A Hollow Story of Martyrdom In The Prioress’s Tale

In the “General Prologue” the nun, or “Prioress,” is described as simple and coy. Her name is “madame Eglentyne” and her greatest oath is by “Saint Loy,” or Saint Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths, metalworkers, and coin collectors. Perhaps the Prioress cares deeply for transient physical valuables. At any rate, she speaks French very well, and can sing a sermon beautifully. Her greatest pleasure is in good manners and eating well. She is conservative, charitable, compassionate, and she works hard to imitate courtly customs. She wears a broach with a crown and the letter “A” on it, along with the inscription: Amor vincit omnia (taken from Virgil’s Tenth Eclogue, meaning “love conquers all”).

Her tale opens with a superscript:

Domine dominus noster
(Translated as “Oh Lord, Our Lord”)

And this is followed by a prologue praising the Lord and the “white lylye flour” who bore him. It is a prayer honoring her muse, Mary the mother of Jesus. The prologue is not unlike the invocation of the Muses found in classical literature, such as in Homer. The Prioress addresses the virgin Mary directly and asks for the chance to honor her in this tale.

“The Prioress’s Tale” takes place in Asia. In a certain light, the tale is about the moral character of Jewish people, and since all Jews were banished from England in 1290 the tale must take place far away in Asia. However in another light, the story is a popular folktale and legend. It is intended to mirror the fallacious tales of ‘Little Hugh of Lincoln,’ a child martyr who was popularly believed to have been killed by Jews. The mere mention of ‘Little Saint Hugh’ was likely to raise the ire of Christians the world over.

In her tale, the Prioress tells of a ghetto filled with un-Christian evil denizens, but at the far end of the ghetto lives a group of Christians who run a Christian school for children. Among this group is a widow whose seven-year-old son walks to school everyday. He is taught to honor the Mother Mary and to say a “Hail Mary” on the way to school.

The boy grows in his faith and he preaches his testament of the Virgin Mary throughout the town but an ‘evil Jew’ grows to hate the boy until one day the ‘evil Jew’ slits the boy’s throat and casts him down into a pit. When the boy does not return home his mother frantically searches for him until she finally discovers him in the pit, but miraculously the boy’s dead body is able to sing the Alma Redemptoris. His distraught mother calls upon the local magistrate who immediately puts the culpable Jews to death:

“Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve”
“Evil shall have what evil will deserve” (632)

Thus the Prioress disagrees with the Shipman about the nature of requital for evil. She subscribes to the ‘eye for an eye’ doctrine. While her tale praises the innocence of a child who is wrongfully killed, it also masks her deep desire for bloodthirsty vengeance, as evidenced by the grotesque revenge taken upon the Jews in the tale – they are torn apart by wild horses and then strung up and hung.

There is an odd epilogue to the tale in which the boy sings at his own requiem mass because of a vision the Virgin Mary gave to him about a grain resting on his tongue. When the abbot removes the grain from the boy’s mouth, the boy gives up the ghost.

The Prioress’s Tale is an example of a wooden martyr story that merely regurgitates popular antisemitic prejudices in order to create the illusion of a perfect and innocent hero who is unjustly slaughtered by a cabal of evil men. Unlike the “Man of Law’s Tale,” the Prioress offers no dependable character like Custance. Instead her story is predictable and it takes its cues from “The Physician’s Tale.” Chaucer has presented us with a mostly unremarkable and forgettable tale about martyrdom -a deliberately pitiful defense of the clergy from an unlikable nun.

The tale does not address some of the larger themes discussed by the Knight or the Wife of Bath for example. This level of depth and literary sophistication is lost on the Prioress.

The story is about evil, though in the end we are left to ask why this Prioress holds such malice toward Jews? To what extent does she harbor a certain degree of evil and vengeance herself? She holds a certain view of evil, namely that evil can be equally repaid to evildoers -and she understands this principle to be justice (i.e. doing harm to one’s enemies, as Polemarchus suggests in Plato’s Republic).

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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