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The Prioress and Grisilde: A Medieval Parody
How does medieval society view women? Or more importantly how does Chaucer view women in his society and what does he think about society s views? By examining the way Chaucer portrays women in his tales, perhaps we can get a better understanding of his attitudes towards women. The Prioress and Grisilde are two women in the Canterbury tales that show very specific ideas of how a woman should be. In their portrayal, if you read the text closely, Chaucer is trying to satirize the way society (medieval) thinks women should be against his view that women could not possibly live up to those standards.
If a woman tries to live up to the pious expectations of society and succeeds she ends up looking ridiculous like the character of Grisilde. Or as shown in the character of the Prioress, Chaucer makes a mockery of the very ideals that were popular in the medieval culture.
Medieval England was not a happy place for women to grow up in. Females had very little to no freedom. During this period of history, women were completely dominated by men. The only time females were ever allowed to roam freely around males was from the ages three to twelve.
And look thy daughters that none of them be born; From the very time that they are of thee born, Busy thyself and gather fast for their marriage and give them to spousing, as soon as they be of age. (Hanawalt, 212)
They weren t allowed to go into town unescorted or even have private conversations without being chaperoned. Believe it or not, they were kept away from any windows and doorways. Often times a suitor had to come to the window so that courting could be continued. This was because the woman s fathers and brothers had to keep a close watch on their chastity. Virgins were highly prized; if you weren t a virgin you were dirty. You had hardly any bargaining chips for making a good match (Duby, 285-290)
Once a woman was married things changed little. She was a part of her husband s property and he did what suited him best. Women were only allowed to go to religious activities. They were expected to obey their husbands in every way, shape, and form. They were expected to be above reproach, or their reputation would be smeared and probably violence taken upon them. (Duby, 285-290)
In fact, during the fourteenth century, it was perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife. The code in France was that a man could beat his wife as long as he didn t kill her. In Spain, one law said that it was actually permissible for a man to kill his wife or his fianc if she cheated on him. In England a man was to “correct” his wife in whatever manner was suitable (Geis, ).
This form of complete submissiveness that was such a popular idea in Chaucer s time was precisely the idea that I believe he tried to parody in the Clerk s Tale. Grisilde embodies all of the qualities that medieval society praised. She is quiet, has a sweet disposition, is beautiful, and is utterly and completely dominated by her husband. No matter what he did to her, she remained devoted to him.
She is described as a virtuous beautee/ Thanne was she oon the faireste under sonne (ln 211-212) . She is also virginal but invokes lust at the same time. She swears to her husband:
Am I to thilke honour that ye me beede,
But as ye wole yourself, right so wol I.
And here I swere that nevere willingly,
In werk ne thought, I nyl yow disobeye,
For to be deed, though me were looth to dye (
The Clerk s Tale, ln359-364).
In this speech, she begins her submissive role. She gives him permission to do what he wishes with her in bed and she promises never to disobey him. As the story continues, she is forced to undergo unspeakable torture at the hands of this man. Yet she remains steadfast and true despite the fact that he takes away their children, sends her away from the castle naked, and forces her to help him get his room ready for his imaginary wife.
When he asks her to make up his room for his imaginary wife she responds:
Nat oonly, lord, that I am glad, quod she,
To done youre lust, but I desire also
Yow for to serve and plese in my degree
Withouten feyntyng, and dhal everemo;
(The Clerk s Tale, ln967-973)
She obeys him and does it almost happily. She says that her devotion will never waver even though he is pushing her away for another woman! She wants to serve and please him at her own expense. This is an impossible standard.
Grisilde seems ridiculous to us because of all this and I think this is Chaucer s intent. There are a few reasons why Grisilde s character is a form of satirizing the ideals of fourteenth century England. The clerk is telling this tale, which is a big indicator. He says that he can speak of women but he builds up this impossible standard for women to live up to. Yet in English society, the woman is supposed to bear torture because she s a woman.
The second reason why I think Chaucer is satirizing the societies ideas is the fact that the clerk is speaking of a man s ideal and not a woman s. Grisilde becomes more of a cardboard character precisely because she has all of the traits wanted by a man in a wife and not what a woman wants. Also the fact that this tale follows closely after the Wife of Bath cannot be an accident.
Another major flaw that sums up Chaucer s feeling that such women cannot be found is the very end of the Clerk s Tale.
Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience,
And both attones buryed in Ytaille;
For which I crie in open audience
No wedded man si hardy be t assaile
His wyves pacience in trust to fynde
Grisildis, for in certain he shal faille. (The Clerk s Tale ln 1177-1182)
No matter where you search you won t be able to find another Grisilde. Her patience does not exist. Although the clerk says that women should attempt to be this way, he contradicts himself by saying that a man will fail in his attempt to find one that does act this way. Chaucer is telling us that this particular woman, although wanted by society, is impossible to achieve.
Another character that I think is a much more humorous interpretation on Medieval views on women, is the Prioress. Chaucer sketches her with just the right amount of irony to make the ideal look ridiculous. The Prioress attempts to be the embodiment of how women should act and instead her act comes out looking forced.
She is beautiful, in a way that seems like a description from a courtly love story. The narrator admires her beauty from afar. He describes her mouth as ful small, and therto softe and reed (Prologue, ln153). It seems like her description is a bit clich d. She has a pale face with full red lips.
Her clothes are elegant and very well made, which suggests that despite her attempts at being pious she still wants to look good. It s ironic that she is supposed to be very religious, yet she likes wealth as shown by the broche she wears.
And thereon heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after Amor vincit omnia (Prologue, 160-163)
If you notice the broche gleams gold so it clearly must be expensive. An A is etched on it, surmounted by a crown and after that the words Amor vincit omnia . This means basically that love conquers all. The prioress is fully romanticized by this statement. The fact that she is associated with love makes her even more a figure out of one of the courtly love stories.
She also has impeccable table manners. She never spills any sauce and never gets any on her long fingers. There are a lot of hidden meanings in the lines about her table manners precisely because how you ate was usually a gage of how you were in bed. Chaucer makes the Prioress character very ironic. She is supposed to be a figure of the church except she is very sexual. Not only is Chaucer mocking the perfect women but he is satirizing the church as well.
The Prioress attempts to be worldly, like a good woman should. But she fails. She speaks a bit of French but with a heavy English accent and even thought this line is subtle Chaucer is clearly being ironic. She doesn t really know the French of Paris, as the narrator hints but she pretends that she does for appearance sake. This is another way that Chaucer s point that the courtly woman does not exists. Any attempts to recreate the image fails as in the Clerk s Tale because it cannot possibly be found.
Her dogs are another indication that her character is contradictory. She has a bunch of small dogs and she feeds them rosted flesh, or milk and wastel-breed (Prologue, ln147) Her dogs only get the roasted meat and fine, expensive white bread. Now, the black plague has just gone through Europe and a lot of people are starving and close to death. Yet she feeds her dogs all of this expensive food and cares for them like she should be caring about the people around her.
I think the most humorous aspect to the Prioress character sketch is her sweet and sympathetic side. Her piteous nature is shown in these lines:
She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, it were deed or bledde. (Prologue ln 143-145)
Her delicate sensibilities are mocked here. Women should be delicate, yet this seems ridiculous. She is crying over a mouse in a trap. It doesn t even have to be dead for her to cry it just has to be bleeding. This is the funniest part of her sketch because Chaucer is mocking society s view that women should be delicate creatures.
Chaucer s time put a lot of impossible expectations on women. They were forced to live with beatings and torture and all through it remain pious and delicate and sweet. Could you imagine all of this in the twenty-first century? We would be outraged.
Perhaps in the Canterbury Tales Chaucer s depictions of women are a way for Chaucer to poke fun at society s views and show a little of the disapproval that we are so apt to show today.
Duby, Georges Ed. A History of Private Life II Revelations of the Medieval World. Harvard University Press; Cambrige 1988.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Women in the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial, 1978
Hanawalt, Barbra. Growing Up in Medieval London. Oxford University Press, New York: 1993.
Sox, Catherine. Gender and Language in Chaucer. University Press of Florida, Florida: 1962.
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