioress, our first example of someone from the religious life, we have not only our first supposedly pious person with her priorities out of whack (a situation we'll definitely see again), but also our first example of someone who's trying way too hard to be perceived a certain way, and how ridiculous that looks.
We should note that the Prioress has a nun with her who serves as her "chapelyne" or secretary, and three priests, who probably help her out by saying mass and administering the sacraments in the abbey she runs. Although we get no portraits of these pilgrims, two of them, the Second Nun, and the Nun's Priest, tell tales later on.
The Prioress, who was described before the Wife of Bath, had a "way of smiling" which was "very simple and coy" (pg. 6). Ever a nun, her greatest "curse" was "By Saint Loy!" and "spoke daintily in French...after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe" (pg. 6). "For courtliness she had a zest" (pg. 6), a zest so deep that the Prioress "well sang a service, with a fine intoning through her nose, as was most seemly" (pg. 6). And even while she ate, "her manners were well taught withal; [letting] no morsel from her lips [fall]" (pg. 6). The Prioress' love for animals was never-ending, for she would "weep if she but saw a mouse caught in a trap" or "wept if one were dead" (pg 7).
Yet, the Wife of Bath didn't have a way of smiling that charmed everyone that saw her. Not a single "dame dared stir towards the altar steps before her" for if they did, she'd go "so wrath...as to be quite put out of charity." From the "hose [that] were of the finest scarlet red" to her "shoes [that] were soft and new" (pg. 15), Wife of Bath also acted as if she were of royalty.
Both women were "by no means under grown" (pg. 7); the Prioress having a "forehead... fair of spread" and the Wife of Bath with "large hips" and "a hat broad as is a buckler or a shield" (pg. 15). The Wife of Bath, apparently an excellent seamstress, enjoys fine clothes that were "finely woven" and of "the finest scarlet red" (pg. 15). The Prioress as well as the Wife of Bath both respects God, although the Wife does it on a much lesser degree.
1. Canterbury Tales
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