The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Prioress's Tale Analysis

The Prioress’s Tale is outright offensive to modern ears, with its blaming of the local Jews for the murder of a young boy. However, it fits a pattern of tale common in Chaucer’s time, when “blood libels” accusing Jews of murder and other crimes against Christian children were, unfortunately, common. The tale is both of the “blood libel” pattern and also an example of a “Miracle of the Virgin” tale, in which devotion to the Virgin Mary is a common theme.

In addition to these, the tale plays on the common sight in the Middle Ages of the “boy priest.” Traditionally, during St. Nicholas’s Day (December 6), a boy of about seven would be chosen to play the local priest until Christmas Day. During this same time, a special set of songs or antiphons, including the Alma redemptoris, were sung in the Church. The fact that the boy is singing the Alma redemptoris and that he plans to learn it by Christmas Day (when the words Alma redemptoris change slightly) place the tale squarely within the “boy priest” days of the church calendar.

Modern readers are often charged with deciding whether this tale is a case of outdated anti- Semitism that should be left in the dustbin of history, or if it has a deeper meaning. If another reading is possible, it probably lies in the sentimentality of the Prioress herself. We are told in the General Prologue that she will cry over mice caught in traps and spoils her lapdogs by feeding them white bread and milk; her sentimentality over the boy’s death in her tale contrasts coldly with her condemnation of the Jews accused of his death. Whichever way it is read, the key to understanding the tale clearly lies in the details.

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