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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE PRIORESS' TALE

The Prioress opens with a hymn to the Virgin Mary, praising her virtues, to introduce a tale in which Mary plays a part.

The tale takes place in a large city with a Jewish quarter. A little boy who loves the Virgin Mary has to walk through the Jewish ghetto to school, where he learns to sing Alma redemptoris, a Latin hymn praising Mary. The Jews conspire to have him killed, and his body, with throat cut, is found in an outhouse the next day by his frantic mother. A miracle occurs: the boy, slit throat and all, starts to sing the hymn he's memorized. When questioned by the abbot, the dead boy says the Virgin Mary put a grain on his tongue, and he won't die until it is removed. The abbot takes it off and the child gives up the ghost. The Jews are dragged by horses, then killed. The Prioress ends with a reference to St. Hugh of Lincoln, allegedly murdered by Jews a century earlier.


It's argued that the Prioress' gentle description in the Prologue is sarcastic in light of this anti-Semitic tale; others say Chaucer is merely repeating an attitude toward Jews that was common in the medieval Church. Perhaps he intends irony in the fact that the Prioress laments over the boy and not the Jews, and that her violent tale is written in the form of a popular pious story praising the Virgin Mary (appropriate for a nun like the Prioress, who sees herself, like many nuns, under Mary's protection).

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