The Prioress's Tale

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The Prioress's Tale, a painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones

The Prioress's Tale (Middle English: The Prioresses Tale) follows The Shipman's Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Because of fragmentation of the manuscripts, it is impossible to tell where it comes in ordinal sequence, but it is second in group B2, followed by Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas. The General Prologue names the prioress as Madame Eglantine, and describes her impeccable table manners and soft-hearted ways. Her portrait suggests she is likely in religious life as a means of social advancement, given her aristocratic manners and mispronounced French. She maintains a secular lifestyle, including keeping lap dogs that she privileges over people, a fancy rosary and brooch inscribed with "Amor vincit omnia" (Love Conquers All).

Her story is of a child martyr killed by Jews, a common theme in Medieval Christianity, and much later criticism focuses on the tale's antisemitism.


The story begins with an invocation to the Virgin Mary, then sets the scene in Asia, where a community of Jews live in a Christian city. A seven-year-old school-boy, son of a widow, is brought up to revere Mary. He teaches himself the first verse of the popular Medieval hymn 'Alma Redemptoris Mater' ("Nurturing Mother of the Redeemer"); though he does not understand the words, an older classmate tells him it is about Mary. He begins to sing it every day as he walks to school through the Jews' street.

Satan, 'That hath in Jewes' heart his waspe's nest', incites the Jews to murder the child and throw his body on a dungheap. His mother searches for him and eventually finds his body, which begins miraculously to sing the 'Alma Redemptoris'. The Christians call in the provost of the city, who has the Jews drawn by wild horses and then hanged. The boy continues to sing throughout his Requiem Mass until the holy abbot of the community asks him why he is able to sing. He replies that although his throat is cut, he has had a vision in which Mary laid a grain on his tongue and he will keep singing until it is removed. The abbot removes the grain and he dies. The story ends with a mention of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, another child martyr whose death was blamed on Jews.


The story is an example of a class of stories, popular at the time, known as the miracles of the Virgin such as those by Gautier de Coincy. It also blends elements of common story of a pious child killed by the enemies of the faith; the first example of which in English was written about William of Norwich. Matthew Arnold cited a stanza from the tale as the best of Chaucer's poetry.

"My throte is kut unto my nekke boon,"
Seyde this child, "and as by wey of kynde
I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon.
But Jesu Crist, as ye in bookes fynde,
Wil that his glorie laste and be in mynde,
And for the worship of his Mooder deere
Yet may I synge O Alma loude and cleere.


The tale is related to various blood libel stories common at the time. One likely influence for the tale was the infamous 1255 murder of a boy in Lincoln who became known as Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. Chaucer's attitude toward the tale is less clear.

The Prioress' French accent is a sign of social climbing, yet her speech is modelled after the Stratford-at-Bow school, not the more desirable Parisian French. She makes her oaths by "Seint Loy" (St. Eligius), the patron of, among others, goldsmiths. The priory of S Leonard at Stratford le Bow was a Benedictine monastery of nuns; her oath was therefore by the patron saint of her monastery. Her overzealousness to her pet dogs and to mice killed in traps is perhaps misdirected in a nun, who might otherwise be serving the poor. She wears a brooch bearing the Virgilian motto 'Amor vincit omnia' (love conquers all)—a dubious maxim for a nun and further illustrates her fascination with courtly love. In addition, the fact that Chaucer chose to set her tale in elaborate rhyme royal, a rhyme scheme generally used in tales of courtly love, seems at odds with her tale's apparent emphasis on simple piety. Thus her portrayal as a character is not wholly positive. In fact, the language and structure of her prologue and tale have led many literary critics to argue that Chaucer is mocking the Prioress.

The Jews were banished from England in 1290, one hundred years before the tale was written and so it had to be set in some unnamed Asian city. This means that the Jews are an even more distant and unfocused evil quality than is usual in such stories. The Physician's Tale is a similar story about an innocent child persecuted by an implacable enemy but without the antisemitic tone.

The Prioress and the Pardoner[edit]

In "Chaucer's Prioress and the Sacrifice of Praise", Sherman Hawkins opposes the Pardoner and the Prioress as the representatives of two radically different forms of religious expression. The Pardoner's materialistic orientation, his suspicious relics and accusations of sinfulness (evident in his conflict with the Host) align him with Paul's account of the "outward Jew, circumcised only in the flesh," rather than the "inward" Jew of Romans 2.29 who is spiritually rather than literally circumcised: "the Pardoner, outwardly 'a noble ecclesiaste,' actually reduces Christianity to a code as rigorous and external as the Old Law itself."[1] In his tale, "the Pardoner presents death as the wages of sin, an effect of justice" while the "Prioress, through the paradox of martyrdom, shows it as mercy, an effect of grace."[2]

In "Criticism, Anti-Semitism and the Prioress' Tale", L.O. Fradenburg argues for a radical rereading of the binary oppositions between Christian and Jew, Old Law and New Law, literal and spiritual in the tale in part to critique the "patristic exegesis" of Sherman Hawkins' earlier interpretation.[3] Fradenburg challenges Hawkins' "elision of the 'literal' or 'carnal' level of meaning in favour of the spiritual"[4] by lingering on those moments in the tale, such as the "litel clergeon's" transgressive rote memorisation of the Alma Redemptoris, in which this elision fails, or succeeds only ambiguously. She traces the impossibility of ultimately separating and opposing Old and New Laws in the "Prioress' Tale" back to a tension between letter and spirit internal to Paul's discourse itself.[5] Fradenburg gestures at a larger project of turning "patristic exegesis" against itself to read the contradictions revealed by the theological subtext of the tale.

Fradenburg notes that the substance of the "Prioress' Tale" can be linked to the "'child-host' miracle of the later Middle Ages" which involved the substitution of the "actual body of the Christ Child" for the Eucharist.[6] Such miraculous tales appear designed to reaffirm faith in the miraculous efficacy of transubstantiation in the face of the pressure of Lollard dissent, which broadly questioned the spiritual status of the Eucharist and other Church traditions: relics, clerical celibacy, even pilgrimages.[7] According to Fradenburg, these miraculous tales operate according to a paradoxical logic in which "visuality and carnality are used to insist upon the superior virtue of that which is beyond sight and flesh." [6] Yet such sacramental materialism remains vulnerable to the kinds of abuse more obviously associated with the Pardoner; Fradenburg cites the case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, the historical episode of the young English Christian supposedly martyred by Jews, "slayn also / With cursed Jewes, as it is notable / For it is but a litel while ago" (VII 684–686), tacked onto the end of the "Prioress' Tale". The tale was intimately bound up with attempts to "aggrandise the spiritual prestige and temporal revenues" of the local cathedral.[8] Thus the vivid "carnality" of the miraculous tale of martyrdom could be deployed as easily to enhance the worldly prominence of the Church as to refute heretical doctrine by reaffirming the spiritual legitimacy of Church rituals. The "Prioress' Tale" may approximate the greedy exploitation of spirituality embodied by The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale insofar as it is indebted to tales of martyrdom circulated for worldly profit.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sherman Hawkins, "Chaucer's Prioress and the Sacrifice of Praise." JEGP 63 (1964), 623 n.
  2. ^ Hawkins 624.
  3. ^ Louise O. Fradenburg. "Criticism, Anti-Semitism, and the Prioress' Tale." Chaucer: New Casebooks. Ed. Valerie Allen and Ares Axiotis. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1996, 203.
  4. ^ Fradenburg 203.
  5. ^ Fradenburg 221
  6. ^ a b Fradenburg 206
  7. ^ A.G. Dickens. The English Reformation. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989, 48
  8. ^ Fradenburg 207

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