Chaucer’s costume rhetoric in his portrait of the Prioress

Chaucer’s costume rhetoric in his portrait of the Prioress

Laura F. Hodges

Doctor of Philosophy, Rice University, March (1985) 


In Chaucer’s General Prologue there is a complex cultural code embodied in costume signs which, when decoded, enriches our perception of his portraits. Critics have never discussed the costume signs in Chaucer’s portrait of The Prioress’s Tale with consideration given, simultaneously, to contemporary historical records, literature, and visual arts that inform these signs. It is the purpose of this dissertation to begin a study of the Prioress with an examination of her costume and Chaucer’s costume rhetoric, an approach opposite to the traditional approach that first assesses the Prioress’ character as deserving mild satire and refers to her garments and accessories as supporting evidence. In contrast, this study demonstrates that Chaucer’s costume rhetoric portrays the Prioress in appropriate costume according to late fourteenth-century standards.

To this end, Chapter I refutes the criticism of impropriety in the Prioress’ headdress, providing the background for appraisal by examining convent rules, visitation records, wills, and Sumptuary Laws. In addition, an analysis of literary treatment of nuns’ headdresses, with special attention to rhetorical traditions of the description of womanly beauty, traditions that parallel those of the visual arts in presenting depictions of beautiful ideals as lovely women, reveals that Chaucer’s description of the Prioress’ headdress conforms to these ideals. Chapter II establishes the propriety of the Prioress’ cloak with evidence from historical records, literature, and the visual arts. This cloak is bien fait, according to historical data; further analysis of the literary treatment of nuns’ habits demonstrates that Chaucer follows the pattern of Le Roman de la Rose in its presentation of hypocrits whose actions belie their proper costumes. Evidence from medieval visual arts further supports the thesis of the Prioress’ proper cloak. The Prioress’ rosary and brooch are analysed, in Chapter III, and found appropriate for a prioress and pilgrim, according to historical, scientific, literary, and religious data. Contemporary iconographic traditions support this interpretation of Chaucer’s costume rhetoric. Chaucer’s eclectic costume rhetoric places the Prioress within religious, artistic, literary, scientific, and historical traditions; analysis of this rhetoric enables us to separate her proper exterior from her actions, thus providing kaleidoscopic views of the Prioress.

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