By Michael Ginzburg
Why the common interpretation of the Prioress’s love-hate contradiction should be reconsidered.
There is no question that contradictory values make up a major component of The Canterbury Tales. Fate vs. Fortuna, knowledge vs. experience and love vs. hate all embody Chaucer’s famous work. These contrasting themes are an integral part of the complexity and sophistication of the book, as they provide for an ironic dichotomy to the creative plot development and undermine the superficial assumptions that might be made. The combination of completely contradictory motifs leads to the unusual stories and outcomes that come to play out in the tales. And these outcomes draw focus on the larger universal issues that in many cases transcend the boundaries of vernacular periods to all of humanity. That is the essence and success of the tales; their themes are universal and their irony is still applicable today.
Madame Eglentine, Chaucer’s Prioress, demonstrates an excellent example of the clash between divergent values. In many ways, her description in the General Prologue personifies the model medieval woman: religious, elegant, innocent, loving and sentimental. Yet clearly there is a vast contrast between her description and the vicious, anti-Semitic account of the young boy mutilated in the Ghetto. It is this contrast which points out the “binaries” or opposites which make up the Prioress’s character. Her tale involves a bigotry that is unmatched in all of The Canterbury Tales as shown in the following passage:
“And as the boy passed at his happy pace
This cursed Jew grabbed him and held him, slit
His little throat and cast him in a pit…I say, into a privy-drain (Chaucer 190).”
While most would agree that this tale represents a love vs. hate contrast, contemporary scholars and writers conflict over the exact nature of the Prioress’s relationship to the hate that her tale espouses. In the debate, a number of different options have emerged. Some, like medieval author Paul Ruggiers, argue that it is impossible to determine the Prioress’s attitude and that, “we must be satisfied with ambiguity.” Others like writer Victoria Wickham argue the most popular belief, that the Prioress’s bigotry is without question and readers should be more concerned about the degree rather than the fact itself. But there is another possibility. Edwards and Spector, two prominent medieval scholars, put aside the issue of racism temporarily and instead offer an alternative interpretation on the very nature of Chaucer’s love-hate contradiction in the Prioress’s tale. They argue that the love vs. hate contradiction is not dependent on outside forces, but is actually an internal conflict within the Prioress herself. Consequently, the individuals and subsequent groups in her tale are not specific characters but culturally influenced manifestations representing separate issues. In this way her personality becomes the allegory of her tale, making specific references within her story irrelevant to her true attitude.
In this writer’s opinion, popular attitudes on the nature of the love-hate contradiction in the Prioress’s tale are wrong; Edwards and Stevens help prove this. Rather than considering the most obvious stand-alone factors of love and hate in the story, specifically the description of the Prioress and her affinity for Christianity vs. the evil association and actions of the “Jewry,” critical readers and scholars should consider the elements which directly connect the two very different themes. There is nothing wrong with close analysis of the Prioress, but using it as an element of love and comparing it to a separate and completely unrelated element in the tale is illogical and inconsistent with Chaucer’s other love vs. hate examples. Ultimately, this second analysis or “re-analysis” also proves the Prioress innocent of racism which becomes inappropriate to her actual feelings. And the total product becomes the true love-hate contradiction in the Prioress’s Tale.
In terms of the historical context for literature purveying the love-hate contradiction, there are many examples in history starting with the bible: “Genesis 9:6—‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.’” The passage is a condemnation of murder, an inevitable side-effect of hate. The relationship appears again in Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s Rhetoric (book 2 chapter 13). Post-Chaucer, Shakespeare utilized the theme throughout his writing, including Romeo and Julie, Othello and others, with the whole plot revolving around a love-hate contradiction
Of course Chaucer is also not a dilettante to the love-hate contradiction and it can be found in many of his own tales. The relationships of the Wife of Bath, the characters of the Clerk’s Tale and the pathetic end to the Summoner in the Friar’s Tale all demonstrate patterns of love and hate. Each example of the relationship in Chaucer’s work has a similar structure. In The Knight’s Tale for example, hate is manifest through Arcite and Palamon, who in this case direct it at each other. And love is also manifest through Arcite in Palamon, each directing it toward Emily.
“To love my lady, whom I love and serve
And ever shall, till death cut my heart’s serve
No, false Arcite! That you shall never do!
I love her first and told me fried to you (Chaucer 50).”
In the Miller’s tale, hate is directed at Absalon by Alison but meanwhile Absalon loves Alison. In every situation, love and hate are not based on random facets of the tale; they each are logically connected through a relevant intermediary, such as a main character or subject.
This important aspect is precisely what is neglected by traditional analysis of the Prioress’s tale. There is no logical connection for the Prioress’s hatred of the Jews. Her own General Prologue description shows her to be kind and gentle. Even in the face of Chaucer’s sarcasms of her manner, there is still no reason or explanation as to why she should hate Jewish people. One might argue that her intense devotion to Christianity might bring her to the point of hate at those who have different beliefs. but again, her own description demonstrates that she is less religious than aristocratic: “Her facial features are stereotyped aristocratic ones; the rosary of coral with green gauds which she wears about her arm is a ladylike adornment… (Howard 99)” There could be an unlimited number of imaginary reasons why she should hate Jews, but there is no logical connection made in the tale to support it and is simply not consistent with Chaucer’s other works. There is clearly a deficiency in the love-hate contradiction of the Prioress’s tale.
It might be argued that there is already a connection between love and hate in the Prioress’s tale. If the Prioress herself is ignored all together and the focus is placed on the boy, than it seems like there should be a relationship. But while this may be true, such a focus would be useless in trying to discern the ambiguities and contradictions within the Prioress, who is a mysterious character.
What is exactly the definition of the Prioress’s personality? In order to understand her it is important to look at the religious lifestyle in the Middle Ages. In medieval society, women were forced to either marry or join a convent. Those who sought a genuine spiritual connection, those who wanted the quiet lifestyle and those who wanted an education when few had the option would join a convent. The Prioress most likely joined for reasons other than personal preference as it seems clear that she does not enjoy the religious lifestyle. The lady, who walks with an entourage, presents good manners, cares for animals which are forbidden to nuns and holds a dubious French accent seems to be the subject of constant ambiguity. “…her storybook eyes and nose and her smile, ‘simple and coy,’ topped by the visibly high forehead, her careful attention to dress, obsessed with cleanliness, her pleated wimple, her fancy beads… (Ruggiers 75)” Initially, she seems to be a creature of genteel spotlessness, yet clearly there is some room for interpretation on Chaucer’s exact intentions. The Prioress’s jewelry presents one such interesting ambiguity: “Most questionable of all is her brooch. If lavish and costly clothing was forbidden to the nun, all the more was jewelry (Hallissy 3).” Perhaps the most significant or at least famous accessory is her brooch with the words, “Amor Vincit Omnia,” or “Love Conquers All.” The question of whether it refers to a spiritual love or an Earthly love seems to strike at the heart of the Prioress’s ambiguity. She conflicts in her duties as a nun and her desires as a person. While there is disagreement among scholars about the important specific details, most agree on at least two points about her general description. First, she is described as innocent or naïve in regards to worldly matters: “The Prioress tells a tale which she believes is idealistic-she is certain she is telling a tale about innocence and purity and doesn’t have any notion that her sentimental legenda involves a vicious persecution which the church had, at least officially, condemned (Howard 270).” Second, she is socially conscious and presents an air of dignity. Such dignity is discernable in the prologue to her tale where she attempts to make up for the slanderous degradation of the Monk and subsequent religious figures in the Shipman’s Tale. In doing so she preserves that element of dignity which is a strong part of her character and gives the reader further understanding of the devotion and conscience which pervade her personality. She tries to vindicate the religious lifestyle, tarnished by some of the pilgrims’ tales and the Host’s comic antipathy toward monks.
“…and what’s more
Into his wife’s hood too! Well, shut your door
Against all monks! (Chaucer 186)”
Her social conscience is represented through the aristocratic character of her features and style. More over, Chaucer helps build this image by using language to suggest that the Friar is to the Monk and Prioress, as the Squire would be to the Knight. It is no accident that Chaucer uses the same phrase for both Squire and Friar, “Curteis he was and lowly of servis.” The Prioress accepts her higher status with dignity and faith.
The last point about the general description of the Prioress, regarding her maternal nature, has been subject to strong debate. Many scholars and most popular opinion are in favor of the idea that she seems to embody the qualities of motherhood through the examples of her nurturing and caring for small animals. This theory has a lot of backing behind it since even her tale focuses on a young boy being cared for by the Virgin Mary. Prominent Chaucerian scholar Paul E Beichner wrote in 1979, “…by entrusting simple pieties to a child, be eliciting the utmost pathos from the spectacle of a bereaved mother, Chaucer corroborates at one and the same time our dimly felt convictions about spiritual and domestic relations (Beichner 157).” The suggestion being that the Prioress’s given maternal characteristics provide for additional symbolism that Chaucer would have naturally sought to further engage the reader. But while this would surely be on the level of Chaucer’s sophisticated verse, it may not necessarily be the right option. The “Thwarted Motherhood Theory,” seems to give only a partial answer, basing its support only on the Prioress’s affinity for small children and animals. Yet one crucial element is missing, as Edwards and Spector note: “For in her prayer, the Prioress emphatically adopts the perspective not of a mother, but of a child, with motherhood relegated to the nurturing Virgin Mother, whose guidance and strength Eglentine beseeches (Edwards, Spector 220).” As the authors go on to say, examining the prayer at the beginning of her tale reconciles the contraries in the Prioress’s description. The confusing ambiguities of the Prioress can be understood under this new light of the child relationship, rather than maternal. The Prioress represents herself as the child in her tale. The new theory reveals the Prioress to be desperately searching for guidance to help her balance the spiritual vs. the Earthly love that ambiguously plagues her image. In this search, she calls out to the Virgin Mary for help, as seen in her prayer. The strength of this argument lies in the fact that it is directly corroborated by the Prioress’s own words in the prayer. By correlating her General Prologue to the tale, a more complete picture can be envisioned.
A common objection made by Chaucerian scholars is that to take such a position requires that one combine both the General Prologue and the tale itself, something many believe to be wrong. This option seems counter-intuitive initially, but does have some validity as put forth by John Lawlor who thought that without separating the tale from the prologue we will: “view dourly any essay into that commonest of medieval modes, the pathetic (Lawlor 131).” Essentially, Lawlor believes that it is necessary to separate the tale from the prologue in order to remove any modern-day prejudices from affecting the interpretation of either one. But Lawlor’s approach also does not allow the reader to see the big-picture, something absolutely crucial when reviewing the Prioress’s tale. As Edward Kelly describes: “in order to more fully appreciate the poet’s art of creation, it is necessary to see the description in the General Prologue as artistically functional in understanding the tale (Edwards, Spector 219).” Considering the broad scope of the Prioress’s tale, it seems that Kelly’s approach of combining the General Prologue and Tale is most advantageous.
Having discussed the relationship of love vs. hate and the Prioress’s General Prologue connection to her tale, the question of how one can reconcile the brutality of the tale itself still remains. The love-hate contrast as presented in the Prioress’s tale has been redefined, with the Prioress as the child, but its exact nature has not been. With respect to the new conclusions, how does the love-hate contradiction play out?
If one is willing to accept that the Prioress embodies the spirit of the child in her tale and that a love-hate relationship must utilize an intermediary that is relevant to the description, than it follows that the true love-hate contrast applies to the Prioress only. Edwards and Spector point to the last stanza of her initial prayer:
“…But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse,
Than kan unnethes any word expresse,
Ryght so fare I, and therefore I yow preye
Gydeth my song that I shal of yow seye (Chaucer 187).”
Here the Prioress associates herself with a child, placing herself at the mercy of the Virgin Mary. “The simple, faithful child becomes the repository of her own simple, childlike faith (Edwards, Spector 221).” Both the nun and the child share many similar characteristics. They both develop a strong devotion to Mary and consider fervor as a substitute for any significant understanding. The nun’s vulnerability comes through on the child as well. The Prioress mentions her “childlike” weakness in sustaining her song, which becomes manifest on the boy when his throat is cut and he can not sing. Eglentine prays that the virgin will help guide her song, just as she does with the young boy in the tale. Even the treatment of the boy’s body recalls the Prioress who is obsessed with cleanliness. It was not random that Chaucer had the boy tossed into a sewer, representing defeat at the hands of the forces of defilement and foulness, exactly what the Prioress despises most.
However, the issue of the Prioress Tale’s bigotry is still unresolved. D.W. Robertson, author of A Preface to Chaucer, suggests that the tale, like much of the portrait, proceeds by an anticlimax. It raises the expectations of the reader by referring to conscience, charity and pity, and then descends into the opposite, through subtle satire in the prologue and shocking obscenity in the tale. The reader is not ready for the bigotry in her tale after reading the General Prologue. Instead, the Prioress is described as innocent, loving and child-like. In her tale, however, it still seems as if she implicitly approves of the acts of torture directed against the Jews. Why else would they be portrayed as evil? Such a problem requires a review of the context in which the tale was written.
It is more than just interesting that early 20th century critics did not even mention the Jews when looking at the Prioress’s Tale. Before the holocaust there was very little attention paid on the Jews in the story. Considering how people felt in the early part of this century, it seems hard to believe that Chaucer felt any differently. Albert Friedman, author of, The Prioress’s Tale and Chaucer’s Anti-Semitism, believes that it is foolish to expect Chaucer to have been above the narrow beliefs of his age when broadmindedness was even impossible 500 years later. Jews were resented for their advantages in money lending operations and control of vast amounts of capital as feudal-loyalty was transforming into money as a means of controlling land. After a series of disputes, including the massacre of 150 Jewish individuals over a dispute over Jewish admission rights to certain events, they were finally expelled from England in 1290. However, as described by Chaucerian scholar Jill Mann, a general enmity toward Jews in the medieval ages is oversimplified; there were in fact many instances, as documented and verified by prominent Jewish historians where mutual cooperation did occur. It is hard to discern whether Chaucer was really a bigot or not since narratives are told from varying perspectives and are full of irony that cloud the author’s original intentions. The only way to determine Chaucer’s position on such a difficult issue would be to examine his personal life and without further documentation that would be impossible. However, to simply say that the Prioress engages in hostility toward Jews ignores the context in which that intolerance appears in her tale and its function.
Essentially, Jews in the tale are not some targeted “bad-guys” as they would appear to be in isolation.
“First of our foes, the Serpent Satan shook
Those Jewish hearts that are his waspish nest,
Swelled up and said. ‘O Hebrew people look (Chaucer 190).”
Rather, by embodying threats to a child’s innocence, youthful spotlessness and
faith, the Jews are made to engender the very qualities despised by the Prioress. Consequently, they are representatives of spiritual and physical stain. The Prioress expresses her repulsion for such things by using the Jews, a convenient scapegoat at the time, but not necessarily attacking them specifically. Since the love-hate relationship is an allegorical connection to the child in the Prioress’s tale, there can be no specific characters or groups. Everything serves as a representation of a wider issue. The young boy being murdered and discarded in a sewer does not stand as an attack on Jews, but as an attack on the values of cleanliness which the Prioress espouses. In a sense, the theory proposed by Edwards and Spector builds up the tale to become more of a dream for the Prioress.
Some might argue that despite the re-analysis of the themes of the tale, the very fact that the Prioress uses the Jews, regardless of their representation, as tokens of evil; she must be inherently prejudice. But that argument proves weak against an analogous situation in which a person dreams of some violent act. This does not prove that the dreamer is, in fact violent. Instead, the act stands more likely to represent idea or conflict rather than a specific kind.
This in turn reveals the mirror-like aspect of the Prioress’s tale. The sentiment which she showers on the boy, this idea of loving approbation to a character which embodies many of her own qualities is in the end, a love for self. Such a conclusion is consistent with the idea that the boy represents the Prioress. Therefore her love can be said to be misdirected, further emphasizing her contradictory nature. Yet many of the personality ambiguities have been settled, leaving only the fundamental Chaucerian application of love vs. hate. The joining of both personal and spiritual love creates congruence from the ambiguity seen in the General Prologue and it shows Chaucer’s brilliant submergence of the woman within the religious figure. In effect, the Prioress has her own actual qualities vindicated by having Mary reward the child in her story, and in doing so, herself as well. Mary’s love, when associated with the Prioress, redeems the nun. And here emerges the love-hate contradiction in the Prioress’s tale; a love for self, contrasted with a hate or fear of the loss of dignity and innocence, the very values which are most obvious from the General Prologue.
Looking at how Chaucer’s value contradiction of love vs. hate speaks to the larger issue of humanity, it seems to represent the internal struggle within all people to reconcile the extreme polarized aspects of personality. Under this light, the Prioress’s ambiguities are not so unusual. We all embody a similar conflict between our desires and our dislikes and this constant struggle to overcome temptation in the face of duty makes us who we are as a person. Chaucer recognizes this and employs it to show the contrasting theme in The Canterbury Tales. “Re-analysis” of the Prioress’s love vs. hate contradictions proves that the Prioress is less mysterious than first thought. It is simply a re-evaluation of a poorly evaluated theme in the tale that reveals the true nature of the Prioress and her moral contrasts. It is certainly clear that Geoffrey Chaucer was an incredibly talented writer, and his skills for subtly and nuance was masterful. However, as one delves deeper and deeper into details of fictional work, the possibilities for creative minds to find connections or patterns increases. One nagging question remains; at what point does the critical reader begin to risk becoming more subtle than the author?
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© Michael Ginzburg