The General Prologue: Compare and contrast The Prioress and The Wife of Bath In The General Prologue, Chaucer introduces each of the twenty-nine characters of The Canterbury Tales. The Prioress, being the head of a convent, is a religious woman and, apart from her accompanying nun, the wife of bath is the only other female pilgrim. By going on pilgrimage at all, the Prioress is committing a transgression as the bishops forbade the pilgrimage. Therefore, the simple fact that she figures in the prologue suggests she is not wholly committed to her cause.
The Wife of Bath, by contrast, as a free woman of business had every right to attend. Chaucer introduces the Prioress as the fourth pilgrim illustrating her social status compared to the wife of bath who figures much later, being of the laity. The Prioress’s manner however, does not parallel her position and Chaucer implies her good nature to be superficial. As a nun, she should have sacrificed all of her material possessions on entry to the convent, and she should not pride herself in her appearance. However: “… hardly, she was nat undergrowe.
/ Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war. /Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar /A peire of bedes, guaded al with grene, /And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene… ” She had clearly not forgone her possessions and the brooch she carried held the inscription “Amor vincit omnia” (‘love conquers all’). This is ironic, not at all apt for a nun, and suggests sacred or profane love, subtly implying immorality. Equally, she was “cleped madame Eglentine”, an inappropriate name for a nun, with its sexual connotations and its links with courtly love.
The Wife of Bath is brash and ostentatious, but unlike the Prioress she is honest, and for this honesty Chaucer praises her as “a worthy woman al hir live”. Chaucers use of the word “worthy” is often satirical so cannot always be taken literally, but in this case he seems to be genuinely praising the Wife of Bath despite her flaws. There are suggestions of her promiscuity but Chaucer brushes over her multiple marriages: “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde five, /Withouten oother compaignye in youthe, – /But thereof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe. “