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Anti-Semitism in Medieval England: Analyzing Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale" in "The Canterbury Tales"

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"

Throughout Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes about a group of pilgrims who take turns telling tales. These tales often reflect stories about the character’s lives, estates, experiences, or subconscious feelings. As each tale is told, Chaucer reveals a new insight about the character, the character within the estate, the estate, or the character’s underlying morality which is usually juxtaposed with the character’s estate.

As scholars focus their attention on the individual estates, they realize that the majority of the tales have some form of corruption within them. Nearing the end of the tales, the focus turns towards the clergy. As religious men of the clergy, characters such as the Friar or the Summoner are expected to model holiness in mind, body, and soul. After reading and later critiquing the satirical clergymen, the audience finds that holiness was furthest from the clergymen's reality. Instead of acting out of holiness, these men--men within the same estate--despised each other, claiming words of slander and scorn toward each other and their positions within the estate.


Corruption in the Clergy

When revealing the negative underlying framework of such estates, Chaucer typically creates these events as objectively as possible so that the reader can fully comprehend such important elements. In the clergy, elements such as deceit, greed, trickery, and sinfulness are regarded as most prominent. Through such heavy satire, it seems that Chaucer only criticizes and satirizes in an objective manner. However, just when we thought we had Chaucer figured out, he reveals the “Prioress’s Prologue and Tale.” Initially, the Prioresse seems to distinctly go against all that Chaucer and the other tales have done: created a satire on an individual or estate while reflecting upon the tale teller’s underlying morality. However, when read a bit closer, the Prioresse’s tale can rightly be categorized with the other fabliau.

As Chaucer portrays the Prioresse as a woman living her life in complete holiness for the virgin Mary and Mary’s son, Christ, it seems that Chaucer has fallen off his rocker. In the Prioresse’s tale, has Chaucer given up his objective revelations of corruption and disdain in medieval England? Or, has he merely hidden meaning within the tale so that an even greater insight can take place within the minds of his readers? What follows is the Prioresse’s tale and the implications that her tale reveals about herself, and her estate.

Chaucer's "The Prioress's Prologue and Tale"

In Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale,” the Prioresse is a nun who seemingly displays complete holiness and dedication for her Lord. She is described as well-mannered, kind, courtly, emotional, civilized, and genuinely faithful in her religion. In fact, she is so religiously apt that she spends her whole prologue praising the virgin Mary. “Not that [she] may encresen hir honour / For she hirself is honour, and the rote” (464-65), but to prepare for her coming tale and the superficial allegory that it portrays.

Initially, the Prioresse’s tale is an allegory that symbolizes the Christ story. In her tale, there is “a widwes sone, / A litel clergeoun, seven yeer of age” (500-501). This child was so innately holy, like Christ, that he begged to learn more about Alma redemptoris in his own language so that he can better understand his worshiping heart. “Fro word to word, acording with the note; / Twyes a day it passed thurgh his throte, / To scoleward and homward whan he wente. / On Cristes moder set was his entente” (546-550). But as the story develops, there is another prevailing element aside from the Christ boy within the story. The Prioresse introduces the presence of Jewish people and tale soon turns violent.


Cursed Jewes and Their Jewerye

Beginning with the second line of the tale, Jews are depicted as nasty creatures who live so that they can despise Christ and Christian values. “Amonges Cristen folk, a Jewerye / sustened by a lord of that contree / For foule usure and lucre of vileyneye, / Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye” (489-493). Here, the Prioresse becomes highly suspect as a holy nun. We understand Chaucer’s usual objective thematic elements of the tale: the boy represents innocence, and if he is associated with Christ, he also represents pure holiness. Seemingly, this holiness would be a reflection of the Prioresse herself. But, as the tale progresses, the Prioresse tells of more evil and violence in relation to a particular race. She even goes into detail that Jews are the exact opposite of Christ and that they associate with Satan. “Oure firste fo, the serpent Sathanas, / That hath in Jewes herte his waspes nest” (558-59). This resentment towards an individual race suggests that the once pious nun may also be a corrupt figure within the clergy.

Now, Chaucer’s satire is surfacing and the reader is realizing the true implications of the tale. If Chaucer meant only to tell a tale of a religious woman who surpassed the corrupt ways of the other clergy members, he did a poor job. Ostensibly, the Prioresse’s purpose was to create an allegory of an innocent Christ boy who is placed in the midst of Christ-hating Jews, so that she can reflect her own holiness in the presence of non-believers. However, on a grander scale of storytelling ability, Chaucer’s satirical approach becomes understood. Continuing the thematic elements of corruption within the clerical estate, Chaucer creates the Prioresse to be a character who unknowingly is hypocritical in her beliefs. She thinks of herself as perfect and holy, but with the disturbing violence and prejudged nature of her tale, she becomes superficial just like the other clergymen.

Racism in Medieval England

To better understand how racism is portrayed during Chaucer’s time, we can once again look at the text. In her tale, the Prioresse tells of the little child frolicking to and fro from his house to school in complete spiritual jubilee. “The swetnesse his herte perced so / He can nat stinte of singing by the weye” (555, 557). The boy is an innocent who cares only for Christ and praising all that Christ is. Aside from the fact that she labels a tavern of Jews as a Jewerye, she also portrays them as scheming and hateful creatures who, with Satan in their hearts, conspire against the young Christ child. If Chaucer had meant for the Prioresse to have disdain for the Jewish people only because of what they did to Christ himself, I find it doubtful that such insidious measures would be taken in their description.

In my opinion, about midway through the tale, the Prioresse makes the final transition from holy thoughts to anti-Semitic prejudices. I realize that during her time period, and every time period before and after, Jews have been the center of ridicule. While this reflects the general and corrupt views of the public towards the Jewish race, it should not be juxtaposed with a nun if she is to still be considered holy. Her final transition from holy to corrupt occurs when she makes the Jews conspire to kill the child and end his jubilee. “This cursed Jew him hente and heeld him fast, / And kitte his throte, and in a pit him caste” (570-71). When the Prioresse tells of such events, we must remember that her tale is simply a fabricated tale of her own life views and events. She does not have to represent Jewish people this way. No one is egging her on saying, “Yeah! Down with filthy Jews!” Yet, this is how Chaucer makes her tell her tale. How could a nun use these words for clerical avail?

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Satirical Commentary on Anti-Semitic Propaganda

Alas, the Prioresse does not seem aware of the implications of her story. She continues with her allegory of the Christ story. First, the Jews kill the Christ boy, which represents the death of pure and holy innocence such as the sacrificial lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Then, the virgin mother cries out for her son, how could God have failed such a holy being? Finally, just as Christ did, the Prioresse tells of the boy overcoming death with the power of Christ. “‘My throte is cut unto my nekke-boon,’ / Seyde this child, ‘and, as by wey of kind, / I shoulde have deyed, ye, longe tyme agoon, / But Jesu Crist, as ye in bokes find, / Wil that his glorie laste and be in minde’” (649-653). Just like Christ, the child awakens even holier than before and singing O Alma redemtoris mater, but soon goes back to heaven to be with God.

In conclusion, while the surface level the Prioresse’s tale seems to be an allegory for Christ’s death, Chaucer in a roundabout way reveals an underlying problematic theme of racism that originates in mass society, but permeates into the religious ideals and principles. The Prioresse’s tale is another fabliau about the corruption in the clerical estate. Whether she realizes it or not, Chaucer has created her to represent how the clergy gets away with discrimination, violence, and hate by means of claiming them all in the name of service to God through faith.

Even though the Jewish race has been subject to scorn and ridicule since their beginning, it is intriguing that out of all the characters who could discriminate, it would the Prioresse. The Prioresse was a nun who dedicated her life to praise Christ and Mary. Seemingly, she was the holiest of all the characters, but when the underlying truth is realized, one must bring her piety into question. Chaucer reveals her unknowing attitude towards Jews for a purpose. As a religious figure, her tale would be considered more like a sermon. If it was a sermon, and it did hold such contempt for a single race, does this mean that the institutional church is just as much to blame for anti-Semitic prejudices as the general public is? Furthermore, does it mean that the church is the cause for anti-Semitic remarks? I believe so, and I think Geoffrey Chaucer does too.

Lyrical Interpretation of "Prioress's Tale"

© 2018 JourneyHolm


Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on April 20, 2018:

Hello again. Here I offer the following points.

1. Everyone should be viewed individually, Not as part of a group.

2. There is no "Jewish Race." Abraham moved from Ur and married Sara, a Canaanite. People moved all over North Africa and interbred. There is no such thing as a "Pure Race."

3. It is wrong to plan or conspire to kill anyone. If a particular person did conspire to kill (or harm) Jesus, they will be held accountable.

4. There is no "Holy Land" because land is not alive. People are alive and may be more or less holy. Land does not become holy when you kill for it. The Pilgrims were in error about this basic assumption.

5. In my view, God never chose one group of people over another and certainly did not authorize a genocide to acquire land. See the Book of Joshua.

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