In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales Chaucer frequently uses the device of contrast as a major means of characterization. One of the most striking of these contrasts is that between the prominent women among the pilgrims – the prioress and wife of
Chaucer pretends to be a naïve narrator unaware of these rules and reacts only to the Prioress’ physical charm, dainty manners and sensibility. His diction is enthusiastically landed with superlatives; ‘ful’ is repeated eight times and ‘ful semely’ three times. But in the background there is the devastating question, never in fact articulated: are these details really “semely’ for a Prioress? However attractive her smile may be, this should not have been the first thing about her to attract attention. The incongruity persists in the name which she had adopted. When she renounced the world, she adopted the name of romance heroine rather than of a saint or a virtue, as was customary her name, as Eglantine, means ‘sweet rose’. Her other characteristics ,– such as her nasal singing , her French education , her dainty eating habits, her court manners and her longing to be regarded as a fine lady , are all incongruous in a Prioress. It has been pointed out by S.S. Hussey that the lines describing the Prioress’ table manners are almost taken bodily from a passage in the great medieval poem, Roman de la Rose. In the French poem the lines are spoken by Duenna, and Old woman vastly experienced in love. In fact, as Hussey accurately comments, Duenna is early in a line which includes the Wife of Bath and “the incongruity of this material being included in the description of a Prioress does much to convey Chaucer’s ironic blend of Nun and would be romantic heroine’.
When Chaucer comes to speak of the Prioress’ conscience, he raises expectation by the adjectives “charitable” and “pitous”. But now the fall from expectation is never greater for the Prioress’ pity is not for the hungry and bereaved, but for a trapped mouse or a chastened pet. Though she emulates the ways of a fine lady, her French is provincial, not the French of Paris. When, at the end of the portrait, Chaucer mentions the motto on the Prioress’ brooch, we strongly suspect that “Amor Vincit Omania” or “Love conquers all”, refers in her case to profane rather than sacred love.
If the Prioress, in the classic words of J. L. Lowes, illustrates “the delightfully imperfect submergence of the feminine in the ecclesiastical”, the Wife of Bath asserts her womanhood loudly and aggressively. The second woman pilgrim who is fully described in the Prologue belongs to the middleclass world of expanding trade and industry. Historians of 14th century English society have shown that there was a great expansion of cloth-making and women shared in every branch of the work. In the occupation, therefore, the Wife of Bath is by no means remarkable. Her uniqueness lies in her personality. In her brazen red-stocking, her vast hat she is a glaring contrast to the genteel over-refined Prioress. The Wife of Bath, in fact, conforms to the standard of popular medieval life: noisy, assertive and robust. Her ruddy complexion, her deafness and her widely-spaced teeth give her an emphatic personality such as a few of the pilgrims can rival. She follows her inclinations, which are insatiable and unbridled and which have taken her through five marriages and three pilgrimages. As the opening sentence of the Prologue shows, a pilgrimage was often an excuse of indulging in a love of adventure and uninterrupted gossip and it is hard to see the Wife of Bath as devout. She is, in fact, an aggressive feminist determined to dominate.
As James Winny observes in his edition of the Prologue, the Wife of Bath’s impulses are as overwhelmingly physical as the hips which set her firmly on her horse or as the two-pound cover chiefs which she wears on Sundays. The references to her hips, legs and spurs—none of which the Prioress appears to possess—and the admission that the Wife is “gap-toothed” –all emphasizes the physical nature of the woman. She has a passion for sovereignty and is always a potential record-breaker, in the number of marriages and love affairs. She knows the art and also the remedies of love. She boasts of no fastidious manners and has few social pretensions. A raw spirit of life bears her forward and in this she is the antithesis of the dainty and refined Prioress.