[In far-off Asia a little child walks through the ghetto on his way to school, singing Alma redemptoris as he goes. The Jews, outraged, hire a homicide who seizes the child, cuts his throat, and throws the body in a privy. The child's distraught mother searches for him throughout the ghetto. Wondrously the child begins to sing; the provost comes, puts the Jews to death, and has the child carried to the church. There the child explains that the Virgin Mary laid a grain upon his tongue and he will sing until it is removed. When the grain is removed the child gives up the ghost. He is buried as a martyr.]
(Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful).The Prioress' Tale is a "miracle of the Virgin," a popular genre of devotional literature. The stories are short, often like children's fairy tales, with the figure of the Jew playing the part of the "boogie man," from whom the Virgin, like a fairy godmother, protects the heroes and heroines.
The particular story that Chaucer uses was quite popular, and it survives in a number of versions. Typical is that preserved in the Vernon Manuscript:
Vernon version (modernized).
This tale is among the most tender in The Canterbury Tales ; the brief vignette of life in a fourteenth-century grammar school is an exquisite touch. It appealed especially to nineteenth-century poets and critics. Matthew Arnold used a line from it to illustrate Chaucer's finest verse, and William Wordsworth translated it into modern English.
Yet, as Wordsworth wrote, this tenderness is set in a context of "fierce bigotry." The tale is violently anti-semitic. It is rooted in the ancient and persistent "blood libel," the story of Jews murdering Christian children. Medieval popes denounced the libel and urged tolerance for the Jews. For example, Gregory X's Letter on the Jews (1271-76) is unambiguous in its condemnation of this "miserable" pretext for persecution. In 1419 Pope Martin V unequivocally condemned such violence. (For further examples see the section on Medieval Jewish Life in Paul Halsall's very useful Internet Medieval Sourcebook.)
Despite the teaching of the Popes, anti-semitism remained a permanent feature of medieval life; and Chaucer repeats the calumny. Critics, eager to shift the blame away from Chaucer, have maintained that the Prioress, not Chaucer, is responsible for the anti-semitism of the tale. The Prioress, they argue, is a bad nun and her tale is proof of that fact. Yet the Prioress probably knew no Jews (they were expelled from England in 1290) and they exist for her mainly as a literary convention of the "miracles of the Virgin." The well-travelled Chaucer has no such excuse. As The Riverside Chaucer, p. 16, puts it: "Chaucer was a man of his time, sharing its faults as well as its virtues."
For a recent view of this problem, see:
Philip S. Alexander, "Madam Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism,"Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester 74 (1992), 109-20.
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