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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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Chaucer's Prioress is first described in the Canterbury Tales' General Prologue in rather sweet and definitely sympathetic terms. She is "a Nonne, a Prioress" whose smile was "symple and coy." In our day we consider "coy" to be a somewhat derogatory term, but in Chaucer's time it just meant "quiet." Her Christian name is Eglentyne (in Chaucer's day, an upper-class name), and she was obviously born into money. Her table manners are impeccable, she speaks French (although it is British-taught French, not the native kind), and she sings the divine service thinly, in her nose, as if to sing too lustily would be thought bad form. She wears "beads" (a necklace, not a rosary, as rosaries were unknown before the fifteenth century) from which is suspended a gold brooch engraved with the words "Amor vincit omnia" (Love Conquers All).

But most interestingly for our purposes, she has the sentimental view of small animals common to people who keep them as pets; Chaucer tells us "she wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous/ Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde" (she would weep, if she saw a mouse caught in a trappe, if it were dead or bleeding). She herself keeps "smale houndes" (small hounds) which she feeds table scraps, and she becomes very upset if someone treats them roughly. All in all, Chaucer tells us, she was the epitome of "conscience and tendre herte.'

However, these little sentimentalisms become disturbing when she starts to tell her tale. In this story, a little boy who has comforted himself on the way to school by singing hymns to the Virgin is set upon by a gang of Jews and murdered. Not a pleasant story, to be sure, but what is most shocking to modern sensibilities is the virulence of the Prioress' anti-Semitism.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Christians and Jews during the Middle Ages did not have a completely cordial relationship, at least partly due to the medieval Church's teaching that it was the Jews who were ultimately responsible for Christ's death. As the Prioress correctly points out, Jewish ghettoes were "tolerated" in many overwhelmingly Christian areas because Jews could provide services that Christians were forbidden to engage in by canon law -- among others, moneylending at interest. However, it is equally well-known that many Christian merchants were more than willing to work with Jews in this capacity, and Jewish bankers were more than willing to let them. While this fell far short of full acceptance, a working dialogue did exist between European Christians and Jews in medieval times.

But you would never know this from the "Prioress' Tale." From the very first words of the tale, she makes her bias plain; she tells us that Satan "hath in Jues here his waspes neste" (has in Jews here his wasp's nest), and that they are in such easy commerce with Satan that the Deceiver is able to incite their wrath against the hapless little boy.

The child, who after the attack has been thrown in a pit, is only found because the Virgin Mary has placed a "greyn" (presumably a seed of some kind) on his tongue which enables him to sing the song that got him in so much trouble to begin with, and this attracts his mother to his location. After he is found, the Jews who murdered him are not only drawn and quartered between wild horses, but afterwards hung "by the lawe.'

Whether capital punishment for murderers (of any ethnic or religious background) is appropriate is not the subject of this essay. But it appears a little unseemly that this "symple" Prioress, who has such a sentimental attachment to the least of God's creatures that she begins to cry when she sees a mouse caught in a trap, should so graphically describe the murder of a child and unabashedly relish the torture of Jews.

What evidence exists that Chaucer did not share her viewpoint? He doesn't specifically say, but it seems very likely that the Prioress' compassion for animals as well as her gold necklace are thrown into the story precisely to draw attention to this paradox. Eglentyne's necklace, remember, is engraved with the words "Love Conquers All." Cannot love conquer one's intolerance for the ethnic group to which not only Christ and the Apostles, but also the Virgin Mary, belonged? And cannot a woman who weeps for mice caught in traps build a bridge of understanding with other human beings? What kind of spirituality does this woman have if such an extension is impossible? The other pilgrims may think the Prioress is "charitable," but I would suggest that Chaucer does not.

This story can be found in "The Canterbury Tales."

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