The Prioress’s Tale

relating to the past, imagining the past, using the past: “The prioress’s tale”

emily steiner



emotional encounters with the past

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 At the end of the Shipman’s Tale, the Host chuckles over the story of a monk who sleeps with a merchant’s wife and gets away with it. As he turns to the Prioress, the Host changes his demeanor, addressing that lady “as curteisly as it hadde been a maide” (446) in anticipation of a more decorous tale. Indeed, as we already know from the General Prologue, the Prioress acts the part of a genteel lady who spoils her lap dogs and lisps in French. In the portrait, the contrast between her role as head of a nunnery – a role that should involve charitable works for the human poor – and her “pitee” for trapped mice, comes across as comic.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Figure 1: Nun with lapdog. Maastricht Hours, British Library MS Stowe 17, f. 100r (1st quarter of the fourteenth century)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In her tale, however, the Prioress’s mawkish sentiment is recast as piety and redirected toward the maimed body of a child. The Prioress’s Tale asks, how does feeling like a nun make you a nun? Or to put this question more generally, how does your identity – who you are – depend on the way you express yourself emotionally towards others? For modern readers, these can be uncomfortable questions: how do we reconcile our feelings about the medieval past – and especially our feelings for Chaucer – with the Prioress’s feelings about martyred children, mice, and Jews? Although the tale is deftly told, its heightened emotions often seem too hot to handle. How should we react to its blatant anti-Semitism and full-on religious piety? In the prologue to the Miller’s Tale, the narrator recommends that squeamish readers choose another tale (3176-77). Yet this is easier said than done, if we believe with the Prioress that our emotional responses make us who we are.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 As the Prioress indicates with her allusions to “Seint Nicholas” (514) and “yonge Hugh of Lincoln” (686), the tale draws from the popular genre of saints’ lives (vitae), biographies of people with privileged access to the divine, as well as to a subgenre of saints’ lives, the lives of child-saints.[1] In these stories, the child has a special claim to sanctity, either because he or she is spiritually precocious – the Prioress admires St. Nicholas because “he so yong to Christ dide reverence” (515) – or because he or she dies prematurely, as in the case of Hugh of Lincoln, who was murdered in 1255. Child-saints are supposed to elicit particular emotions, such as tenderness for the child’s age and anxiety for his or her wellbeing. The Prioress stokes these emotions by emphasizing the youth of the singing boy, who “so yong and tender was of age” (524). In three harrowing stanzas, she charts the grief of the boy’s widowed mother. After an anxious night, the mother begins her search at dawn “With face pale of drede and bisy thoght” (589) and with mounting fear as she learns that he was last seen in the Jewry (i.e., the Jewish ghetto): “With modres pitee in hir brest enclosed,/She goth, as she were half out of hir mind” (593-4). In general, medieval saints’ lives strive to move readers to devotion through emotion; if the reader can feel pity, love, or fear for a long-dead saint, he may try to emulate the saint’s piety or pray to him for heavenly intercession. In that sense, the goosebumps raised by such a tale have the potential to shape readers into good Christians: worshipful and repentant.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 In child-saint vitae, as in the Prioress’s Tale, the lives of special children are often cut short by tragic, even sadistic events, which presumably make one’s feelings for them all the more acute. The Prioress’s Tale evokes a further subgenre of children-saints ritually murdered by Jews; in turn, these disturbing stories show us that emotion is always a function of our relationship to the past, whether we understand that past as recent or remote. The most notorious ritual murder cases in England were those of Little Hugh of Lincoln (who ultimately was not canonized) and St. William of Norwich (d. 1144), both of whom were said to have been abducted by Jews and killed in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion. Although these accusations may sound farfetched – and they did not go uncontested by contemporaries – they had real-world consequences for England’s vulnerable Jewish minority. Following the accusation in Lincoln, for example, 18 Jews were executed, and 90 were imprisoned in the Tower of London; in Norwich, a local sheriff saved the community from the mob, but its fortunes declined, as did those of English Jewry as a whole. On February 6th, 1190, the Norwich Jewish community was massacred by a pogrom; in 2004 archeologists unearthed a medieval well, in which they found the remains of 17 members of one, likely Jewish, Norwich family, with the children heaped at the top.[2] In 1290 Edward I expelled all Jews from his kingdom, their property forfeited to the Crown. Jews would not be readmitted to England for 365 years.[3]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 SkeletonsPhoto Credit: BBC

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 The presence of Jews amps up the emotional charge of the Prioress Tale. This is true not only because the Jews are accused of a crime understood to be peculiarly Jewish, but also because they embody a complex relationship between feeling and history, for medieval readers as well as for modern ones. A century after the expulsion, Chaucer’s English reader readers likely experienced Jews as specters, consigned to a baleful past or antagonistic future; or perhaps more potently as “absent presences,” their very absence making them loom threateningly large.[4] To put this idea a different way, the presence of Jews in the Prioress’s Tale reminds us that proximity and distance can wreak havoc with our feelings about other people, and not always in predictable ways. The Prioress, for example, historicizes her presentation of Jews by comparing them to villains from the bible. She maximizes the rhetorical force of these comparisons: the Jews resemble Cain, whom God accuses of murdering his brother Abel in in Genesis 4 (line 575); and King Herod who, in Matthew 2:16-18, is said to have massacred all infants under one year old, trying to rid himself of the newborn Jesus (“O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,/What may youre ivel entente yow availle?” 574-5). Additionally, she links the scriptural past to the narrative present by alluding to recent but unspecified horrors, “as it is notable,/For it is but a litel while ago” (685-86). Even if, after 1290, medieval English readers were unlikely to meet Jewish people in person, their likely proximity to institutions of Jewish culture, such as the remains of synagogues or mikvehs (ritual baths), or books formerly owned by Jews, meant they continued to be in touch with a Semitic “real.”[5] Similarly, writers like Chaucer might expand or contract the time of Jewish enmity in order to meet the emotional demands of a particular narrative. We might ask, in the Prioress’s Tale, how “real” (embodied, recent, or near) do Jewish people need to be in order to provoke an emotional response?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Modern readers’ reactions to the tale, however varied, will presumably be quite different from those of medieval readers. This is in part because 21st-century readers have the opportunity to read the tale alongside the history of European Jewry, which places the ritual murder accusation within a narrative governed by a different set of sympathies and advocating a different course of action (i.e., tolerance, rather than persecution, of religious minorities). Readers might fear for the child and pity the mother, and at the same time be repulsed by the slit throat, the desecration of the body, and the gory execution of the Jews, who, like traitors, are first dragged by wild horses and then hung. They may weep at the wonder of the grain on the tongue, or be silenced by the ontological mysteries, like the living corpse, that are miracle stories’ stock and trade.[6] But they may also feel dismayed by the narrator’s hatred for Jews, and by the thought that medieval readers rejoiced in their punishment. Certainly, the fact that anti-Semitism survives today and continues to generate lurid tales about Jewish conspiracy challenges any easy opposition we might make between medieval and modern morality. A trickier moral problem may lie with the tale’s narrative ethics, the way that it provokes – and coopts – a huge range of emotions in the service of Christian piety. Modern readers, historically-minded, may be shocked more by Chaucer’s representation of Jews than they are by the Jews’ sensational crime. But can anger, shock, or pity, whatever their objects, ever succeed in making readers fully moral or fully modern?


Performing Emotion – Enacting the Past

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Although the Prioress’s Tale looks like a saint’s life the protagonist is not a saint but a nameless boy who goes missing and suffers a martyr’s death (see line 680). His anonymity is part of his appeal: anyone’s child could be abducted on the way home from school. The diminutive language that pervades the tale highlights his generic littleness: this “litel child” attends “a litel scole of Cristen folk” (495) full of “[c]hildren an heep” (497), where he learns to read Latin with his primer (“his litel book lernyng,” 516), just as “smale children doon in hir childhede” (501) What makes this child unique is his intense worship of the Virgin Mary, who, for him, is a second mother.[7] Medieval Marian tales often celebrate the Virgin’s miraculous intervention into the lives of ordinary folk. In the Prioress’s Tale, the miracle is twofold: the boy’s focused piety, expressed by the Marian refrain “Alma redemptoris mater” (Hail, Mother of the Redeemer), and his postmortem singing, masterminded by the Virgin. The wonder of a boy so devoted to Mary that he sings after death unites the town’s Christians in ritual community: the boy’s “litel body swete”, wondrous to behold, is processed to the altar of the abbey church and buried with pomp in a marble tomb (681-2).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 If miracle stories are supposed to trigger feelings – fear, tenderness, anxiety, horror, pity – for the Prioress these feelings are complex because she identifies with different characters in the tale, as a performer and as a supplicant, as a child and as an adult. First, she identifies with the singing boy, whose youthful innocence makes him the ideal worshipper. In the prologue to her tale, she compares herself to a tiny child, less than one year old, who can “unnethes any word expresse.” This comparison might be read as a humility topos – the Prioress is modest about her ability to praise the Virgin (in line 460, for example she claims to be a spiritual infant). But as her tale amply shows, some children are remarkable in their ability to praise God: “for on the brest soukinge/Somtime shewen they thin heryinge” (458-9). By comparing herself to a small child, the Prioress highlights her own ability to perform religious tales and associates herself with the most innocent of beings, a “gemme of chastitee” (609).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Although the Prioress identifies with special children who perform praise, she also identifies with female supplicants who, through their devotion, form an emotional trinity with the Virgin and Child.[8] In later medieval depictions of the Virgin and Child, the baby Jesus, traditionally portrayed as a miniature adult, stiff and regal, became more “baby-like,” chubbier and more playful, and the expression on the Virgin’s face fonder and more tender. The assumption behind such representations is that children are adorable, in the original sense of being “worthy of veneration”; through their startling littleness they convert sentimentality into devotion. In many Virgin and Child images, a third figure joins the group, the donor, beneficiary, or artist, often drawn in smaller scale. Sometimes, as in figure 2, this third person is an abbess, gazing piously at the baby Jesus whom the Virgin dandles on her lap. In her tale, Chaucer’s Prioress inserts herself into such a portrait: she triangulates herself emotionally between the Virgin and the baby Jesus, just as her singing boy is triangulated between his grieving mother and the Virgin. This triangulation of emotion allows for role-playing critical to Christian devotion.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Fig2PatinirFigure 2: Joachim Patinir, “The Virgin and Child with a Cistercian Nun” (1515)

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 The boy, too young to parse the meaning of texts, is content to repeat Alma redemptoris mater, over, and over, and over. This insistence of this refrain, sung even after death, makes him the ultimate performer. The repetition of prayer, whether uplifting or tedious, is liturgy’s triumph over the body, and the boy’s near-pathological commitment to one prayer – to one line even –ushers in the tale’s central miracle: the suspension of death.[9] And yet the act of praising God, the sine qua non of Christian devotion, is itself something of a miracle. Medieval philosophers might say that the ability to praise God is natural: the created, by definition, should praise the Creator; and it is the created body that praises through voice, throat, and bended knee.[10] But they would likely agree that the will to praise God is enabled by divine grace, through which God, like a ventriloquist, performs his own praise.[11] The Prioress puts it this way, “O grete God, that parfournest thy laude/By mouth of innocentz, lo here thy might!” (607-8). This act is all the more wondrous when the body cannot perform praise naturally, either because it is childlike and unformed – or because it is inert and, horribly, dead. In this view, the repetition of prayer is the body’s triumph over liturgy, insofar as it is animated by God.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 For such miracles (the constant singing, the singing corpse) to happen, the body must be breached. In this sense the singing boy recalls the Virgin Mary, whose intact body proves no obstacle to divine penetration; according to the medieval analogy, Mary was pierced by the divine spirit just as the sunbeam shines through glass. The Prioress, comparing Mary to the burning bush of Exodus, which burns but is not consumed, calls attention to the paradoxical body of the performer, sexually intact and yet violated: “O bussh unbrent, brenning in Moises sight” (468). For the Prioress, virginity is essential to sacred performance, yet the tale shows how we come to know the sacred through violence, and more specifically, through the ways in which bodies and spaces are penetrated. To the boy, the Alma redemptoris mater is so sweet that he feels as if he has been stabbed in the heart: the “swetenesse hath his herte perced so/Of Cristes moder that, to hire to preye/He kan nat stinte of singing by the weye” (555-7); and he swears he will learn the hymn even if he is beaten three times every hour for neglecting his primer (542). Like the sweetness of the song, the song takes control, passing unobstructed through the boy’s passive throat: “Twies a day it passed throgh his throte/To scoleward and homeward whan he wente” (548-9). Most significantly, the act which sets the miracle into motion, the slitting of the boy’s throat, both violates the body and is itself breached: the cut obstructs both voice and breath but is itself overcome through divine grace.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The sweetness that pierces the heart, the song that passes through the throat: these phenomena occur in the body of a child who walks twice daily between home and school down a street which cuts through a Jewish neighborhood. This link between the body and the built environment – both passable, both hazardous – is key to the way that the tale fashions its miracle. It also shows that Jews are intrinsic to the tale not just as narrative villains, but also as historical denizens of urban spaces. At the beginning we are told that the Jewish community is propped up by a local lord who permits them to practice usury (lending at interest), a practice that was critical to economic development, but detrimental to Jewish-Christian relations.[12] More sinisterly, we are told that the Jews’ street is freely accessible, but, we are led to suspect, it ought to be closed off, so as not to endanger – or contaminate – the rest of the town: “And thurgh this street men mighte ride or wende,/For it was free and open at either ende” (493-94). This street functions as a narrative “short-cut” and a directional one; when a character takes a short cut, he is sure to meet trouble. And just like the boy’s permeable body, the Jewry, open but straitened, is a site of miraculous performance. From a different perspective, however, the tale is complicit with the centuries-long European project of ghettoizing the Jewish population, constricting its living space and sealing it off. Now, instead of picturing bustling neighborhoods, we remember medieval Jewish communities as one-block affairs, such as Winchester’s Jewry Street and Jewry Lane in Canterbury.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Fig3JewrystreetFigure 3: Jewry Street, Winchester, Photo: ITV Meridian

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 Finally, it is this notion of passage that links performance to poetics in the Prioress’s Tale. The tale is composed of rhyme royal stanza (scanned ababbcc), which Chaucer reserved for elevated stories, heightened emotion, and higher-ranking narrators. Rhyme royal stanzas are stately with enough variation in rhythm and rhyme to capture entire narrative episodes. For example, lines 565-71 encapsulate the scene in which the Jews hire an assassin, who seizes the boy, cuts his throat, and throws him in a pit.[13] Compared to the rhymed iambic pentameter in which most of the Canterbury Tales is written, rhyme royal is stylistically more ornate. Its intricate rhyme scheme, for example, showcases multiple linguistic registers, as we see with the many French-derived, multisyllabic rhymes in the Prioress’s Tale, such as entraille-availle-taille; reverence-diligence; and lamentacioun-processioun. With the Prioress’s Tale, Chaucer proves himself master of this stanza form. He uses it, for instance, to contrast the elevated poetics of rhyme royal and the childishness of the boy, as in the rhyme at 519-20: “As children lerned hir antiphoner;/And as he dorste, he drow him ner and ner.”

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 Rhyme royal is also, like the body, a very material form, its stanzas strung together like the beads on the rosary in the hands of the Christ child (see figure 2). Its stanzas give the impression of text rendered into material objects, just as, with a rosary, one progresses through prayer from one bead to the next. In the case of the Prioress’s Tale, these textual objects are very precious, small wonders like the grain on the tongue or the saint’s tiny body encased in jewels. This transformations of prayer to bead and text to gem are especially resonant in stanza 607-13, which describes the miracle of the singing corpse in lapidary form: “This gemme of chastitee, this emeraude,/And eek of martyrdom the ruby bright.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Notably, Chaucer uses rhyme royal in four tales involving women and children (the Prioress’s singing boy, Constance, St. Cecilia, Griselda), whose innocence and forbearance are tested in frankly abusive situations. Two of these tales are told by nuns, professionally chaste but still violable as liturgical performers. How does rhyme royal highlight the (in)violability of the body? Rhyme royal stanzas resemble the body, at once self-contained and vulnerable. They are bounded by line number and girded by rhyme, like sonnets in miniature with couplets at the close. And yet they make up – and permeate – larger narratives, their rhymes wandering from one stanza to another, as with the repeated rhyme (throte)/note/rote and seye/weye. This dynamic between open and closed forms is exemplified by the Latin refrain Alma redemptoris mater, which travels from stanza to stanza, in various metrical positions: “He Alma redemptoris herde singe” (518); “ ‘O alma redemptoris’ everemo” (554); “He Alma redemptoris gan to singe” (612); and “Yet spak the child, whan spreind was holy water,/And song ‘O alma redemptoris mater’” (640-1).


  • 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  • The Prioress’s Tale offers a tiny window into medieval early education, a subject that historians such as Nicholas Orme have assiduously researched but which remains somewhat out of reach. What is the status of Latin literacy in this tale, as opposed to song, memorization, and performance?
  • 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  • Chaucer uses rhyme royal in several other tales, including the Clerk’s Tale, where the stanzas often create enclosures that are at least as much psychological as they are physical. A well-known example is the stanza sequence in which the marquis, Walter, asks Griselda’s father for his consent to marriage, which Griselda’s poor father feels compelled to grant. How does rhyme royal produce different physical, psychological, and emotional effects in the Clerk’s Tale and the Prioress’s Tale?
  • 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0
  • The last ten stanzas of the Prioress’s Tale take place in an abbey attached to a convent, a community of men or women bound together by canonical rule. The abbot, who presides over the miracle of the singing corpse, is deeply affected by what he sees, and he and the entire convent throw themselves to the ground, weeping and praying. In what other ways does communal religious life play a role in this narrative? How does institutional monasticism, its people, organization and architecture, impact the way the story is told?
  • 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1
  • Some of the Canterbury Tales, such as the Knight’s Tale and the Miller’s Tale, take pains to associate the narrator to the tale, through the framing links (for example, the Miller’s competition with the Reeve) or through genre (the Pardoner, for instance, tells a tale related to the topic of his sermon). Others, such as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, feel as if they could be told by anyone. The Prioress’s Tale, appropriately, is told by a narrator with a strongly pious voice using a poetic form reserved for more elevated speakers and subjects. Is this voice also a strongly gendered voice, and if so, how do we know? Compare the Prioress to the Wife of Bath: how does gender matter to the construction of narrative voice?


24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [1] In what follows I refer to the narrator as “the Prioress”, because her tale-telling voice is so distinctive.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-13855238. Shortly after the discovery, the bodies were given a Jewish burial in Earlham cemetery in Norwich. Perhaps the most horrific documented conflict occurred in York in 1190, where some 150 Jews were murdered in Clifford’s Tower, where they had sought refuge, many of them committing suicide before they could be taken.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [3] For further reading on the history of the Jews in England, see Anthony Bale, Feeling Persecuted: Christians, Jews and Images of Violence in the Middle Ages (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), and The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Robin Mundill, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England (London, Continuum, 2010).

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [4] See Steven Kruger, The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe (University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Sylvia Tomasch, “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Palgrave, 2000), 243-260; Miriamne Krummel, Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present (Palgrave, 2011).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [5] On proximity, Jews, and material culture, see Robert Rouse, “Emplaced Reading, or Towards a Spatial Hermeneutic for Medieval Romance.” in Medieval Romance and Material Culture, ed. Nicholas Perkins (D.S. Brewer, 2015), 41-58.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [6] See Shannon Gayk, “To wondre upon this thyng”: Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.” Exemplaria 22.2 (2010): 138-56.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [7] Though notably neither she nor the widow keep him safe from harm. See Merrall Llewelyn Price, “Sadism and Sentimentality: Absorbing Antisemitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review 43.2 (2008): 197-214.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [8] The real children mentioned in her tale – the singing boy, St. Nicholas, Little Hugh of Lincoln, the innocents slain by Herod – all are closely linked to the Christ child seated in Mary’s lap.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [9] On song, learning, and performance in the Prioress’s Tale, see Bruce Holsinger, Musical Violence and the Pedagogical Body: the Prioress’s Tale and the Ideologies of ‘Song’”, in Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer (Stanford University Press, 2001), 259-94; and Georgiana Donavin, “Chaucer and Dame School,” in Scribit Mater: Mary and the Language Arts in the Literature of Medieval England (Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 163-219.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 [10] Foundational texts are Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 148 in the Confessions, and Basil’s commentary on the same psalm in the Hexaemeron.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 [11] See J. Allan Mitchell on the singing boy as automaton in Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 133.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 [12] Kathy Lavezzo shows how important Jewish moneylending was to the building of Christian churches despite the Church’s prohibition on usury and its demonization of Jewish usurers. “The Minster and the Privy: Rereading The Prioress’s Tale,” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 363-82.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 [13] It is this feature of rhyme royal that makes it useful for retelling saints’ lives, such as the Second Nun’s Tale of St. Cecilia, or romance, such as the Man of Law’s Tale about the itinerant princess Constance, or the Clerk’s Tale, a rags-to-riches story with a long-suffering heroine.

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Source: https://opencanterburytales.com/open-review-home/the-prioresss-tale/