Given at the session Human-Animal Transformations during the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)
Introduction: Everybody knows what we should think about the Prioress’ love for animals. She steals from the poor by feeding her “smale houndes” roast meat and good bread. And she’s breaking the rules just by keeping pets. As we all know, lapdogs are less appropriately at home in a convent than in the houses of secular noblewomen. The criticism then tends to list a set of prohibitions against conventual pet-keeping, which other articles counter by cataloging the very many nuns who did keep pets. But whatever the actual practice of actual nuns, it’s clear enough that Chaucer’s portrait isn’t praising the Prioress for her dogs. Something is off here.
And then there’s still the weeping, for dogs and even for mice. All this together has produced a steady run of more and generally less sympathetic commentary on her emotions or what’s been called her emotional displays, commentary whose tone seems to modulate according to the critics’ attitude towards both nonhuman animals and women. Marking how her compassion for mice of all things shows her “delicate sensibilities” is perhaps as kind as the criticism gets. Here’s a sample of the others. First, Kittridge, who diagnoses the Prioress’s dogs as a symptom of her “thwarted motherhood.” By observing that the milk, bread, and softened meat the Prioress feeds her dogs matches what Avicenna recommends as a suitable diet for infants, Edward Condren likewise pegs the Prioress as acting out “maternal instincts.” More recently, the animals have been identified as evidence of her stunted psychological development, evidenced elsewhere in her excessive concern for the integrity of own orifices. She’s otherwise been called an insincere show-off, inane, and extravagant, isolated from proper human sentiments. She’s been charged with demonstrating–and this is my last one–“the suppressed sexual instincts of a big girl who has transferred her emotional needs to dogs, rather than to human charity or spiritual devotion.”