The religious superior in certain houses of religious women. The word prioress is derived from the late medieval Latin word priorissa, which was certainly not in common use before the 11th century. This word was used to designate three kinds of superior: the claustral prioress, who assisted the abbess in government of the abbey; the prioress of a dependent house; and the prioress of an independent or conventual priory. The Benedictine prioresses of medieval England were often sophisticated aristocrats, as may be gathered from Chaucer's caricature, The Prioress, which was probably meant to represent the wealthy superior of an independent Benedictine house. The terminology has been preserved into modern times not only by the Benedictines and Cistercians, but also by the later medieval foundations that have survived: the Dominican nuns, the Poor Clares, the Carmelite nuns, the various congregations of the Canonesses Regular, and the Bridgettines.
Bibliography: e. e. power, Medieval English Nunneries (New York 1964).