Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Prioressí Tale: Prologue

The host politely requests the Prioress to tell a story who gladly agrees to do so. She begins by praising the marvels of God and declares that her story will be about Virgin Mary. The Prioress praises the Virgin as the source of goodness and the balm of souls. She glorifies the Virginís divine power, humility, magnificence, goodness and benignity.

The Prioressí Tale


In a great Christian city in Asia the ruler kept the Jews in one quarter of the city for the purposes of usury. The Christians hated the Jews. A small Christian school for young Christian children stood down the lane of the Jewish quarter.

The school included a 7 year-old boy. He had been taught to always honor the Virgin Mary and to go down on his knees whenever he saw the Virginís image. One day while he was reading his primer, the little boy heard the older children singing "Alma redemptoris" (O Alma redemptoris mater - loving mother of our Redeemer). He drew as near to the older children as he dared and had soon memorized the opening verse. He had no idea about what the Latin meant and one day begged an older friend to explain the meaning. The older boy merely replied that the anthem praised the Virgin and pleaded her to help them when they died. When the young boy learned that the anthem was in praise of the Virgin he resolved to learn the entire words before Christmas so that he could honor the Virgin. He secretly learned the whole anthem with the help of his friend and began to sing it perfectly. He sang the song confidently on his way through the Jewish quarter to and from the school. The serpent Satan poisoned the hearts of the Jews and made them think that the boy sang the anthem to scoff at their religion. The Jews conspired to kill the innocent young boy. They hired a killer who stalked the boy in an alley, slit his throat and threw his body into a drain.

The childís mother who was a widow waited anxiously all night for him to return home. The next morning she went in search of her son and learned that he had been last seen in the Jewish quarter. She looked everywhere for her child and even entreated the Jews to tell her if they had seen him. But the Jews claimed to know nothing about the child. At this moment Jesus in his divine grace directed the widow to the drain in which her sonís body had been thrown. The murdered boy had been granted the power of speech by the Virgin and sang loudly. A huge crowd of Christians gathered to witness the miracle. The cityís magistrate was sent for and upon seeing the miracle he commanded the Jews to be bound up.

The child who was still singing was pitifully carried into a neighboring abbey. His mother fainted near his bier and could not be parted from her dead child. The ordered every Jew who knew about the murder to be put to death by torture. He ordered that they should be torn apart by wild horses and later hanged.

The child continued to sing during the mass. The abbot sprinkled holy water over him and questioned the boy about his ability to sing when his throat had been slit. The child answered that Jesus had *(willed him to sing until his death) and when his death neared the Virgin commanded him to sing the anthem even in death and laid a pearl upon his tongue. The Virgin had assured him that she would take him away to heaven after the removal of the pearl. The saintly abbot then took away the pearl and the child died peacefully. The whole congregation fell prostrate to the ground in praise of the Virgin. A shining tomb of marble was erected in honor of the young boy.


There has been a radical change in the mood after the Sea captainís tale. The Prioressís invocation to the Blessed Virgin establishes a mood of devout exaltation. The Prioressí Prologue to her Tale is aptly suited to her character as a nun. She religiously praises the goodness of the Virgin Mary. This also acts as a connecting link with her tale that describes a miracle of the Virgin.

The Prioress thinks that she is telling a moral tale and appears to be totally unconscious of the immorality embodied in it. She is absolutely certain that she is telling a moral and idealistic tale full of the virtues of innocence and purity while unaware that her tale concerns the barbaric persecution of the Jews.

Anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews) was a widespread feeling in the Middle Ages. Jews had been officially banned from England since 1290. Hatred of Jews took the form of religious fervor and was fuelled by such stories. The first story of this type can be traced to the fifth century to Socrates. The first English story that was written was in 1144 when Jews murdered St. William. However the Church had taken an official stand against such inhuman discrimination and seen the baser economic motive underlying it. Chaucer was widely traveled and more broad-minded than the rest of his countrymen. In The Prioressís Tale Chaucer questions her moral blindness and exhibits sympathy for the Jews.

However Chaucerís intention is not to denunciate the Prioress. He only wished to remind the Englishmen of their inhuman treatment of the Jews. The Prioress has no idea whatsoever that she is telling a tale of questionable ethics and moral blindness. She is a simple - minded woman who cannot understand why the massacre of the Jews is unethical.

While Chaucer exhibits concern for Jews, he does not water down their wickedness in the story. He emphasizes more on the human rather than the supernatural aspect. His main focus is on the young childís devotion to the Virgin.

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