Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Prioress' Prologue and Tale"

Genre: A "miracle of the Virgin," a subset of the medieval saint's legend.  By the C14, Mary has become a kind of "super saint," or "saint-without-portfolio," because of her status as the mother of God.  She is presumed to be the last hope of those whom all other saints can't intervene for, and the divine agent who looks out for those too innocent or powerless to look out for themselves. 

Form: Rime Royale (seven lines of four-stress verse, nearly iambic pentameter, rhyming ababbcc).

Source: The despicable "blood-libel of the Jews," product and cause of a sort of mass hysteria among European Christians that might be called the European roots of the Holocaust.  The most common version is the Childe Ballad, "Hugh of Lincoln."

Characters: The prioress, who is more than a little in motherly-love with her protagonist, the "litel clergeon," a seven-year-old boy who sings "O Alma redemptoris Mater" though he doesn't understand what the Latin means ("O gracious mother of the redeemer"); his "felawe" clergeon who taught it to him; "the Jues" who take offense at his innocent singing and kill him; his mother, who seeks him everywhere; the "Cristene folk" who hear him singing from the privy into which he was thrown with his throat cut; the provost or judge who condemns all the Jews to death; the abbot who sprinkles the boy with holy water to induce him to tell his tale; and the Blessed Virgin Mary, by whose power he sang with "throte ykorven" because of a "grene" she laid upon his tongue (VII.611, 662).

Summary: The prioress says she must recite her tale with the voice of a twelve-year-old to attain the purity of its message.  The boy sings, in ignorance, a hymn to the Virgin.  Jews, offended by his singing in their ghetto, kill him and hide the body in a latrine.  The boy sings on, powered by the Virgin's gift of a tiny grain she has laid on his tongue, though his throat is cut.  The crime is discovered, all the Jews who knew of the murder are executed, the boy tells his story under the influence of holy water, and the abbot removes the grain from his tongue so he may die and be restored to Heaven.

Interpretive Issues:

1)   "Prioress's Tale" is a critical puzzle as daunting as the bizarre quality and end of "Squire's Tale" or "Cook's Fragment," and as morally/ethically difficult (or more so!) as the self-disparaging "churles tales" (Miller, Reeve, Cook, Friar, Summoner) and the bourgeois and aristo mocking tales told by the Shipman, Merchant, and Franklin.  Our sweet little Prioress, whose "General Prologue" portrait promised a delicate sensibility that could be shocked by coarse language and driven to tears by a mouse in a trap, tells a "Miracle of the Virgin" in which Our Lady participates in the notorious Christian "blood libel" of the Jews.  She tells the pilgrims that a people whose dietary standards are famously restrictive will murder Christian children during Passover as a blood sacrifice.    The tale is composed in beautifully formed rime royal stanzas, rhyming ababbcc, a possible source of Spenser's concatenated sonnet stanza (ababbcbccdcdee).  The Prioress's prologue emphasizes the extraordinary innocense that she will need to tell this tale, asking for the voice of a twelve-year-old child, and makes the young martyr so innocent that he sings the hymn to the Virgin without knowing what its Latin words mean.  This is by no means an impossibility--see the "GP" on the Summoner's law Latin--and may have been a way young choir boys were taught to sing long before they could construe their Latin.  Harking back to the "Summoner's Tale"'s emphasis on the spirit vs. the letter of the sacred text, does a child who sings faithfully a beautiful song whose words he cannot understand perform more in "spirit" or more the mere "letter" of that song?  Then there are the charicatured "Jews" who, like the "Man of Law's Tale"'s "Muslims," are routinely in touch with Satan who inspires their evil deeds.  Shiela Delaney has presented evidence that Chaucer likely knew both Jews and Muslims as a result of his European travels, unlike most English people who would have known only Christians since the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1215.  ("Chaucer's Prioress, the Jews, and the Muslims."  Medieval Encounters.  5:2 [July 1999] 198-214.  Available online via EbscoHost:,ip,url,uid&db=aph&an=5783536.)  Does this tale tell us more about the Prioress than about her author?

2) Is this tale anti-Semitic?  The critics have made more progress with this question since I first read it in the 1960s, when anti-Semitism wasn't "nice" to detect.  The second problem is tougher: is the anti-Semitism Chaucer's or the Prioress's, and if the latter, does Chaucer approve or condemn it?  (See Delaney's article, below, for a quick summary of the historical evidence for Chaucer's familiarity with both Jews and Muslims.)

3)  The prologue suggests that the Prioress is seriously concerned with the problem of innocence, identified by Christian tradition (and also by her own powerful drives?) with children.  Chaucer's GP has gone to unusual lengths to complicate her character, avoiding the typical short descriptive tags like "the best prioress in the world" or "a prioress so good that..." which would effectively forestall questioning her goodness.  The GP specifically calls to mind not her piety, but rather her dining habits, her treatment of pets, her expenditure of the priory's funds on luxuries, her attention to non-religious pastimes, and her sentimentality.  The GP narrator, "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim," pays great attention to her physical appearance, an unseemly focus for a secular man observing a nun and not like the attention he gives her female, cloistered companion, the "Second Nun" (see the "Second Nun's Tale").  By doing so, Chaucer has complicated both her character and his narrator's.   When the tale gets under way, she several times mentions the name of the tune the boy sings, but never utters the key final word of its opening phrase (VII.518, 554, 612).  Only when the boy sings under the influence of the holy water does the full phrase escape her (VII.641).  What's going on with this lady?

4 The boy's singing the text without knowledge is understood to be full of religious power.  What has this to do with the state of Christian congregations in England, and with the Prioress's notion of the relationship between faith and knowledge?

5At lines VI.642-3, the Prioress takes a sudden swerve toward the characters of monks.  Why?

6)  The "greyn" that gives the clergeon the power of song relates to the notion of words as seeds, popular in gnostic philosophical tradition.   It also survives in a parable.  What is it about, and how might it relate to the doctrinal significance of the issue in #3, above?

7 Mary also is a primary figure in the allegorical poem, "Pearl," also written in this era by the anonymous poet known variously as the "Pearl-Poet" or the "Gawain-Poet," depending on whether "Pearl" or "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is your favorite.   This is the only example of intense "Mariolotry" (to give it its scornful Protestant name) in Chaucer.  When he prays in his own persona, he tends to emphasize the Trinity, and especially Jesus.  What does this suggest about the "Prioress' Tale"?

8)  What of the Prioress, herself, as described in the "General Prologue" portrait.  How does the teller's identity affect our interpretation of this tale?  Clearly this is a woman whose worldly interests conflict with her clerical duties on a number of levels (her fine food, her jewelry, her little dogs, and her concern for the sound rather than the substance of the Mass).  Are these extraordinary failings, or ordinary foibles commonly found among nuns?  See Eileen Power's Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275-1535 for specific contextual help.  Powers covers all of those topics and more.  (The table of contents is your fastest guide of the Project Gutenberg edition linked above, but a Control F search for specific terms will bring you quickly to her evidence.)

Critical Articles:

Delaney, Sheila.  "Chaucer's Prioress, the Jews, and the Muslims."  Medieval Encounters.  5:2 (July 1999) 198-214Available online via EbscoHost: durable URL,ip,url,uid&db=aph&an=5783536

        Using evidence from historical sources, Delaney argues for Chaucer's likely familiarity with both Jews and Muslims, based on his international travel and the wide distribution of diaspora Jews in Medieval Europe.  She also takes on the problematic relationship between the poet, the inscribed narrator (the Prioress), and the tale's anti-Semitism.

Despres, Denise, L.  Cultic Anti-Judaism and Chaucer's Litel Clergeon, Modern Philology, Vol. 91, No. 4 (May, 1994) 413-427.  Web.  MLA Bibliography and JSTOR.  Stable URL: 

Oliver, Kathleen M.  "Singing Bread, Manna, and the Clergeon's 'Greyn'"  The Chaucer Review 31:4 (1997) 357-64.  Web.  MLA Bibliography

    Oliver makes a good case that the medieval audience would have assembled various clues in the tale to deduce that the "greyn" on the boy's tongue, the Virgin's mechanism for enabling him to sing, represents the heavenly manna that fed the Jews in their wandering, and the consecrated host of the communion wafer which the priest places on the tongues of parishioners to ceremonially link them to God.

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