Canterbury Tales And Prioress

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in approximately 1385, is a
collection of twenty-four stories ostensibly told by various people who are
going on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral from London, England.


Prior to the actual tales, however, Chaucer offers the reader a glimpse of
fourteenth century life by way of what he refers to as a General Prologue. In
this prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are involved in this
imaginary journey and who will tell the tales. Among the characters included in
this 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 and
then there are characters that he makes fun of. The prioress, with her false
sense of airs and piousness is one of these. Throughout Chaucer’s prologue and
the prioress’ tale, we are shown what this so-called religious person is really
about. Chaucer’s initial introduction to the Prioress is as follows: “There
was also a nun, a prioress, Who, in her smiling, modest was and coy; Her
greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!” And she was known as Madam
Eglantine. Full well she sang the services divine,” (118) At first, one
would think that Chaucer’s description will be as flattering as that of the
knight but soon enough we see the total opposite because at first Chaucer
describes her as a delicate and well-mannered woman. “At table she had been
well taught withal, And never from her lips let morsels fall, Nor dipped her
fingers deep in sauce, but ate With so much care the food upon her plate That
never driblet fell upon her breast. In courtesy she had delight and zest”.

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(127) But soon Chaucer’s description turns to one of sarcasm because the
prioress 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 the
look Of courtliness, and stately manners took, And would be held worthy of
reverence.” (139) This is especially bad, because nuns are not supposed to
act this way. You can clearly tell that although she was brought up in a
well-to-do family, there is no connection between how she acts and the religious
dedication she is supposed to be showing. The Prioress wore a coral trinket on
her 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 had
many valuable possessions. Also, the Prioress traveled with another nun and
three priests, showing she was respected. Chaucer states that she speaks
school-taught French instead of “Paris style” French. She would like
to appear sympathetic and tender and charitably solicitous. “That she would
weep if she but saw a mouse, Caught in a trap, though it were dead or
bled”. (144) This appearance will soon change as soon as we hear the tale
she tells. The tale she tells is about the murder of a small child at the hands
of 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 a
rich lord of the state For usury and gain of ill renown, Hateful to Christ and
those who are His own;” (203) The Prioress tells a tale set in an Asian
town dominated by Jews. The Christian minority in the town opened a school for
their children in this city. Among these children was a widow’s son, a seven
year old who was, even at his young age, was already deeply devoted to his
faith. At school he learned a song in Latin called the Alma Redemptoris. The
song was meant to praise the Virgin Mary. As he was walking home from school one
day singing this song, he provoked the anger of the Jews of the city, whose
hearts were possessed by Satan. They hired a murderer who slit the boys’ throat
and 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 to
help. When she found him, although his throat was slit, he began to sing the
Alma Redemptoris. The other Christians of the city rushed to the child and
carried him to the abbey. The local provost cursed the Jews who knew of this
murder and ordered their death by hanging. Before the child was buried, he began
to speak. The Virgin Mary had placed a pearl on his tongue that allowed him to
speak, despite his fatal wound, but when the pearl was removed he would finally
pass on to heaven. The story ends with a lament for the young child and a curse
on the Jews who perpetrated this crime. The Prioress’ Tale shows an overtly
religious person centered around Christian principles and a devotion to the
Virgin Mary, but within the affection that the Prioress shows for her Christian
faith is a disquieting anti-Semitism that will be immediately obvious anybody
who reads the tale. The Prioress’ Tale is full of shallow sentimentalism and
vicious bigotry. The child is angelic, at seven years old more devoted to
Christian teachings than any of the clergymen throughout the Canterbury Tales.


The final moments of the tale in which the Virgin Mary sustains him after his
throat is slit are a shameless exploitation meant to engineer false tears. The
Prioress extends warmth and sympathy only to the mother and her child, while
heaping unabashed vitriol upon the Jews of the city, who are portrayed as
nothing less than allies of Satan. The details of the murder are gruesome: the
child is murdered for singing the praises of the Virgin Mary and dumped in a
pool of excrement. The logical conclusion of this tale is the Prioress’ curse on
the Jews for their actions. The Prioress is a grotesque comic character and the
tale conforms to the portrait that Chaucer offers in the General Prologue.


Chaucer describes the Prioress as a foolishly sentimental woman who would weep
over the death of a small mouse. She can extend her sympathy to small children
and 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 on
anti-Semitism, for it would project modern liberal sensibilities into Chaucer’s
work, the tale certainly condemns the Prioress for her cheap emotional
responsiveness.

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