Chaucer’s Prioress: Ignorance and Religious Violence

(x-posted to The Valve)

Who’s up for a little Chaucer?

Thanks to Eileen Joy’s new post, over at In The Middle, about “The Prioress’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, I’ve been thinking about Chaucer again, and the accusations of anti-Semitism that continue to haunt him. I’ve also been thinking about how religious institutions produce internal conflicts, after following the furious argument about Christianity taking place between LarvalSubjects and the writers at An und für sich. These internal conflicts are not unlike the debates within academia, or the “autoimmunity” of democratic states, a Derridean thesis I explored in an earlier post. They have never been outside of the church, as Chaucer himself was not; instead, such tensions create an institutional conscience.

My argument is simple. The Prioress’s tale is a subtle and virulent attack on religious violence. It does condemn the murder that forms its centerpiece, the murder of a Christian child by the Jews; it condemns much more harshly the reception of that crime in the Christian community, and the acts of anti-Semitic violence that follow. The idea that it is primarily anti-Semitic is absurd.

The Tale’s implications go much further, of course. It is about acts of bloody and excessive reprisal, occasioned by ignorance. As Thomas Pynchon is fond of saying, “No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.”


He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he don’t know what it means
Nirvana, “In Bloom”

The Prioress’s Tale is, like many of its fellows, an exemplary story. Here, the exemplary figure is a child, a seven-year old schoolboy. Eileen’s post makes some telling observations about the setup of the Prioress’s character: one way of ironizing the violent Tale is by contrasting it with the Prioress’s supposedly loving nature. Another way of ironizing it is through the child. When the Prioress and her hearers model themselves on the child, they are willfully embracing ignorance.

The Prioress begins,

O Lord, oure Lord, they name how merveillous
Is in this large world ysprad — quod she —
For noght oonly thy laude precious
Parfourned is by men of dignitee,
But by the mouth of children thy bountee
Parfourned is… (453-458)

This is a familiar reference to the miraculous power of Holy Writ; the text of faith is such that babes can speak it directly, without having to learn it first. There are only traces of irony — for the example, the interjection of the reference to the speaker, “quod she,” which separates her slightly from the author. The Prologue concludes,

My konnyng is so wayk, O blisful Queene,
For to declare thy grete worthynesse
That I ne may the weighte nat susteene;
But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse,
That kan unnethes any word expresse,
Right so fare I, and therfore I yow preye
Gydeth my song that I shal of yow seye. (481-487)

Here the continuing theme of ignorance, although it might still be excused as a protestation of humility, starts to press a double meaning on the reader. The Prioress declares herself to be weak in understanding, like a tiny child, and asks the Virgin Mary to guide her song. The phrase “my song that I shal of yow seye” is ambiguous. It can mean “my song about you,” or “my song for thee,” as Neville Coghill’s translation has it. It can also mean “guide my song so that it will be about you,” i.e. a song of holiness, and not something different and worse. The Prioress does not have enough wit to know whether her song is good or bad, in part because a child is her model.

After the Prologue, the Tale begins, and we are introduced to a town that sustains a “Jewerye” for “foule usure and lucre of vileynye” (489, 491). The Jewish townsfolk live along one street, and, in the most important detail of the story, we learn that “thurgh the strete men myghte ride or wende, / For it was free and open at eyther ende” (493-494). This free commerce, and freedom of passage for the Jews, is brought quickly to a crashing halt. Most important is the parallel between the development of the narrative, and the act of walking one way down a street. This is a street that is “open at eyther ende” — that is, it is reversible.

How does one create a narrative that is “open at eyther ende”? By allowing the characters to exchange roles; by telling a tale where they do exchange roles, in a reversal that turns the Christians into murderers and usurers. I will return to this shortly.

For now, the Prioress tells us that the boy is very pious. He has learned to to kneel down and say Ave Maria whenever an image of the Virgin Mary appears before him. Chaucer writes, “as hym was taught” (507), and Coghill’s forceful translation, “for he had been told to do so,” emphasizes that the child does not grasp exactly what he is doing. Already, we have the comic image of adults imitating a child who is supposedly an innocent, but who is actually doing as he has been instructed by adults. The story gets some of its pathos from the fact that the child’s mother is a widow, and he is all she has. However, since she is also the one who has taught him to reverence Mother Mary, the situation brings to mind the dependence of adults on children, and the way that such perverse dependence can come to dominate the child’s sensibility.

The boy, expanding upon his initial religious training, begins wanting to learn “by rote” (the phrase is repeated twice) the song O Alma redemptoris. This is the song that he will go on singing after he is murdered, by divine intercession. He doesn’t know what it means: “Noght wiste he what this Latyn was to seye” (523). The boy who teaches it to him is equally in the dark: “I kan namoore expounde in this mateere. / I lerne song; I kan but smal grammeere” (535-536). This is meant to remind us of the fact that the motto on the Prioress’s brooch (“Amor vincit omnia”) is in Latin. It raises the suspicion that Holy Writ itself is being misunderstood, or not understood at all.

The story continues apace. Satan persuades the Jews to murder the child for singing in their presence, and affronting their customs. The boy is waylaid and murdered. The famous lines: “O cursed folk of Herodes al newe, / What may youre yvel entente yow availle? / Mordre wol out, certeyn, it wol nat faille” (574-576). This is a rhetorical question, and, at first glance, a curse on the Jews. It is also a question asked of the reader, and given the later symmetries of the story, there is every reason to expect that the ambiguity is intentional.

The other significance of these lines is the reference to “Herodes al newe.” The Prioress’s Tale relies on a sense of cumulative injuries; without new martyrs, and new mourners, the fury of the people subsides, and with it their violence. The child becomes “of martirdom the ruby bright” (610), and the mother becomes “this newe Rachel” (627). The dead son sings his Alma redemptoris. The Jews, all of them, pay for the crime. They are first bound (“bynde”), and then drawn apart by horses, and then hanged.

Without warning, this anti-Semitic melodrama changes into satire. Chaucer writes,

And after that, the abbot with his covent
Han sped hem for to burien hym ful faste;
And whan they hooly water on hym caste,
Yet spak this child, whan spreynd was hooly water,
And song O Alma redemptoris mater! (637-641)

They’ve poured the holy water on him, they’ve sprayed him with it, and although they’re hastening to bury him, they can’t until he stops singing. Finally the abbot, who is a holy man as “monkes been — or elles oghte be” (643), speaks to the child, and learns that the boy’s soul can’t make the journey to heaven until a grain, placed there by the Virgin Mary, is removed from his tongue.

The image is that of feeding the dead, unmistakably an image of revenge. Giving the food of the living to a dead child is perverse; it is also reminiscent of the way the song was originally placed in his mouth by his mother, who encouraged his precocious piety. Except for the pogrom, which actually imprisons his spirit, there is no real care for the boy’s death. The town hastens to bury him once they have massacred the Jews.

The song is the excuse Satan gives the Jews for their crime, “That switch a boy shal walken as hym lest / In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence / Which is agayn youre lawes reverence” (562-563, italics mine). We should remember that we are also listening to a song, one presumably intended to arouse anti-Semitic hatred, and one that consciously abridges time, obsessively re-creating the crime so that forgiveness is impossible. The Tale ends with another act of substitution. The little boy’s death allows us to feel anew the death of Hugh of Lincoln, who was “slayn also / With cursed Jewes, as it is notable, / For it is but a litel while ago” (683-685). As many critics have noted, the Prioress protests too much: Hugh’s apocryphal murder was 150 years earlier.

The exploitation of the little boy, which has been subtly in evidence throughout the story, reaches the point of preventing his burial and ascension. He is martyred by the song; or, rather, by both songs. The characters in the story, and the Prioress who tells it, are like the boy in their ignorance of the story really being told. They enclose his body in “a tombe of marbul stones cleere” (681), and though the word “cleere” refers to marble of quality, it also is a bitter joke on total opacity mistaken for “clearness.” After all, the child entombed in the opaque marble is an image of Christ himself, of the Word made flesh (“Conceyved was the Fadres sapience,” 472) and then covered up by ignorance.

The usury of the Christians is unimaginable: they have built the death of a whole population on the death of a single child. The image of God’s “grete mercy multiplie” (688) is thoroughly chilling in this context, as is “namely ther th’onour of God shal sprede” (577), when one sees what is done in the name of God and the innocent. Only one figure escapes from the cycle: the abbott. Earlier I mentioned that the Jews are first of all bound for their crime; Coghill translates “bynde” as “fettered and confined,” which wrecks the whole sense of the Tale. The abbott removes the grain, freeing the child, after being the first to speak with him rather than simply acting in his name. The story continues,

And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,
His salte teeris trikled doun as reyn,
And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,
And stille he lay as he had ben ybounde. (672-676)

As though he were bound like the Jews. Where the child is now, Chaucer writes, “God leve us for to meete” (683). The people of the Tale are still down below, bound to their vision of justice, and to its terrible cost.