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From The Canterbury Tales:
The Prioress's Tale
Modern english adjacent to middle english

About The Canterbury Tales:
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

About The Prioress's Prologue and Tale:
The Prioress's Tale plays somewhere in a great city in Asia (line 36). The tale does not reveal the name of the city. We learn that the city is populated with Christian people. There is also a Jewish quarter in the city established by an evil and rich Jew. Jews are hateful to Christ (line 40). A public road goes through the Jewish neighbourhood and at one end is a Christian school where little Christians are educated, that is to say, children learn to sing well and read (line 48). One of the school children is a little choir boy, a widow's son, who is seven years old. The boy, who has no name, walks through the public road every day to attend school. The little boy is a devouted Christian who is drilled to kneel down every time he sees an image of Holy Mary (line 55). He learns to sing Alma redemptoris, although he does not know what it means (line 67-70 and further).

When the nameless boy knows Alma redemptoris by heart he walks through the Jewish quarter singing aloud, worshipping Holy Mary. How sweet. Isn't he adorable? Not so surprisingly the boy's singing irritates the Jews. Satan lives in the hearts of Jews, which are merely wasps' nests (lines 106-107). The Jews find a murderer who cuts the boy's throat (line 119) and throws his body into a cesspool (line 120) which is full of Jewish feces (line 121), to make things worse. The narrator tells that murder will not avail, especially not when God's honour needs vengeance (line 124-125). That is good to know.

After some time, the poor widow (the dead boy's mother) starts looking for her son. She searches the school and the Jewish quarter, all in vain. But then Jesus gives her the thought to cry for her son nearby the cesspool (line 152). Doing so the dead boy starts to sing Alma redemptoris, although his throat is cut (line 160). Plausibility is challenged, but plausibility means nothing to trully religious people. Questions about plausibility are devilish. So Christian people are alarmed by the boy's voice and ask for the provost to do something. The boy is taken from the cesspool, persistently singing (line 170) and brought to an abbey. Meanwhile the Jews are tortured until they reveal the name of the murderer. A number a Jews is torn apart with wild horses and their remains are hanged (lines 181-182). What about forgiveness? Sorry, no forgiveness here, maybe next time.

The boy lies in a coffin singing Alma redemptoris. The abbot asks him how it is possible to sing with a cut throat (lines 195-196). The boy explains that the glory of Christ makes him sing and the fact that Holy Mary has put a seed upon his tongue (line 210). The boy says he will sing until the seed upon his tongue is removed (line 213). The abbot removes the seed, because a singing person cannot be buried. Why not leave the boy singing for some centuries? To become a martyr a person has to be buried. So the boy stops singing after removal of the seed and is buried and made a martyr in a nice tomb of marble (line 229). End of story. Amen.

The Prioress's Tale is a hymn to Mary and Jesus, Christianity and motherhood. It is also a reminder of the fact that anti-Semitism was not an invention of Nazi-Germany. Anti-Semitism was a permanent and pervasive feature of medieval life and The Prioress's Tale is based on the anti-Semitic myth of Jews murdering Christian children. In medieval England, the Christian hatred of Jews took the form of religious passion, although there were hardly any Jews in England. Stories like The Prioress's Tale contributed to this passion.

Who is responsible for the anti-Semitism in The Prioress's Tale? Chaucer or the prioress? First of all, the prioress is a fictitious person, and secondly, there were no Jewish neighbourhoods or districts in medieval England. Therefore an English prioress residing in England could hardly have known any Jews. According to the first line of The Prioress's Tale, her story plays somewhere in Asia. So a fictitious person tells a fictitious but vigorously anti-Semitic story that has occurred somewhere far away. Chaucer is not a fictitious person and he travelled all over Europe. He voluntarily chose to incorporate an anti-Semitic myth in The Canterbury Tales. None of the other characters and pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales criticize the prioress for her anti-Semitism. Why should they? After all, anti-Semitism was more or less institutionalized and perfectly okay in medieval life. So it must be Chaucer's voice that tells this persistent anti-Semitic myth.

Should we blame Chaucer for his anti-Semitism? If we do, we should also blame William Shakespeare for his anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens for his anti-Semitism in Oliver Twist, to give only a few examples. Old literature is full of stupid ideas and thoughts based on sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, feudalism, violence, illiteracy and ignorance. If we blame or even cancel Chaucer, where do we stop?

Maybe it is better to just skip The Prioress's Tale. Some of the stories in The Canterbury Tales are much more intelligent and not so revolting. Maybe it is better not to blame Chaucer. After all, Chaucer was a man of his time with all its intellectual faults, flaws and virtues. He was merely not able to disassociate himself from the religious mainstream in his environment. And disassociation from widely accepted religious beliefs and myths is very dangerous. It is ok to read old books and stories, but things can go wrong when people start to admire and even worship stories that are written in eras in which illiteracy and a complete lack of basic knowledge is the standard. Do not take old books too seriously and disassociate yourself from myths that are grown on illiteracy and ignorance. Amen.

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