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November 6, 2009

I know I promised photos in my last post, but I haven’t loaded them onto my computer yet. I will soon! It’s getting cooler here, starting to feel like real fall–up until this past weekend it’s been around 60 degrees, now it’s more like 52.

So this week with Chaucer went infinitely better than last week, which is to say, I wrote a paper and my tutor said it was good. Phew. I’ll post it here, because it feels unfair to Chaucer not to–I don’t want to fall into favoritism. (Although, if Chaucer and Austen were my kids, Austen is the responsible, witty girl who is going to go to medical school and make something of herself, and Chaucer is the snarky boy who is sneaking out to smoke pot and will eventually make something of himself but for now is too smart for his own good. That’s all I’m saying.)

Thanks for your comments last week; reading Chaucer out loud is one of the first steps to understanding him for sure! I guess what I was trying to convey is that even when you get through what he’s saying (ie, Some Nonsense in Middle English=This nun is a beautiful woman!), you still don’t know what he’s trying to tell you (ie, The fact that this nun takes pains to be perceived as beautiful is in contradiction to her purported religious lifestyle, which perhaps is insinuating something about hypocrisy in ecclesiastical orders in general). And really, the more you read, the more confusing it is; so much of the work here at Oxford is based not only on your primary texts but the secondary texts as well. At a US school you could write a paper that goes like, “I think Chaucer is trying to say X, and here’s a secondary source that backs my opinion.” Here it’s more like, “Chaucer might be trying to say X, and here’s what critic A says about that; Chaucer might be trying to say Y, and here’s critic A talking about that as well, but critic B disagrees, even though (s)he agrees with A about X and Z. I disagree with Z and here’s why, and critic C backs me up, although C might be off on X and Y. Overall, X, Y, and Z actually combine to show this other aspect in the text–I’ll call it W. Here’s critic D saying something similar to W. The end.”

And if you were able to follow that, congratulations.

So yes, trying to decipher Chaucer is often similar to simply beating myself over the head with my Riverside edition. The language is a barrier, certainly, and it is often slow going; but what makes it hard to write a paper is that Chaucer keeps his cards very close to his chest, when it comes to what he thinks about what he’s writing.

In real world news, of which there is little, I went to a pizza and movie night for the visiting students at Dr Dutton’s house last night. There was lots of pizza and we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of my all-time favorite movies, and I laughed harder than anyone at the scene with Zoot and Dingo. I miss you guys.

I’m spending so much time working that I feel like I really need a way to meet more British students, so I’m thinking of helping Dr Dutton with her 8th week production (this is the end of 4th week, for reference) of some of the N-Town Cycle (medieval mystery plays). They’re the scenes about the life of the Virgin and they’re going to be performed in Chapel for Christmas-related services, so it would basically be a way to meet the choir, who are cool folks I hear.

I spent the weekend in London, which was nice because I got to see a friend from Smith and meet her friends, and I got to stay in a hostel which I feel is an essential student travel experience. For Halloween we went to a dinner for the visiting students at the top of Tower Bridge, so of course I forgot my camera. The views were great, but probably the best part was chatting with one of the Tower employees about movies and British culture. The karaoke I could have done without.

My friend went as Sherlock Holmes in this really meticulous costume and won second place in the costume contest that we didn’t even know they were having, which was awesome. I went as Elizabeth Bennet (long white dress, blue sash=most boring costume ever but very easy and cheap). Taking the Tube in costume was fun.

On Tuesday night I went back to London to see Wicked, which Butler got us cheap tickets for, and it was great! The Elphaba wasn’t as good as the one I had seen before but the Glinda was really really good, and it was funny to have a cast with British accents (Boq was Irish though, I think, which worked really well on his character). I was randomly seated next to a girl from Smith who is studying at UCL, which was bizarre. We’ve been in at least three classes together and she hardly recognized me–I never liked her anyway, but it was fun to chat about home for a bit. I took the bus (the “Oxford Tube”), which is a double-decker, and on the way back I sat in the very first seats on the second story, which are the best seats because there is a rail to put your feet on and the entire space in front of you is one big windshield. It’s like flying.

Other news…

Gloucester Green is a pedestrian square right by Worcester (I’m there now; it’s where my favorite coffee shop is located: where they have markets on Wednesday (produce and stuff like cheap toiletries) and Thursday (flea market type stuff) and sometimes on the weekend there’s a French market. The French market is here now, and it’s really cool because it’s really French: most of the stall workers don’t even speak English, so buying things (like cheese and bread) is like taking a little trip to the continent.

I’m going to Warwick Castle and Royal Leamington Spa (which is a town) tomorrow, and I’m pretty excited; no one that I’m friends with is going, so I’m hoping maybe I will meet people perhaps? It’s a Butler trip and I know other visiting students from Worcester are going, so maybe I will get to know them better. Either that or I will be somewhat bored and lonely all day, but either way I will get to be out of Oxford and away from work for a bit.

This past weekend saw the start of November, which means the start of National Novel Writing Month which I have a yearly tradition of attempting and failing. This summer I did my own version of it in July/August and got up to ~32,500 words (NaNo is 50,000), so I was thinking about trying to finish what I started as a kind of half-NaNo. But when I opened up the old Word doc I just got so discouraged. What I wrote this summer was an experiment in dedication to plot; it is so obvious that I didn’t care about making it remotely entertaining or engaging and I really don’t want to keep going. I know first drafts are always crap, but I don’t feel like this even has revisionary potential. So I haven’t decided if I should try to start something new and just not worry about word counts, or if I should just not bother because I’m writing so much non-fiction anyway.

I mean, with essays for tutorials, I’m writing roughly 8000 words every two weeks; do I really have time to write an additional 2000 words a day for NaNo? ….I don’t think so. Oh well.

I had a random idea the other day to write my thesis on William Gibson novels. Maybe focusing so much on older lit has made me nostalgic for something more current, but all of a sudden I was really fascinated by the idea of how his protagonists tend to have a material object that’s quite significant to their character/the plot (Cayce’s bomber jacket replica in Pattern Recognition, Chia’s Sandbender computer in Idoru, that sort of thing). The objects are unique, specific to the character, and laced with meaning or significance–for Cayce, who’s “allergic” to branding, the bomber jacket is so important because it is a replica that is “better” than the original: it can never be branded, it is unique and specific, it is damaged by one of the villains of the story…blah blah blah. For Chia, the Sandbender computer is unique and handmade in a world where one’s virtual existence is as important as/conflated with one’s reality; it is also her gateway to that world. I don’t know if I could get away with writing something like this. But I think it would be awesome.

It’s starting to get to be time to figure out what I’ll be taking next term–I’m thinking Shakespeare and Gothic Literature. Thoughts? Suggestions? I have to take Shakespeare while I’m here, but for my secondary I could do pretty much anything having to do with English Lit.

I’m also trying to figure out my plans for the break between terms. I’m going to Georgia with my family Dec 25-Jan 4; my term ends Dec 5 and starts Jan 17. Should I come home when term ends or should I travel in December? Or should I travel in January before term starts again? Or I could travel from Dec 5-Dec 12 (one week), come home, and then go back to travel for another week, Jan 10-Jan 17, right before term starts? And if I do travel, where should I go? Scotland? Ireland? France? I don’t fancy going somewhere where I don’t really speak the language on my own. In fact I don’t really want to travel on my own at all. Thoughts, anyone?



So, in lieu of photographs (sorry, not a fair trade at all), have a Chaucer essay. Again, formatting all gone to hell, italics not replaced, quotation marks inserted around block quotes for clarity. (~2200 words)


Sarah Wisner
Dr Elisabeth Dutton
4 November 2009

Chaucer’s Prioress: Religious Hypocrisy, Religious Honesty

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales cover a wide variety of topics, often treating the reader to different perspectives on each. His narrator remains oblique, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions; for this reason, critics often disagree on the meanings underpinning the text, or Chaucer’s intended meaning. One of the most controversial of these is the topic of religion. Several of the pilgrims are associated with the Church in one way or another, and more often than not they are less-than-suitable for their respective ecclesiastical roles. The most notorious of these is probably the Monk. The Prioress, on the other hand, embodies a series of contradictions which allow her to illustrate both honest faith and religious hypocrisy, leaving Chaucer’s intention for her as a character unclear. Interrogating the way the Prioress’s Tale, its Prologue, and her “pilgrim portrait” inform one another helps to reveal how Chaucer treats differently religious hypocrisy and religious honesty.

In the Prioress’s pilgrim portrait (lines 118-162 of the General Prologue), Chaucer illustrates with a few deft strokes a silly, self-important woman who is more concerned with courtly manners than her role as a nun. His narrator, however, passes no judgment:

“His method throughout is to treat as positive virtues all the things that the satirists usually regarded as topics for condemnation. It is what remains unsaid—the image of what a nun ought to be—that gives the portrait much of its edge; but Chaucer, as reporter, keeps his air of innocent admiration. ”
(Cooper, Oxford Guides, 38)

For example, one of the first things we are told about the Prioress is that “Hire gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy” (Chaucer, 120), which may be a very mild oath indeed; but, if the reader were asking for information about a nun, their first question would hardly be “And how badly does she swear?” The fact that Chaucer’s narrator brings it up at all illustrates the discrepancy between what the reader expects a nun to be, and what the Prioress is actually like. The portrait continues to defy the reader’s expectations by describing her manners, which, while fine, are hardly monastic:

And sikerly she was of greet disport,
And ful plesaunt, and amyable of port,
And peyned hire to countrefete cheere
Of court, and to been estatlich of manere
And to ben holden digne of reverence.
(Chaucer, GP, l. 137-41)

The idea that she imitates courtly manners, rather than coming to them naturally, goes along with her education—the fact that her French is from Stratford, not Paris. Her affectation of worldliness is in direct contradiction to the spiritual stoicism one might expect from a nun. The francophone adjectives (“plesaunt,” “amyable”) emphasize this contradiction. In addition, the fact that she “counterfeits” her manners, seeking the passive construction to be deemed worthy of respect, shows how much of her energy goes to her appearance and the impression she makes on others. In this way the Prioress is a very insecure figure, completely dependent on what other people think of her. This is, of course, contradictory to what one expects a nun to care about.
The following section of the portrait illustrates another side of the Prioress. The narrator tells us that “She was so charitable and so pitous” that she would weep if she saw a mouse in a trap, or if someone hurt one of her little pet dogs (Chaucer, GP, l. 142-150). Chaucer’s narrator seems to be trying to emphasize her tender-heartedness, yet he doesn’t say how she felt, only that she would “wepe.” It is a subtle distinction and perhaps no difference was intended, but the fact remains that the Prioress is all outward signs of emotion with no evidence of an internal struggle.

Chaucer goes on to describe her physical appearance:

Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was,
Hir nose tretys, hir eyen greye as glas,
Hir mouth ful small, and therto softe and reed.
(Chaucer, GP, l. 151-53)

Although her appearance is “Ful semyly” (very proper), the fact that the narrator lingers on her elegantly small, soft red mouth seems completely improper. Whether or not a nun is pretty is irrelevant to her job description, so why is it significant here? The description highlights the fact that the Prioress is an attractive woman; combined with her manners and her sentimentality, she seems primed for the role of lover rather than nun. Finally, the nun wears a beaded bracelet with a brooch inscribed with the phrase “Amor vincit omnia,” or Love Conquers All. There is an ambiguity of meaning here—the strand of beads recalls a rosary, which would be proper for a nun, while the golden brooch seems more like a courtly trinket; the phrase itself could be referring to divine love or a more earthly counterpart. A cynical reading of the Prioress would point to her affected manners, her careful eating and her small dogs to support the idea that the love she is interested in, like the rest of her characteristics, is out of line with her position. When looked at in conjunction with her Prologue and Tale, however, the bracelet’s physical ambiguity (rosary or trinket?) readily illustrates the Prioress’s own ambiguity; when it comes to love, it isn’t the object (divine or earthly) that interests her, but the emotion itself. It becomes less important to determine which the bracelet is referring to: it is both, or either; love and sentimentality in general.

It is the Prologue to her tale that makes the Prioress impossible to be read in a purely ironic light. The Domine dominus noster takes the form of a devotion to the Virgin Mary “in phrases drawn from the highest poetry of Christian tradition” (Cooper, Oxford Guides, 292). The straightforward faith demonstrated in the Prologue reveals yet another side to the Prioress, one which is barely shown in the portrait. In the devotion she declares herself “as child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan ennethes any word expresse, / Right so fare I” (Chaucer, Prologue, l.1674-76), a sentiment which directly contradicts the pretensions of her affected French in the portrait. Reading the Prologue straight, as opposed to ironically, the Prioress truly feels herself unequal to expressing the devotion she feels to the Virgin. And it was hardly an exaggerated sentiment for the time:

“Mary was easily the most important focus of veneration in the Middle Ages, with the possible exception of Christ. This devotion was especially intense in England, where an enormous number of shrines were dedicated to her. Some of the most inspired and affecting images of art in the period centre on Mary and so vast a literature of songs, poems, hymns, meditations, and devotions grew up in regard to her that here it is only possible to scratch the surface of her importance to the religious life and imagination of the people. ”
(Rhodes, An Oxford Guide, 90)

This cult of the Virgin is, in fact, in line with what we know of the Prioress’s character. While the Prioress may be more concerned with appearance and manners than one expects of a nun, she also seems to have a genuine attachment to the idea of love and sentimentality—the honesty of which is illustrated in the moving devotion of the Prologue.

There was also more than one side to the Virgin in Christian thought. One traditional aspect is her impossible purity—her Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, and the Assumption to Heaven combining to make her the otherworldly, Queen of Heaven figure.

“In contrast to this transcendent idea is the image of Mary in her earthly naturalness, as the mother of Christ whose humanity is stressed and who serves Christianity with a more this-worldly orientation. In this image the Queen of Heaven is replaced by the Mother tenderly fondling or nursing her child, which quickly established itself as the dominant expression of Mary’s love of humanity. In this role she became identified as the figure most closely associated with forgiveness; she was regarded as the supreme mediatrix, or well of mercy. ”
(Rhodes, An Oxford Guide, 90)

Now that the Prioress has been shown to be truly devoted to the Virgin, and looking at the Virgin herself in this light, it is possible to read the Prioress’s portrait differently. While she clearly affects her manners and has interests outside her role as a nun, her cloying sentimentality suddenly seems more natural; if she honestly looks up to the Virgin as a sort of role model, the way she treats her dogs and appreciates love in general seems almost religious in and of itself. Chaucer himself may have looked up to the Virgin as well; despite his sometimes blatant cynicism towards Church figures, “there is no reason to doubt that he shared the religious faith of his time. Such evidence as we have suggests that he was directly, devoutly religious, with a special love for the Virgin Mary” (Frank, Cambridge Chaucer, 152). If this is so, than it becomes especially difficult to read the Prioress as a purely ironical figure.

This brings me to the difficulty of the Tale itself. Using the portrait and the Prologue as illustrations of the Prioress’s surprisingly multi-faceted character, some aspects of the Tale are in fact fairly unambiguous. Its sentimentality not only relates to the Prioress’s tastes, but also her faith: she is on the side of the small and helpless, as is her role model, Mary. In addition to being the tale of one of Mary’s miracles, Robert Worth Frank, Jr. characterizes the Tale as one of pathos, a genre in which there is an innocent victim (the more helpless and pathetic the better). He writes that pathos “is dependent on the taste of the times, and Chaucer’s age was unusually receptive to it, especially though not exclusively in the area of religion” (Frank, Cambridge Chaucer, 144). Indeed, the structure of the tale is properly devout: a child, murdered essentially for his faith, is graced by the presence of the Virgin in death. His innocence and faith are illustrated by the fact that he insisted on learning a hymn in her honor, despite not having enough Latin to actually understand it.

“The simplicity and innocence, and the helplessness, are those of childhood, a fact we are never allowed to forget. The words ‘litel’, ‘smal’, ‘yong’, ‘child’, ‘children’, ‘boy’, ‘innocent’ are used again and again. (Perhaps here is the voice of the Prioress.) They solicit the reader’s tender sympathy for the child and his devotion, horror and pity at his manner of death.”
(Frank, Cambridge Chaucer, 154)

In this respect, the Tale, and the Prioress, accomplished their intent: praising the Virgin through a sentimental telling of one of her Miracles. Yet the Tale is surprising in its violence and virulent anti-Semitism. Writes Helen Cooper, “But it is still a work of pious sensationalism, a Mills and Boon version of Christianity, and if it is the best that the Prioress can offer, Chaucer has other things to say” (Cooper, Oxford Guides, 294). She seems to expect something else from the Prioress; given the outline of her traits in the portrait, however, it seems to me to be unsurprising that she offers a “Mills and Boon” tale. From another critic’s perspective,

“The repellent anti-Semitism is offensive to us, and some critics see it as a bitter comment on the Prioress. But it is an unhappy fact that anti-Semitism was endemic in the late Middle Ages. And the Virgin was the arch-enemy of heretics, and of Jews. They are targets in a number of her miracles, which often ended with massacres or enforced conversions. It is more reasonable to conclude, however reluctantly, that Chaucer did not see beyond the prejudice of his age and took the story simply because it served his purpose. ”
(Frank, Cambridge Chaucer, 154)

So in this case, if the Prioress has already been shown to ally herself with the Virgin, and prone to exaggeration and affectation, then it seems to be very much in character for her to both choose a tale that illustrates the Virgin’s mission in Christian faith, and to exaggerate its more sensational attributes.

Looking at the pilgrim portrait alone, the Prioress seems to be a comment on a sort of religious hypocrisy in which one can live comfortably and pursue one’s interests in spite of vows to the Church. Examining the Prioress in light of the Prologue to her tale reveals her genuine faith; the fact that she feels the need to put on airs shows that she is indeed flawed, but continuing to read her as purely ironical avoids the challenges of the text. While her Tale has disconcerting aspects, reading it actively with the portrait and Prologue in mind shows that it is accurate to her character in both its exaggerated sentimentality, and its true devotion to the Virgin Mary. The combination of hypocrisy and honesty in the Prioress’s performance of religion illuminates Chaucer’s irritation at the former and appreciation of the latter; the fact that this is mixed into a single character shows that the Prioress herself is more complex than the narrator gives her credit for.


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: A New Unabridged Translation. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: Modern Library, 2008.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
Frank, Robert W. “The Canterbury Tales III: Pathos.” The Cambridge Chaucer Companion. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge UP, 1986. 143-58.
Rhodes, Jim. “Religion.” Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 81-96.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessie permalink
    November 6, 2009 2:19 pm

    Come home come home come home! I’ll come visit you in March if you come home in December/January. But if you do travel, do it in December. You could go visit Alma or Elizabeth or Moose…

    Love you so much, am sending you mail today, I totally cried reading this post because I miiiiss you.

  2. Kathryn permalink
    November 6, 2009 5:00 pm

    I think you should come home and get together with MEEEE. 🙂

  3. ddf2440 permalink
    November 12, 2009 5:37 pm

    Sarah, your blog is great. I enjoy living your experience vicariously through your excellent writing. For a brief moment I was inspired to read Chaucer. I quickly slapped myself and came back to earth.
    I believe all of us were placed on Earth to visit Ireland. (Enough said) Look forward to more posts, and to seeing you in December.

  4. ddf2440 permalink
    November 12, 2009 5:40 pm

    By the way, in case you didn’t know who ddf2440 is, it’s your Uncle Dan. I was typing this and was distracted by impending crime.


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