The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis of The Prioress' Tale

Prologue of the Prioress' Tale

The Prioress’ prologue is simply a prayer to the Virgin Mary, worshipping God, and asking her to help the narrator properly to tell of God’s reverence, and to guide the tale as it is told.

The Prioress’ Tale

Once in an Asian town, there was a Jewish ghetto at the end of a street, in which usury and other things hateful to Christ occurred. The Christian minority in the town opened a school for their children in this city at the other end of the same street. Among the children attending this school was a widow's son, an angelic seven year old who was, even at his young age, deeply devoted to his faith. At school he learned songs in Latin, and could sing his Ave Marie and Alma redemptoris, a song giving praise to the Virgin Mary, and pay due reverence to Christ.

As he was walking home from school one day singing his Alma redemptoris, he provoked the anger of the Jews of the city, whose hearts were wasps’ nests made by Satan. They hired a murderer who slit the boys' throat and threw the body into a cesspit.

The widow searched all night for her missing child, begging the Jews to tell her where her child might be found, but they refused to help her or give her any information. Jesus, however, gave her the idea to sing in the place where her son had been cast into the pit: and as she called out to him, the child, although his throat was slit, began to sing his Alma redemptoris. The other Christians of the city ran to the pit, amazed at what was happening, and sent for the provost.

The provost praised Christ and his mother, Mary, and had the Jews tied up. The child was taken up and carried, in a great and honorable procession to the nearest abbey, his corpse singing all the while. The local provost cursed the Jews, and ordered their death by hanging. Before the child was buried, holy water was sprinkled onto him, and he began to speak. The abbot of the abbey questioned him as to how he could sing, and the child answered that the Virgin Mary had placed a grain on his tongue that allowed him to speak. The abbot took this grain from his tongue, allowing him to die, and finally pass on to heaven. The child was buried in a marble tomb as a martyr, and the tale ends with a lament for the young child, but also for “Hugh of Lyncoln” (a real child martyr, allegedly slain by Jews in Chaucer’s day).


The Prioress' Tale is overtly a “Miracle of the Virgin”, a reasonably common Christian genre of literature which represents a tale centered around Christian principles and a devotion to the Virgin Mary, but within the warm affection that the Prioress shows for her Christian faith is a disquieting anti-Semitism immediately obvious to the modern reader in our post-Holocaust times.

The tale is an unabashed celebration of motherhood, and an unapologetic argument for the virtue of Christianity over Judaism, and in most critics’ readings, it partly serves as a grim reminder that anti-Semitism by no means began with Hitler in the Second World War. The guiding figure of the tale is the Virgin Mary, addressed directly in its prologue, who serves both as the exemplar for Christian values and as the intervening spirit who sustains the murdered child before he passes on to heaven. Her mortal parallel is the mother of the murdered boy, who dearly loves her son and struggles to find the boy when he is lost.

The Tale itself, as Seth Lerer has pointed out is "a nightmare of performance..." which "dramatizes just what happens when a performer faces a hostile audience". The little clergeoun of the tale (the child) is an unsuspecting victim, murdered solely because of his eagerness to sing: one of many tales which seems to take as its theme the danger of speaking, the potential danger of words and language, and a warning about what happens to people who open their mouths at the wrong moment (other such tales include those of the Manciple and the Nun’s Priest).

Despite its interest in song and performance, the key question still seems to be whether we are to read the tale as an outdated example of anti-Semitism, acceptable to a medieval audience but acceptable no longer or whether there is another option. If there is, it probably lies in the sentimental presentation of the Prioress’ Tale, and the juxtaposition of the extremely angelic singing seven year old, and the extremely cruel and horrible Jews (who even go to the lengths of throwing the child’s corpse into a cesspit). If we remember that the Prioress is a woman so sentimental that she even cries over a dead mouse, it’s quite a contrast in her personality that she expends such vitriol over the Jews. Perhaps there is some sort of contrast; perhaps the Prioress is intended to be held at arm’s length from Chaucer. The bottom line with this tale is that it entirely depends on your reading of the details.