THE PRIORESS’ TALE
In a Christian town in Asia, lived a community of Jews who were somewhat
exploited by the Christians.
In order for the Christian children to attend school, they had to pass
through the Jewish ghetto, but they were free to do so.
One of the younger pupils was not yet acquainted with Latin, but he was
determined to learn a song that the older children sang, “O Alma Redemptoris”.
The young boy soon learnt the song, but did not know its meaning, and he continually sang this out loud on his way to school. He discovered that the song was in praise of the Virgin Mary.
Serpent Satan whispered to the Jews that this song was a direct insult to
their Holy Laws, and it must be stopped.
A few Jews hired a murdered who was to grasp the child and thrown his body into a cesspool. The child’s mother went searching for the boy when he did not return from school, and she made enquiries at the houses of the Jews, but they said that they knew nothing. As if guided by Jesus, she found herself in the alley where her son had been murdered and placed in the pit, and she found his body. The boy was still singing the song and the Christian people gathered round in amazement.
The Jews were rounded up and drawn by wild horses and hanged.
Still singing, the child was taken to the Abbey.
Although he was dead, having had his throat slit, he still sang. When his body was brought into the Abbey, he told the Abbots that Jesus had commanded him to sing until he was buried, and that the Virgin Mary had laid a grain upon his tongue. He will continue to sing until the grain is taken away from his tongue. This the Monks did, and the child gave up the ghost and was laid to rest.
A splendid marble tomb was erected as a memorial to the boy.
This whole episode is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Prioress was
attached to a Convent whose order relied on the patronage of the Virgin Mary.
The Prioress’ prologue is a hymn of praise sung for the Virgin.
The reader needs to understand some history of Medieval England and the
position of Jews at that time.
There was great animosity between Christians and Jews, and as indicated in the Tale, the Jews lived in ghettos in major concentrations of population. Persecution was widespread and the deaths of Jews were numerous. There were particular atrocities carried out in York where in fact Jews had to obtain sanctuary inside Christian churches to avoid death. Tension between the Jewish and Christian communities came to a climax in 1290 when Jews were expelled from England.
Chaucer is retelling a tale used as propaganda to incite hatred against the
Unfortunately, this prejudice is still prevalent today.
Much of the prejudice against the Jewish communities in Medieval England is
founded on jealousy.
Circumstances forced the Jews to live in tight-knit communities, but they helped one another and seemed to be adept in business matters and were thus able to accumulate wealth. There are reports that many Christian leaders used Jewish finance in order to fund various campaigns. The prejudice is also not helped by the use of Jews in certain characterizations in literature such as Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’, and Fagin in Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’.
A solemn atmosphere descended on the Pilgrims after the Prioress’ tale, and
the Host asks Chaucer to tall his tale to liven up the group.
Chaucer responds that he only knows one story which he heard a long time ago.