Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Prioress’s Tale

From The Canterbury Tales:
General Prologue
lines 118-162: The Prioress

       Ther was also a Nonne, a PRIORESSE,

That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;
120Hir gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy;

And she was cleped Madame Eglentyne.

Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,

Entuned in hir nose ful semely,

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
125After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,

For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.

At mete wel ytaught was she with alle:

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,

Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;
130Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe

That no drope ne fille upon hir brist.

In curteisie was set ful muche hir list.

Hire over-lippe wyped she so clene

That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
135Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.

Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.

And sikerly, she was of greet desport,

And ful plesaunt, and amyable of port,

And peyned hir to countrefete cheere
140Of court, and been estatlich of manere,

And to ben holden digne of reverence.

But, for to speken of hir conscience,

She was so charitable and so pitous

She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
145Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.

Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde

With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.

But soore weep she if oon of hem were deed,

Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
150And al was conscience, and tendre herte.

Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was,

Hire nose tretys, hir eyen greye as glas,

Hir mouth ful smal, and therto softe and reed;

But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
155It was almoost a spanne brood, I trowe;

For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.

Ful fetys was hir cloke, as I was war;

Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar

A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
160An theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,

On which ther was first write a crowned A,

And after Amor vincit omnia.

       There was also a nun, a PRIORESS,

Who, in her smiling, modest was and coy;
120Her greatest oath was but "By Saint Eloy!"

And she was called Madam Eglantine.

Very well she sang the service divine,

Intoning through her nose, becomingly;

And she spoke French fairly and fluently,
125After the school of Stratford-at-the-Bow,

For French of Paris style she didn't know.

At table her manners were well taught withall,

And never let morsels from her lips fall,

Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce, but ate
130With so much care the food upon her plate

That no drop could fall upon her breast.

In courtesy she had delight and zest.

Her upper lip was always wiped so clean

That on her cup no speck or spot was seen
135Of grease, when she had drunk her draught of wine.

Graciously she reached for food to dine.

And certainly delighting in good sport,

She was very pleasant, amiable - in short.

She was in pains to imitate the cheer
140Of courtliness, and stately manners here,

And would be held worthy of reverence.

But, to speak about her moral sense,

She was so charitable and solicitous

That she would weep if she but saw a mouse
145Caught in a trap, whether it were dead or bled.

She had some little dogs, that she fed

On roasted flesh, or milk and fine white bread.

But sorely she wept if one of them were dead,

Or if men smote it with a stick to smart:
150Then pity ruled her, and her tender heart.

Very seemly her pleated wimple was;

Her nose was fine; her eyes were grey as glass;

Her mouth was small and therewith soft and red;

But certainly her forehead was fairly spread;
155It was almost a full span broad, I own,

To tell the truth, she was not undergrown.

Her cloak, as I was well aware, had a graceful charm

She wore a small coral trinket on her arm

A string of beads and gauded all with green;
160And therefrom hung a brooch of golden sheen

Whereon there was engraved a crowned "A,"

And under, Amor vincit omnia.

The Prioress’s Tale: Relating to the Past, Imagining the Past, Using the Past

Emily Steiner

An essay chapter from The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales (September 2017)


Emotional Encounters with the Past

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 had been a mayde” (ShT 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 rank just under that of an abbess)—a role that should involve charitable works for the human poor—and her “pitee” for trapped mice comes across as comic.

Medieval manuscript image shows a nun holding a lap dog
Nun with lapdog. (c) British Library Board, Maastricht Hours, British Library MS Stowe 17, f. 100r (1st quarter of the fourteenth century).
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 your express yourself emotionally towards others? For modern readers, these can be uncomfortable questions: how do we reconcile our feelings about the medieval past—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 (MilT 3176-77). Yet this is easier said than done if we believe the Prioress that our emotional responses make us who we are.
As the Prioress indicates with her allusions to “Seint Nicholas” (PrT 514) and “yonge Hugh of Lyncoln” (684), 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 Crist 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 tendre was of age” (524). In three harrowing stanzas, she charts the grief of the boy’s widowed mother, who after an anxious night, begins to 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 moodres pitee in hir brest enclosed, / She gooth, as she were half out of hir mynde” (593-94). 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 or she may try to emulate the saint’s piety or pray to them 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.
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 that past is understood as recent or remote. The Tale is set in a non-specific “Asia” (as many medieval exempla are), yet we are asked to imagine that location specifically as an English town. The most notorious ritual murder cases in England were those of Little Hugh of Lincoln (and St. William of Norwich [d. 1144]), (neither officially canonized), 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, eighteen Jews were executed, and ninety 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 seventeen members of one likely Jewish, Norwich family, with the children piled 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, but the intervening gap between expulsion and readmittance has affected the way that modern scholars and pre-modern writers interpret medieval stories of anti-Semitic violence.[3]
The presence of Jews in the Prioress’s Tale amps up its emotional charge. 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 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 Genesis 4 (PrT 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 yvel entente yow availle?” [574-75]). 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?
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 (for example, 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? And, we might ask, does the success of the Prioress’s Tale for modern readers depend on a certain view of English history, a history emptied of medieval Jews or haunted by their ghosts?


Performing Emotion—Enacting the Past

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 (PrT 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” full of “[c]hildren an heep” (495; 497), where he learns to read Latin with his primer (“his litel book lernynge” [516]), just as “smale children doon in hire 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 mater redemptoris” (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 sweete,” wondrous to behold, is processed to the altar of the abbey church and buried with pomp in a marble tomb (681-82).
If miracle stories are supposed to trigger feelings—fear, tenderness, anxiety, horror, pity—for the Prioress, then 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” (485). This comparison might be read as a humility topos—tthe 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 soukynge / Somtyme shewen they thyn heriynge” (458-59). 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 chastite” (609).
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 1, a painting of “The Virgin and Child with an Augustinian Canoness” in London’s National Gallery, 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.

Figure 1: Joachim Patinir, “The Virgin and Child with a Cistercian Nun” (1515)
The boy, too young to parse the meaning of texts, is content to repeat Alma mater redemptoris, over, and over, and over. The 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] 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, heere thy myght!” (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.
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, brennynge in Moyses sighte” (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 mater redemptoris is so sweet that he feels as if he has been stabbed in the heart: the “swetnesse his herte perced so / Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye / He kan nat stynte of syngyng by the weye” (555-57); 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 thrugh his throte / To scoleward and homeward whan he wente” (548-49). 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.
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 the strete men myghte ride or wende, / For it was free and open at eyther ende” (493-94). This street functions as a narrative “short-cut” and as 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.
Finally, this notion of passage links performance to poetics in the Prioress’s Tale. The Tale is composed of rhyme royal stanza (rhymed 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 hire antiphoner; / And as he dorste, he drough hym ner and ner.”
Rhyme royal is also, like the body, a material form, its stanzas strung together like the beads on the rosary in the hands of the Christ child (see figure 1).[14] 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 precious, small wonders like the grain on the tongue or the saint’s tiny body encased in jewels. These 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 chastite, this emeraude, / And eek of martirdom the ruby bright” (609-610).
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 bound 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 mater redemptoris, which travels from stanza to stanza, in various metrical positions: “He Alma redemptoris herde herde synge” (518); “ ‘O alma redemptoris’ everemo” (554); “He Alma redemptoris gan to synge” (612); and “Yet spak this child, whan spreynd was hooly water, / And song ‘O alma redemptoris mater’” (640-1).



  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?



Works Cited and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bale, Anthony. Feeling Persecuted: Christians, Jews and Images of Violence in the Middle Ages. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.
— — —. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Donavin, Georgiana. “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.
Gayk, Shannon “‘To wondre upon this thyng’: Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.” Exemplaria 22.2 (2010): 138-56.
Holsinger, Bruce. 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
Kruger, Steven. The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Krummel, Miriamne. Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present. Palgrave, 2011.
Lavezzo, Kathy. “The Minster and the Privy: Rereading The Prioress’s Tale.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 363-82.
Mitchell, J. Allan. Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child. University of Minnesota Press, 2014, 133.
Mundill, Robin. The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England. London, Continuum, 2010.
Price, Merrall Llewelyn. “Sadism and Sentimentality: Absorbing Antisemitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review 43.2 (2008): 197-214.
Rouse, Robert. “Emplaced Reading, or Towards a Spatial Hermeneutic for Medieval Romance.” In Medieval Romance and Material Culture, edited by Nicholas Perkins. D.S. Brewer, 2015, 41-58.
Tomasch, Sylvia. “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew.” In The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Palgrave, 2000, 243-260.
[1] In this chapter I refer to the narrator as “the Prioress,” because her tale-telling voice is so distinctive.
[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.
[3] For further reading on the history of the Jews in England, see Bale and Mundill (below).
[4] See Kruger, Tomasch, and Krummel (below).
[5] On proximity, Jews, and material culture, see Rouse (below).
[6] See Gayk (below).
[7] Though notably neither she nor the widow keep him safe from harm. See Price (below).
[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.
[9] On song, learning, and performance in the Prioress’s Tale, see Holsinger and Donavin (above).
[10] Foundational texts are Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 148 in the Confessions, and Basil’s commentary on the same psalm in the Hexaemeron.
[11] See Mitchell (above) on the singing boy as automaton in Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child.
[12] Lavezzo (above) 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.
[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.

 453        O Lord, oure Lord, thy name how merveillous                   Oh Lord, our Lord, how marvelous thy name
454        Is in this large world ysprad -- quod she --                   Is spread in this large world -- said she --
455        For noght oonly thy laude precious                   For not only thy precious praise
456        Parfourned is by men of dignitee,                   Is performed by men of dignity,
457        But by the mouth of children thy bountee                   But by the mouths of children thy goodness
458        Parfourned is, for on the brest soukynge                   Is made known, for on the breast sucking
459        Somtyme shewen they thyn heriynge.                   Sometimes they show thy praise.

460        Wherfore in laude, as I best kan or may,                   Therefore in praise, as I best know how or can,
461        Of thee and of the white lylye flour                   Of thee and of the white lily flour
462        Which that the bar, and is a mayde alway,                   That bore thee, and is a maid always,
463        To telle a storie I wol do my labour;                   To tell a story I will do my labor;
464        Nat that I may encressen hir honour,                   Not that I may increase her honor,
465        For she hirself is honour and the roote                   For she herself is honor and the root
466        Of bountee, next hir Sone, and soules boote.                   Of goodness, next to her Son, and soul's remedy.

467        O mooder Mayde, O mayde Mooder free!                   Oh mother Maiden, Oh generous maiden and Mother!
468        O bussh unbrent, brennynge in Moyses sighte,                   Oh bush unburned, burning in Moses' sight,
469        That ravyshedest doun fro the Deitee,                   That ravished down from the Deity,
470        Thurgh thyn humblesse, the Goost that in th' alighte,                   Through thy humility, the Ghost that alighted in thee,
471        Of whos vertu, whan he thyn herte lighte,                   By whose power, when he illuminated thy heart,
472        Conceyved was the Fadres sapience,                   The Father's Wisdom was conceived,
473        Help me to telle it in thy reverence!                   Help me to tell it in thy reverence!

474        Lady, thy bountee, thy magnificence,                   Lady, thy goodness, thy magnificence,
475        Thy vertu and thy grete humylitee                   Thy virtue and thy great humility
476        Ther may no tonge expresse in no science;                   There can no tongue express in (the language of) any science;
477        For somtyme, Lady, er men praye to thee,                   For sometimes, Lady, ere men pray to thee,
478        Thou goost biforn of thy benyngnytee,                   Thou goest before because of thy kindliness,
479        And getest us the lyght, of thy preyere,                   And gettest us the light, by thy prayer,
480        To gyden us unto thy Sone so deere.                   To guide us unto thy Son so dear.

481        My konnyng is so wayk, O blisful Queene,                   My ability is so weak, Oh blissful Queen,
482        For to declare thy grete worthynesse                   To declare thy great worthiness
483        That I ne may the weighte nat susteene;                   That I can not sustain the weight;
484        But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse,                   But as a child of twelve months old, or less,
485        That kan unnethes any word expresse,                   That can hardly express any word,
486        Right so fare I, and therfore I yow preye,                   Right so I do, and therefore I pray to you,
487        Gydeth my song that I shal of yow seye.                   Guide my song that I shall say of you.


The Prioress' Tale

Heere bigynneth the Prioresses Tale.

488        Ther was in Asye, in a greet citee,                   There was in Asia, in a great city,
489        Amonges Cristene folk a Jewerye,                   Among Christian folk a Ghetto,
490        Sustened by a lord of that contree                   Sustained by a lord of that country
491        For foule usure and lucre of vileynye,                   For foul usury and shameful profits,
492        Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye;                   Hateful to Christ and to his company;
493        And thurgh the strete men myghte ride or wende,                   And through the street men might ride or go,
494        For it was free and open at eyther ende.                   For it was free and open at either end.
495        A litel scole of Cristen folk ther stood                   A little school of Christian folk there stood
496        Doun at the ferther ende, in which ther were                   Down at the farther end, in which there were
497        Children an heep, ycomen of Cristen blood,                   A good many children, descended from Christian blood,
498        That lerned in that scole yeer by yere                   That learned in that school year by year
499        Swich manere doctrine as men used there,                   Such sort of doctrine as men used there,
500        This is to seyn, to syngen and to rede,                   This is to say, to sing and to read,
501        As smale children doon in hire childhede.                   As small children do in their childhood.

502        Among thise children was a wydwes sone,                   Among these children was a widow's son,
503        A litel clergeon, seven yeer of age,                   A little schoolboy, seven years of age,
504        That day by day to scole was his wone,                   Whose custom was day by day to go to school,
505        And eek also, where as he saugh th' ymage                   And in addition, moreover, where he saw the image
506        Of Cristes mooder, hadde he in usage,                   Of Christ's mother, he had the practice,
507        As hym was taught, to knele adoun and seye                   As was taught to him, to kneel down and say
508        His Ave Marie, as he goth by the weye.                   His `Hail Mary,' as he goes by the way.

509        Thus hath this wydwe hir litel sone ytaught                   Thus this widow has taught her little son
510        Oure blisful Lady, Cristes mooder deere,                   Our blissful Lady, Christ's dear mother,
511        To worshipe ay, and he forgat it naught,                   To worship always, and he forgot it not,
512        For sely child wol alday soone leere.                   For an innocent child will always quickly learn.
513        But ay, whan I remembre on this mateere,                   But always, when I think about this matter,
514        Seint Nicholas stant evere in my presence,                   Saint Nicholas stands ever in my mind,
515        For he so yong to Crist dide reverence.                   Because he so young did reverence to Christ.

516        This litel child, his litel book lernynge,                   This little child, learning his little book,
517        As he sat in the scole at his prymer,                   As he sat in the school at his primer,
518        He Alma redemptoris herde synge,                   He heard `Gracious (mother) of the Redeemer' being sung,
519        As children lerned hire antiphoner;                   As children learned their antiphonal hymns;
520        And as he dorste, he drough hym ner and ner,                   And as he dared, he drew him nearer and nearer,
521        And herkned ay the wordes and the noote,                   And listened always to the words and the notes,
522        Til he the firste vers koude al by rote.                   Until he knew the first verse entirely by heart.

523        Noght wiste he what this Latyn was to seye,                   He knew not what this Latin meant,
524        For he so yong and tendre was of age.                   For he was so young and tender of age.
525        But on a day his felawe gan he preye                   But on one day he did pray his fellow
526        T' expounden hym this song in his langage,                   To explain to him this song in his language,
527        Or telle hym why this song was in usage;                   Or tell him why this song was in regular use;
528        This preyde he hym to construe and declare                   This he prayed him to translate and explain
529        Ful often tyme upon his knowes bare.                   Very frequently upon his bare knees.

530        His felawe, which that elder was than he,                   His fellow, who was older than he,
531        Answerde hym thus: "This song, I have herd seye,                   Answered him thus: "This song, I have heard tell,
532        Was maked of our blisful Lady free,                   Was composed about our generous blissful Lady,
533        Hire to salue, and eek hire for to preye                   To salute her, and also to pray her
534        To been oure help and socour whan we deye.                   To be our help and succour when we die.
535        I kan namoore expounde in this mateere.                   I can explain no more of this matter.
536        I lerne song; I kan but smal grammeere."                   I learn song; I know but little grammar."

537        "And is this song maked in reverence                   "And is this song composed in reverence
538        Of Cristes mooder?" seyde this innocent.                   Of Christ's mother?" said this innocent.
539        "Now, certes, I wol do my diligence                   "Now, certainly, I will do my best efforts
540        To konne it al er Cristemasse be went.                   To learn it all before Christmas is gone.
541        Though that I for my prymer shal be shent                   Though I for my primer shall be punished
542        And shal be beten thries in an houre,                   And shall be beaten thrice in an hour,
543        I wol it konne Oure Lady for to honoure!"                   I will learn it to honor Our Lady!"

544        His felawe taughte hym homward prively,                   His fellow privately taught him (as they went) homeward,
545        Fro day to day, til he koude it by rote,                   From day to day, until he knew it by heart,
546        And thanne he song it wel and boldely,                   And then he sang it well and boldly,
547        Fro word to word, acordynge with the note.                   From word to word, in harmony with the tune.
548        Twies a day it passed thurgh his throte,                   Twice a day it passed through his throat,
549        To scoleward and homward whan he wente;                   When he went toward school and homeward;
550        On Cristes mooder set was his entente.                   On Christ's mother his mind was set.

551        As I have seyd, thurghout the Juerie                   As I have said, throughout the Ghetto
552        This litel child, as he cam to and fro,                   This little child, as he came to and fro,
553        Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie                   Very merrily then would he sing and cry
554        O Alma redemptoris everemo.                    Always `O Gracious (mother) of the Redeemer'
555        The swetnesse his herte perced so                   So pierced his heart the sweetness
556        Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye,                   Of Christ's mother that, to pray to her,
557        He kan nat stynte of syngyng by the weye.                   He can not stop singing by the way.

558        Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,                   Our first foe, the serpent Satan,
559        That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest,                   That has his wasp's nest in Jews' hearts,
560        Up swal, and seide, "O Hebrayk peple, allas!                   Swelled up, and said, "Oh Hebraic people, alas!
561        Is this to yow a thyng that is honest,                   Is this a thing that is honorable to you,
562        That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest                   That such a boy shall walk as he pleases
563        In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,                   In scorn of you, and sing of such a subject,
564        Which is agayn youre lawes reverence?"                   Which is against your law's (due) reverence?"

To test your knowledge of the Middle English, take a
565        Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired                   From thenceforth the Jews have conspired
566        This innocent out of this world to chace.                   To drive this innocent out of this world.
567        An homycide therto han they hyred,                   For this they have hired a murderer,
568        That in an aleye hadde a privee place;                   Who in an alley had a secret place;
569        And as the child gan forby for to pace,                   And as the child began to pass by,
570        This cursed Jew hym hente, and heeld hym faste,                   This cursed Jew seized him, and held him tightly,
571        And kitte his throte, and in a pit hym caste.                   And cut his throat, and cast him in a pit.
572        I seye that in a wardrobe they hym threwe                   I say that they threw him in a privy
573        Where as thise Jewes purgen hire entraille.                   Where these Jews purge their entrails.
574        O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,                   Oh cursed folk of new Herods,
575        What may youre yvel entente yow availle?                   What may your evil intent avail you?
576        Mordre wol out, certeyn, it wol nat faille,                   Murder will come out, certainly, it will not fail,
577        And namely ther th'onour of God shal sprede;                   And especially where the honor of God shall spread;
578        The blood out crieth on youre cursed dede.                   The blood cries out on your cursed deed.

579        O martir, sowded to virginitee,                   Oh martyr, firmly united to virginity,
580        Now maystow syngen, folwynge evere in oon                   Now canst thou sing, following continuously
581        The white Lamb celestial -- quod she --                   The white celestial Lamb -- said she --
582        Of which the grete evaungelist, Seint John,                   Of which the great evangelist, Saint John,
583        In Pathmos wroot, which seith that they that goon                   In Pathmos wrote, who says that they that go
584        Biforn this Lamb and synge a song al newe,                   Before this Lamb and sing a song all new,
585        That nevere, flesshly, wommen they ne knewe.                   (Are) those who never, in a carnal way, knew women.

586        This poure wydwe awaiteth al that nyght                   This poor widow waits all that night
587        After hir litel child, but he cam noght;                   For her little child, but he came not;
588        For which, as soone as it was dayes lyght,                   For which, as soon as it was daylight,
589        With face pale of drede and bisy thoght,                   With face pale from dread and intense thought,
590        She hath at scole and elleswhere hym soght,                   She has sought him at school and elsewhere,
591        Til finally she gan so fer espie                   Until finally she got so far as to discover
592        That he last seyn was in the Juerie.                   That he was last seen in the Ghetto.

593        With moodres pitee in hir brest enclosed,                   With mother's pity enclosed in her breast,
594        She gooth, as she were half out of hir mynde,                   She goes, as if she were half out of her mind,
595        To every place where she hath supposed                   To every place where she has supposed
596        By liklihede hir litel child to fynde;                   Most likely to find her little child;
597        And evere on Cristes mooder meeke and kynde                   And ever on Christ's meek and kind mother
598        She cride, and atte laste thus she wroghte:                   She cried, and at the last thus she acted:
599        Among the cursed Jues she hym soghte.                   Among the cursed Jews she sought him.

600        She frayneth and she preyeth pitously                   She asks and she prays piteously
601        To every Jew that dwelte in thilke place,                   To every Jew that dwelt in that same place,
602        To telle hire if hir child wente oght forby.                   To tell her if her child at all went by there.
603        They seyde "nay"; but Jhesu of his grace                   They said "nay"; but Jesus of his grace
604        Yaf in hir thoght inwith a litel space                   Gave it in her thought within a short while
605        That in that place after hir sone she cryde,                   So that she cried for her son in that place,
606        Where he was casten in a pit bisyde.                   Where he was cast in a pit near by.

607        O grete God, that parfournest thy laude                   Oh great God, who performest thy praise
608        By mouth of innocentz, lo, heere thy myght!                   By mouths of innocents, lo, here is thy power!
609        This gemme of chastite, this emeraude,                   This gem of chastity, this emerald,
610        And eek of martirdom the ruby bright,                   And also the bright ruby of martyrdom,
611        Ther he with throte ykorven lay upright,                   Where he with throat carved lay on his back,
612        He Alma redemptoris gan to synge                   He `Gracious (mother) of the Redeemer' began to sing
613        So loude that al the place gan to rynge.                   So loud that all the place began to ring.

614        The Cristene folk that thurgh the strete wente                   The Christian folk who went through the street
615        In coomen for to wondre upon this thyng,                   Came in to wonder upon this thing,
616        And hastily they for the provost sente;                   And hastily they sent for the magistrate;
617        He cam anon withouten tariyng,                   He came quickly without tarrying,
618        And herieth Crist that is of hevene kyng,                   And praises Christ who is king of heaven,
619        And eek his mooder, honour of mankynde,                   And also his mother, honor of mankind,
620        And after that the Jewes leet he bynde.                   And after that he had the Jews bound.

621        This child with pitous lamentacioun                   This child with piteous lamentation
622        Up taken was, syngynge his song alway,                   Was taken up, singing his song always,
623        And with honour of greet processioun                   And with the honor of a great procession
624        They carien hym unto the nexte abbay.                   They carry him unto the nearby abbey.
625        His mooder swownynge by his beere lay;                   His mother swooning lay by his bier;
626        Unnethe myghte the peple that was theere                   The people that were there could hardly
627        This newe Rachel brynge fro his beere.                   Bring this new Rachel from his bier.

628        With torment and with shameful deeth echon,                   With torment and with shameful death for each one,
629        This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve                   This magistrate had these Jews put to death
630        That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.                   Who knew of this murder, and that immediately.
631        He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.                   He would not tolerate any such cursedness.
632        "Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve";                   "Evil shall have what evil will deserve";
633        Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,                   Therefore with wild horses he had them torn apart,
634        And after that he heng hem by the lawe.                   And after that he hanged them by the law.

635        Upon this beere ay lith this innocent                   Upon this bier always lies this innocent
636        Biforn the chief auter, whil the masse laste;                   Before the chief altar, while the masse lasted;
637        And after that, the abbot with his covent                   And after that, the abbot with his convent
638        Han sped hem for to burien hym ful faste;                   Have hurried to bury him very quickly;
639        And whan they hooly water on hym caste,                   And when they cast holy water on him,
640        Yet spak this child, whan spreynd was hooly water,                   Yet spoke this child, when holy water was sprinkled,
641        And song O Alma redemptoris mater!                   And sang `O Gracious (mother) of the Redeemer!'

642        This abbot, which that was an hooly man,                   This abbot, who was a holy man,
643        As monkes been -- or elles oghte be --                   As monks are -- or else ought to be --
644        This yonge child to conjure he bigan,                   He began to entreat this young child,
645        And seyde, "O deere child, I halse thee,                   And said, "Oh dear child, I beseech thee,
646        In vertu of the hooly Trinitee,                   By power of the holy Trinity,
647        Tel me what is thy cause for to synge,                   Tell me what is thy cause to sing,
648        Sith that thy throte is kut to my semynge?"                   Since thy throat is cut as it seems to me?"

649        "My throte is kut unto my nekke boon,"                   "My throat is cut unto my neck boon,"
650        Seyde this child, "and as by wey of kynde                   Said this child, "and in the natural course of events
651        I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon.                   I should have dyed, yea, a long time ago.
652        But Jesu Crist, as ye in bookes fynde,                   But Jesus Christ, as you find in books,
653        Wil that his glorie laste and be in mynde,                   Desires that his glory should last and be in mind,
654        And for the worship of his Mooder deere                   And for the worship of his Mother dear
655        Yet may I synge O Alma loude and cleere.                   Yet can I sing `O Gracious (mother)' loud and clear.

656        "This welle of mercy, Cristes mooder sweete,                   "This well of mercy, Christ's sweet mother,
657        I loved alwey, as after my konnynge;                   I loved always, according to my ability,
658        And whan that I my lyf sholde forlete,                   And when I had to lose my life,
659        To me she cam, and bad me for to synge                   She came to me, and told me to sing
660        This anthem verraily in my deyynge,                   This anthem truly as I was dying,
661        As ye han herd, and whan that I hadde songe,                   As you have heard, and when I had sung,
662        Me thoughte she leyde a greyn upon my tonge.                   It seemed to me that she laid a grain upon my tongue.

663        "Wherfore I synge, and synge moot certeyn,                   "Therefore I sing, and must sing certainly,
664        In honour of that blisful Mayden free                   In honor of that blissful generous Maiden
665        Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;                   Until the grain is taken off my tongue;
666        And after that thus seyde she to me:                   And after that thus she said to me:
667        `My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,                   `My little child, at that time I will fetch thee,
668        Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.                   When the grain is taken from thy tongue.
669        Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'"                   Be not afraid; I will not forsake thee.'"

670        This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I,                   This holy monk, this abbot, I mean him,
671        His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,                   His tongue pulled out, and took away the grain,
672        And he yaf up the goost ful softely.                   And he gave up the ghost very gently.
673        And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,                   And when this abbot had seen this wonder,
674        His salte teeris trikled doun as reyn,                   His salt tears trickled down like rain,
675        And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,                   And face-down he fell all flat upon the ground,
676        And stille he lay as he had ben ybounde.                   And still he lay as if he had been bound.

677        The covent eek lay on the pavement                   The convent also lay on the pavement
678        Wepynge, and herying Cristes mooder deere,                   Weeping, and praising Christ's dear mother,
679        And after that they ryse, and forth been went,                   And after that they rise, and forth are gone,
680        And tooken awey this martir from his beere;                   And took away this martyr from his bier;
681        And in a tombe of marbul stones cleere                   And in a tomb of clear marble stones
682        Enclosen they his litel body sweete.                   They enclose his sweet little body.
683        Ther he is now, God leve us for to meete!                   There he is now, God grant us to meet!

684        O yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also                   Oh young Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
685        With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,                   By cursed Jews, as it is well known,
686        For it is but a litel while ago,                   For it is but a little while ago,
687        Preye eek for us, we synful folk unstable,                   Pray also for us, we sinful folk unstable,
688        That of his mercy God so merciable                   That of his mercy God so merciful
689        On us his grete mercy multiplie,                   Multiply his great mercy on us,
690        For reverence of his mooder Marie. Amen                   For reverence of his mother Mary. Amen

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