Madame Eglantine, or The Prioress, is a central character in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Madame Eglantine's character serves as a sort of satire for the day, in that she is a nun who lives a secular lifestyle. It is implied that she uses her religious lifestyle as a means of social advancement. Madame Eglantine is beautiful, graceful, well-mannered and kind, praying with "the elegance of a blissful queen." However, her mispronounced French and strange mannerisms suggest that she was once lower-class. Her story tells of a Christian child slain by Jews and resurrected in a sense by the Virgin Mary, and the story's antisemitism has gained much criticism.
Madame Eglantine is sweet, gentle, and kind. She is selfless, amiable, and is described as being so delicate that she almost seems fragile and breakable. However, she is revealed to be quite coy and secretive. She is nearly the opposite of what a nun was expected to be. While The Second Nun is pious, devout, and faithful to a fault, Madame Eglantine is described to live a surprisingly secular lifestyle. The Prioress owns many expensive things and keeps many lap dogs as pets. She enjoys the company of her dogs more than the company of other people. This implies that she is lonely.
Madame Eglantine considers herself to be of an upper-class. However, it is implied that she is not. Her immaculate appearance, flawless table manners, and speaking of French suggest that she was born into an upper-class family, but details suggest that she was born into a rather poor family with whom she has had no recent contact. Her French is frequently mispronounced, and she seems not to show the devotion to religion that her fellow nuns do; in fact, her lifestyle is quite secular. It is assumed that Madame Eglantine uses her religious lifestyle purely as a means to advance socially.
Imagery & Symbolism
The Prioress's Tale is of a Christian child martyr killed by Jews, a very common theme in medieval Christianity and literature. The tale the Prioress tells has gained much criticism in more recent years for its blatant antisemitism. The tale most likely is referring to the tale of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, another popular tale of a child slain by Jews. It also blends elements of common story of a pious child killed by the enemies of the faith; the first example of which in English was written about William of Norwich, The story also displays Madame Eglantine's devotion to The Virgin Mary, whom she prays to in her prologue. Madame Eglantine seems to be very upset by the child's passing and believes that he should've been allowed to continue singing. This symbolizes her fear of death, which shows her lack of faith. This is fascinating, as she is a woman who lives a life of religion, if only as a means to gain social status