Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in approximately 1385, is acollection of twenty-four stories ostensibly told by various people who aregoing on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral from London, England.
Prior to the actual tales, however, Chaucer offers the reader a glimpse offourteenth century life by way of what he refers to as a General Prologue. Inthis prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are involved in thisimaginary journey and who will tell the tales. Among the characters included inthis introductory section is a Nun, or a Prioress. Throughout Chaucer’s tale,there are characters which he seems to admire greatly, such as the knight andthen there are characters that he makes fun of. The prioress, with her falsesense of airs and piousness is one of these. Throughout Chaucer’s prologue andthe prioress’ tale, we are shown what this so-called religious person is reallyabout. Chaucer’s initial introduction to the Prioress is as follows: “Therewas also a nun, a prioress, Who, in her smiling, modest was and coy; Hergreatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!” And she was known as MadamEglantine. Full well she sang the services divine,” (118) At first, onewould think that Chaucer’s description will be as flattering as that of theknight but soon enough we see the total opposite because at first Chaucerdescribes her as a delicate and well-mannered woman. “At table she had beenwell taught withal, And never from her lips let morsels fall, Nor dipped herfingers deep in sauce, but ate With so much care the food upon her plate Thatnever driblet fell upon her breast. In courtesy she had delight and zest”.
(127) But soon Chaucer’s description turns to one of sarcasm because theprioress is pretentious and is trying very hard to look the part of refinement,when it is all clearly superficial. “She was at pains to counterfeit thelook Of courtliness, and stately manners took, And would be held worthy ofreverence.” (139) This is especially bad, because nuns are not supposed toact this way. You can clearly tell that although she was brought up in awell-to-do family, there is no connection between how she acts and the religiousdedication she is supposed to be showing. The Prioress wore a coral trinket onher arm, had a rosary that was colored in green, and a gold broach which said”Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All)”, depicting a nun who still hadmany valuable possessions. Also, the Prioress traveled with another nun andthree priests, showing she was respected. Chaucer states that she speaksschool-taught French instead of “Paris style” French. She would liketo appear sympathetic and tender and charitably solicitous. “That she wouldweep if she but saw a mouse, Caught in a trap, though it were dead orbled”. (144) This appearance will soon change as soon as we hear the taleshe tells. The tale she tells is about the murder of a small child at the handsof Jews who loathe the child for singing about the Virgin Mary. “In Asia,in a city rich and great There was a Jewry set amidst the town, Established by arich lord of the state For usury and gain of ill renown, Hateful to Christ andthose who are His own;” (203) The Prioress tells a tale set in an Asiantown dominated by Jews. The Christian minority in the town opened a school fortheir children in this city. Among these children was a widow’s son, a sevenyear old who was, even at his young age, was already deeply devoted to hisfaith. At school he learned a song in Latin called the Alma Redemptoris. Thesong was meant to praise the Virgin Mary. As he was walking home from school oneday singing this song, he provoked the anger of the Jews of the city, whosehearts were possessed by Satan. They hired a murderer who slit the boys’ throatand threw the body into a cesspool. The widow searched for her missing child,begging the Jews to tell her where her child might be found, but they refused tohelp. When she found him, although his throat was slit, he began to sing theAlma Redemptoris. The other Christians of the city rushed to the child andcarried him to the abbey. The local provost cursed the Jews who knew of thismurder and ordered their death by hanging. Before the child was buried, he beganto speak. The Virgin Mary had placed a pearl on his tongue that allowed him tospeak, despite his fatal wound, but when the pearl was removed he would finallypass on to heaven. The story ends with a lament for the young child and a curseon the Jews who perpetrated this crime. The Prioress’ Tale shows an overtlyreligious person centered around Christian principles and a devotion to theVirgin Mary, but within the affection that the Prioress shows for her Christianfaith is a disquieting anti-Semitism that will be immediately obvious anybodywho reads the tale. The Prioress’ Tale is full of shallow sentimentalism andvicious bigotry. The child is angelic, at seven years old more devoted toChristian teachings than any of the clergymen throughout the Canterbury Tales.
The final moments of the tale in which the Virgin Mary sustains him after histhroat is slit are a shameless exploitation meant to engineer false tears. ThePrioress extends warmth and sympathy only to the mother and her child, whileheaping unabashed vitriol upon the Jews of the city, who are portrayed asnothing less than allies of Satan. The details of the murder are gruesome: thechild is murdered for singing the praises of the Virgin Mary and dumped in apool of excrement. The logical conclusion of this tale is the Prioress’ curse onthe Jews for their actions. The Prioress is a grotesque comic character and thetale conforms to the portrait that Chaucer offers in the General Prologue.
Chaucer describes the Prioress as a foolishly sentimental woman who would weepover the death of a small mouse. She can extend her sympathy to small childrenand other easy targets, but cannot find room for true mercy or compassion.
Although it would be a mistake to consider the tale as an overt attack onanti-Semitism, for it would project modern liberal sensibilities into Chaucer’swork, the tale certainly condemns the Prioress for her cheap emotionalresponsiveness.