Satire in " The Prioress ' Tale " by Geoffrey Chaucer

In a modern tent-revival meeting, someone might stand before the crowd and tell a story. She might be a slim, well-dressed woman whose words deeply stir the congregation’s emotions. The hero of her story might be pure as the driven snow, and elicit the smiles and applause of the audience; her villains might be the blackest of men, bringing cries of “shame” along with booing and hissing. Her story would serve its purpose and stir the crowd into a religious frenzy; everyone would agree those men were the tools of satan and the hero was a heavenly servant of the Lord.

But long before our modern tent revivals, we had a room full of religious pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. We had the Prioress, a stately and slim woman, who was as skilled as a revivalist preacher in telling a tale designed to stir the crowd. Her holy young boy, Hugh, could bring smiles from the men and tears from the women. Her villains were vile, and anyone who didn’t agree must be part of Satan’s league. But Chaucer may not have intended her story to create a feeling of religious fervor.

Chaucer created The Prioress’ Tale to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day. He lived in a time when religious stories thrived among a largely illiterate population. These stories were Saint’s tales where the villains were impossibly bad and the heroes impossibly good. The line between “good” and “bad” people was drawn by their religious beliefs; anyone who believed in the Christian church was good, and everyone else in the world was bad.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “satire”:

A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote.
Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in Chaucer’s time although little has survived. Examples of such poetry may still be seen in the bawdy lyrics of Carmina Burnana, set to music by Carl Orf in the 20th Century.

The main character in The Prioress’ Tale is a pure little boy with a saintly devotion to the Virgin Mary. Not only that, but he is the child of a poor old widow. The villains who murder the boy are merely evil Jews, Satan’s nest of hornets to be exact. It isn’t a new story, the Prioress is recounting the story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln who was murdered and thrown down a well. Later, under the threat of torture, a Jew named Copin confessed to the murder and said it was part of a Jewish custom to sacrifice a Christian child each year. But the Prioress raises this story to the level of legend when her slain Hugh parades through the streets singing praises to the Queen of Heaven.

Knowing nothing else of him, we can deduce from the rest of The Canterbury Tales that Chaucer is a talented writer, skilled in both subtlety of character and storytelling. So why would his Prioress tell a story so obviously shallow and improbable unless Chaucer labored behind some hidden agenda? Judging from his other stories, Chaucer doesn’t seem squeamish about poking fun at hypocracy in religion; he points to gullability in religious devotion through The Miller’s Tale as well as through those who purchase the Pardoner’s “relics”. Further, history tells us Chaucer was part of a group of intellectuals who opposed the prevalent anti-semitism of his time; in reality he would have been against characterizing Jews as “Satan’s Hornet Nest”.

So remove yourself from the Middle Ages and imagine a modern day comedy show. The scene is a large tent which has been set up in some humid, rural place. A popular comedienne stands before a crowd speaking the exact words of the Prioress’ tale. She is dressed as crisp as her voice and mannerisms; her hair is pulled back into a tight bun and we instantly recognize her as “pious”. The crowd responds to her story with cries of “amen” and “hallelujah” in the appropriate places. Such a sketch would be a satire on certain religions of today, much like Chaucer’s tale was six centuries ago.

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