Skip to main content

Anti-Semitism and Satire in Chaucer ' s " The Prioress ' Tale "

The legendary English child martyr, Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, died August 27, 1255. The 9-year-old boy had been found dead in a well, the victim of an anonymous murder. A story soon followed that a Jew named Koppin had imprisoned and tortured the boy for more than a month, eventually crucifying him. The body had supposedly been thrown in the well because the earth refused to receive it. Although there was little factual evidence to substantiate the story, legend states the boy was murdered for ritual purposes.
More than 90 Jews were subsequently arrested and charged with the practice of ritualistic murder, and Koppin, who is said to have confessed, was executed along with 18 others. Soon after the body was discovered, miracles were attributed to Hugh.
The story grew in popularity as well as detail and in time an anti-Semitic cult grew around the legend. Hugh’s martyrdom became a popular subject in Medieval Literature, but the name does not appear in the standard Butler’s Lives of the Saints (1998).
The Prioress’ Tale, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is perhaps the most notable among stories which drew from the legend about Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. In Chaucer’s version, the story is told by a nun, a Prioress, who is one of the pilgrims on their way from Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, a popular travel destination of the time. But although Chaucer’s version is not as long as many of the other stories in The Canterbury Tales, its association with the Hugh of Lincoln legend has made it one of the more controversial.
Unfortunately, the original legend is a clear example of anti-Semitism, and although the Prioress merely retells the original story, modern readers ask Chaucer to answer for its inclusion among his works. Chaucer is not afforded the privilege many authors enjoy which allows their separation from the characters they create; while others may write of murder without being called murderers themselves, this particular story is often quoted to accuse Chaucer himself of holding and promoting anti-Semitic views.
But the question arises, is it a fair accusation? Can an author draw upon the canon of existing legend without being seen as sympathetic to that legend’s particular views? Does the legend’s inclusion make Chaucer, or even his Prioress character, anti-Semitic as well? While there is little doubt the original tale shows a certain amount of prejudice against Jews, could Chaucer have used the story for another purpose entirely?
In this essay we will look at the anti-Semitic aspects of the legend about Little Hugh of Lincoln, as Chaucer presented it in his Canterbury Tales. Once the tale’s difficulties are presented, we will take a look at the character who tells it, the Prioress, and explore what her purposes might have been in bringing this story to the table. By doing so, we can decide if the Prioress, and by association Chaucer, are truly spreading bigotry and racial hatred or had some other end in mind.
I would argue the later is the case; I would argue both the Prioress and Chaucer had another end in mind, although both ends were certainly not the same.
After the Holocaust, is the subject of anti-Semitism so emotionally charged that it is the one topic a writer cannot touch without leaving blood on his own hands? Chaucer is not alone in this struggle; Shakespeare is sometimes accused of anti-Semitic sympathies for of his creation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But should we use what is largely a nineteenth century idea to condemn those who came before? Can those who lived prior to invention of the term be guilty of its practice?
In his essay, Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism, Philip S. Alexander wrote:
The term 'anti-Semitism' itself did not emerge till the late nineteenth century, when it was used by the proponents of a world-view (widely deemed then as acceptable), which embraced three main tenets: first, Jewish culture is inferior to Germanic culture; second, the Jews are plotting to undermine Germanic culture and to foist their own cultural values on society; and, third, in the interests of progress and civilization society has a duty to defend itself against Jewish domination and to purge itself of decadent Jewish culture. Nineteenth-century anti-Semitism was often racist in that it espoused the belief that culture and race were interconnected, and so the inferior Jewish culture was seen as the product of inferior Jewish genes. However, racism, in this precise technical sense, was not fundamental to the anti-Semitic point of view.

If the term did not exist, might we conclude the problem was not anti-Semitism as much as anti-Judaism? It is clear medieval society was deeply influenced by Christianity, and it is popular to dismiss malice against Jews in the Middle Ages as religious zeal, holding that the Medieval hatred of Jews existed only for their religious practices, and pointing out how Medieval Jews could be redeemed if they converted to Christianity.
It could be more correct to say the idea Medieval Jews could be redeemed and accepted in England by converting to Christianity looked good on paper, but didn’t always play out in reality. In reality, conversion did not always save a Jew from harassment, or even death. The Spanish “conversos”, who adopted the Christian religion after severe persecution in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and were expelled from Spain in 1390, were still identified as Jews in the minds of many Roman Catholic churchmen.
While there is evidence Jews and Christians lived together in peace during the early Medieval times, marrying and sharing both language and culture, by the early 11th century Jews in various parts of Europe faced violence and forced conversions. In 1215, Pope Innocent III declared Jews to be in perpetual servitude for the killing of Christ. In the fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Jews were ordered to wear distinctive clothing and forbidden to hold public office or to appear in public during the final three days of the Easter season. After the discovery and burning of the Talmud by Christians in the 13th century, the Jews were considered heretics for their acceptance of the document and the church had already started the Inquisition as a Crusade against heresy. Prior to that time, the church believed Jews should remain until the end of time to be witnesses to the truth of Christian revelation. However, by the thirteenth century theological justification for their continued existence had begun to waiver.
Regardless of its place in history, support for the labeling of The Prioress’ Tale as anti-Semitic literature seems to be readily available within the tale itself. The Prioress repeatedly refers to the Jews as “cursed”, which seems to refer to the curse they called down upon their own heads when they goaded Pilate into crucifying Jesus:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children (Matthew 27:24f).

Similarly, the Prioress invites us to draw parallels between the Jews’ murder of Little Hugh and their ancestors’ involvement with the crucifixion of Christ. We are invited to view this little devotee of the Virgin Mary as a representation of her son, and associate his murder with the crucifixion of Jesus. While there is no ritualistic murder in Chaucer, legends associated with the original legend do involve ritual and clearly imply a connection with, and possibly a mockery of, the ritualized crucifixion of Christ.
The tale’s line, “The blood out crieth on youre cursed dede” seems a to present an echo of the Bible’s Cain and Abel story, drawing from the point when God said to Cain:
What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now thou art cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand . . . a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold thou has driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that everyone that findeth me shall slay me (Genesis 4:10-14).

In Christian exegesis Cain is frequently seen to typify the Jew (the wanderer rejected by both God and man) and Abel is taken as a type of the just man. Able is seen to represent the Christian, or more significantly Christ, on whom the Jew tries to vent his spite. Inclusion of this reference in The Prioress’ Tale seems to strengthen the intended connection between the curgeon and the Christ.
Parallels between Christ and Little Hugh may also stand behind the Provost’s swift judgment upon the Jews. Much like the Jews’ murder of Christ is said to have brought a curse, their murder of the clergeon brought a “cursednesse” upon them as well.
With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
"Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve";
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng them by the lawe.

These attempts to create an association between the clergeon and Christ seem calculated to remind us of how it was the Jews who had Jesus crucified, just as they were reported to have had Hugh of Lincoln slain. Similar examples of anti-Semitic thought seem to stack up throughout "The Prioress’ Tale". We are presented with lines which seem to connect the tale both with King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus, which instead resulted in the slaughter of innocent children, and the descendants of Herod whose crucifixion of Christ did not stop his message from being carried forward.
O cursed folk of Herod come again,
Of what avail your villainous intent?

The lines, “His mother, swooning as they went along / Beside the bier, could not be reconciled, / A second Rachel, weeping for her child” seem to echo the application in Matthew 2:18 of Jeremiah 40:1 to the slaughter of the innocents:
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they were not.

The Prioress also reminds reader of scenes from mystery plays in which devils incite the Hebrews to demand the death of Jesus:
First of our foes, the Serpent Satan shook
Those Jewish hearts that are his waspish nest,
Swelled up and said, ‘O Hebrew people look!
Is this not something that should be redressed?
Is such a boy to roam as he thinks best
Singing to spite you, canticles and saws
Against the reverence of your holy laws?

On the surface, all of these references seemingly amount to damnable evidence against Chaucer, the Prioress, and the case of anti-Semitism. It seems all these forces have joined, through the pen of one, to condemn the Jews as a whole for the murder of Christ, and the murder of the clergeon. We hear the Prioress, a nun from the upper echelon of the church, condemning the Jews in a bigoted and prejudiced voice, and condoning their destruction. Further, since there does not seem to be a clear disclaimer where Chaucer indicates the story’s views are not his own.
However, when we try to understand a work such as The Prioress’ Tale, as well as The Canterbury Tales as a whole, it is important to remember they are both in fact more than 600 years old. To assume Chaucer’s characters held the same opinions, morals, and philosophies as the average modern reader is to deny the more than 600 years of thought, history, and discovery which has shaped and molded the “modern mind”. If we approach the Prioress with a post-Holocaust mindset, and ask it to answer to post-Holocaust sensibilities, isn’t it possible we could be hypersensitive to the tale’s references to Jews? If we overlay the Prioress’ story with a filter created by 600 years of changes in religious thought, we might assume she tells it from a platform of vanity, hypocrisy, and possibly even heresy; we are apt to see the Prioress as someone far from Christian ideals, at least as we see such things today.
To discover the true intent behind Chaucer’s work, lacking such an explanation from Chaucer himself, we could study the art and fashion of his time. Understanding Medieval art and fashion might shed some light on Chaucer’s use of the legend, and his reasons for causing the Prioress to tell it, if we can remain open minded. No work of art springs from the mind of its creator fully grown, like Venus on the half shell; it is the product of the community, the society, and the world which existed at the time of its birth. To fully understand any work of art, we must try to understand at least something of its world.
In literary criticism, art history, and historical analysis of the mid to late fourteenth century, we hear a recurring theme of ritual and the ascendancy of emotion over the rational. Although a simplification of complex processes not restricted to that century, this shift in emphasis leaves us with the distinct impression that the Middle Ages valued emotion as the sure road to the knowledge of God.
David Knowles, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge from 1954 to 1963, calls the Ockhamite revolution in Medieval thought (named after the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham) the "triumph of nominalism". This revolution denied the possibility for rational demonstrations of the truths in natural religion. Preeminent scholar of Chaucerian and medieval literature, Charles Musçatine, summarizes the thought of the age with:
The cleavage between reason and faith, characteristic of post-Ockhamite thought, not only generated an unsettling skepticism, but also drove faith itself further and further into the realm of the irrational.

Such a reaction is seen in the mystics’ intense concentration on the Passion of Christ and the love it is said to manifest. A similar apprehension of divine mysteries is seen in countless examples of late fourteenth-century lyrics through concentration on the small, particular elements of our world, and through the power of love.
Ockham's Via Moderna claimed all we can know for certain is the experiential, those things we can experience through the senses. Emile Mâle, a French art historian and one of the first to study medieval, mostly sacred French art and the influence of eastern European iconography, traces the development of stylistic tendencies in art at the end of the Middle Ages, tying these new styles to this change in sensibility and outlook which social historians of the period regard as one of its hallmarks:
From the end of the thirteenth century on, the artists seem no longer able to grasp the great conceptions of earlier times. Before, the Virgin enthroned held her Son with the sacerdotal gravity of the priest holding the chalice. She was the seat of the All-Powerful, 'the throne of Solomon,' in the language of the doctors. She seemed neither woman nor mother, because she was exalted above the sufferings and joys of life. She was the one whom God had chosen at the beginning of time to clothe His word with flesh. She was the pure thought of God. As for the Child, grave, majestic, hand raised,
He was already the Master Who commands a
nd Who teaches.

However, this conception disappears and is replaced by the human tenderness between the Virgin Mary and Christ. Through these tender gestures we understand the nature of love. Art transforms from a metaphor and is no longer symbolic. Fourteenth-century art becomes more particularized and more highly detailed than twelfth and thirteenth century art. It now focuses on experiences of the senses, and more particularly, on those moments which speak to the heart.
If we view The Prioress’ Tale in this light, a light which shines on emotional reaction as the only true means through which we may experience religious faith, then the tale takes on a meaning and purpose which may not have been recognized at first glance. By concentrating on the diminutive, the detail, not for its symbolic significance but for the emotional value, the Prioress’ narrative shows a literary expression of post-Ockhamite religious thought. Her concern for the small, the particular, and the emotional shows the Prioress unquestionably as a woman of her time, a woman of “fashion”.
As for her sympathies and tender feelings,
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread.
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart;
She was all sentiment and tender heart.

The Prioress is likewise conscious of outward appearance. She is described as a careful dresser with remarkable table manners. She has studied French, but the fact her French is marked by an English accent suggests its study must have been only for show; it does not bear the authentic accent which might have been acquired if it were used for a practical purpose. The Prioress seems to practice putting forth a particular appearance, and has spent much time cultivating a certain image.
This attention to appearance might suggest a lack of depth in the Prioress’ character, and likewise in her religion; for the Prioress, the sensible world and an immediate response to it, rather than any abstract philosophy, seems to form the basis of her faith. Apparently the wide, deep spirit of forgiveness of the Gospels and the charity implicit in the doxology become real to her in the physical expression of love and conscience between herself and the small creatures that surround her. Mâle speaks of the influence of St. Francis on religious thought in the later Middle Ages; the Prioress's "conscience and tender heart" seem to follow in that tradition.
With this understanding, both The Prioress’ Tale and her Prologue become the platform for an expression of her own personal faith. But this is not a faith expressed by the hatred of Jews, a love for justice, or inspired by the little boy’s testimony among people who were walking in darkness. True, she has chosen a fairly gruesome tale which at first seems paradoxical in light of what we learn of her in the General Prologue. Further, her troublesome references to Jews seem bigoted, if not completely contradictory to the motto she wears on her arm, Amor vincit omnia, which is translated as “Love conquers all.” But in light of an understanding of the religion of her time, it could be argued she has chosen this tale only for its emotional appeal, much as its little hero has chosen to learn the song O Alma Redemptoris for his own emotional response to it. Just as he learned the song by rote without understanding its meaning, the Prioress may have learned her story without consideration of any possible deeper implications; she may not have given much credence to the original legend, and found it merely a convenient vessel to carry a message calculated to stir a deep emotional response. She felt free to embellish the tale with details demanding this emotional response, since an emotional response was the only proof she knew for showing evidence of real Christian faith.
In the Prioress’ telling, this gruesome little story takes on the feeling of a fairy tale. In fact, it could be seen as one of the more moderate forms of even that tradition. In Chaucer the clergeon is not crucified, as he is in some other versions; the murder is not a ritual murder, nor is the blood used for nefarious purposes. Moreover, since Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, the Jews of The Prioress's Tale are not drawn from life, but from literature and folklore. The Jews are not perceived as real people, but almost as mythical beings like hobgoblins, and are merely a tool used for the emotional impact of the tale. The Prioress’ lack of concern for a reality-basis to her tale is further evidenced in the tale’s setting; “a city in Asia” is merely some place with a vague exotic flair, and the improbability of its existence is as foreign a concept to the Prioress as thinking the villains in her story were flesh and blood humans instead of mere abstractions of “bad” characters.
To the Prioress, this is a tale of a mother’s love for her son. A poor woman, a widow no less, loses her son to the evil practices of a group of hobgoblins. He is such a sweet boy, with such a sweet voice, and isn’t it precious how hard he works to learn this song in honor of the Virgin Mary? She is the Queen of Heaven after all, and isn’t it interesting how she also lost her only son to the same evil hobgoblins? The worst death would be too good for those murderers.
From what we see in the other stories, just what was Chaucer’s intention for writing The Canterbury Tales? It seems clear Chaucer wrote his stories as character sketches, examples of the common folk written in their common language. The Encyclopedia Britannica states:
Because of [The Canterbury Tales’] structure, the sketches, the links, and the tales all fuse as complex presentations of the pilgrims, while at the same time the tales present remarkable examples of short stories in verse, plus two expositions in prose. In addition, the pilgrimage, combining a fundamentally religious purpose with its secular aspect of vacation in the spring, made possible extended consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next, that seeming dichotomy with which Chaucer, like Boethius and many other medieval writers, was so steadily concerned.

The importance Chaucer placed on stories of the common man is evident in his use of the lowly Saxon language. Anyone who wanted their work to be remembered wrote in Latin, the grammatica, the indestructible language which would never change; Cicero wrote in Latin more than 1500 years before Chaucer and Cicero was still read. In England, French was often the language of choice since the Normans had ruled there for 300 years and everyone who was anyone spoke and wrote in French. It was not a given that an English writer would write in English.
That Chaucer did not write in French is equally surprising. His translation of The Romance of the Rose provides evidence Chaucer could write well in French, and the upper class of England spoke French in their everyday lives. Although Chaucer was not of the upper class, he had married into it at a high level; his wife, Phillipa, was sister to Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt. As brother-in-law to the most powerful man in England (Shakespeare reminds us in Richard II that John of Gaunt was even more powerful than the king), Chaucer might have written in French to impress his in-laws and the center of Norman power.
The fact that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, and therefore The Prioress’ Tale, in English, the language of the lowly Anglo-Saxons, instead of French, the language of the upper-class Normans, seems to invite the assumption Chaucer did not support the idea of racial inferiority. This does not rule out the idea that Chaucer could have believed Jews were inferior for religious reasons, but our understanding of the post-Ockhamite appeal to emotionally-charged handling of subjects may provide enough reason why the tale treated Jews as nothing more than shadows, void of full human characterization and realization. The Jews were merely present to elicit an emotional response; Chaucer did not invent or encourage the response, he merely capitalized on it. To be more exact, the Prioress chose to capitalize on the expected response; it seems likely Chaucer’s intent for the tale was to paint a portrait of a woman whose faith was rooted in such emotional responses.
Critics often point out an ironic, satirical tone which seems to pervade Chaucer's treatment of the Prioress in the General Prologue. Her nice manners (139-40: 'And peyned hire to counterfete cheere / Of court') and fashionable dress (151: 'Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was') sit uneasily with her spiritual calling. She is lax in the observance of monastic rules: she eats roast meat, keeps lap-dogs and wears jewelry with the ambiguous inscription, Amor vincit omnia. The description of her physical charms, following the conventions of courtly love poetry and ending with the understatement, “For, hardily, she was not undergrowe”, is seen as nothing less than comical. Even her linguistic accomplishments (and her finishing school) are made the butt of barbed comment:
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.”
She weeps easily--at the suffering of small animals:
“She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.

A picture emerges of a rather large, sentimental, vain woman, and Chaucer seems to be mocking her. Mocking and satire were certainly familiar to his audiences; 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. Aside from Chaucer, the genre was later to give birth to such greats as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Jonathan Swift.
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.

With one foot planted firmly in Satire, Chaucer lightheartedly pokes fun and the fables and foibles of the people who populated his world. The Miller’s Tale gives us the amorous student, the lusty housewife, and the gullible husband, within one of the great short stories of all time. The Wife of Bath provides a surprisingly frank account of womanhood in medieval times, and her tale tells us nearly as much about her character as she revealed herself. In a similar fashion, The Prioress’ Tale provides insight on the character of its teller; it’s not about the legend, but it’s all about how the Prioress tells the tale.
The Prioress doesn’t tell a story about murder as much as she tells a story about a poor widow who loses her precious little son. She doesn’t tell a story about devotion to the Virgin Mary as much as she tells a story about a little boy who has an emotional response to a song which expresses such devotion. She doesn’t tell a story about cursed Jews as much as she tells a story about dark shadows that go bump in the night. Above everything, or at least encompassing it all, Chaucer doesn’t tell a story about any of these things as much as he tells a story about a woman who holds them all so dear; The Prioress’ Tale is a story about a woman who finds proof of her religious faith in the emotions she can experience from it.
Without minimizing the impact of the Holocaust or the very real problem of anti-Semitism, it can be asserted The Prioress’ Tale is not anti-Semitic by nature, even though it does include anti-Semitic content. The story does in fact contain bigotry and prejudice against Jews, but these things are twice removed from the purposes of the story; they are not necessarily the view of the Prioress, and therefore it follows they are not necessarily the view of Chaucer. The Prioress’ lack of concern for the anti-Semitic elements of her tale does not justify her use of them, but their presence in her tale does not necessarily mean she was preaching anti-Semitism, or even supported it, and their presence certainly does not make Chaucer an anti-Semitic.
Just as the Prioress used the legend of Little Hugh for her own ends, Chaucer used The Prioress’ Tale as a means to his own ends. The result is an insightful character sketch, one of several in The Canterbury Tales, which brings about an emotional response in the reader, much like the emotional response the Prioress intended to create among the pilgrims. This emotional response, if we follow post-Ockhamite philosophy, creates an experience around the reading of The Canterbury Tales which not only makes it more real to us, but is one of the reasons the work has survived more than 600 years.

Popular posts from this blog

Geoffrey Chaucer's Moral Tales "Wife of Bath" and "Pardoner"

P.T. Barnum may not actually have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but it nevertheless seems to have become the creed of snake charmers and snake oil salesmen through the ages. But prior to Barnum, Geoffrey Chaucer gave us both a snake oil salesman and a snake charmer in the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath in his The Canterbury Tales . The Wife of Bath may not be a snake charmer in the traditional sense, but she might try to charm a snake out of its skin, or at least his clothing. The Pardoner may not charm the snake at all, but he’ll sell you both its oil and its skin, and make you believe you’ll go to heaven in the bargain.  Betwixt the two, we find two exemplas , the moral tales which were popular in Medieval times. Ladies first, if Alisoun may be called a lady. In this Wife of Bath’s quite lengthy prologue we learn of her five husbands as well as her Biblical justification for having had so many. We also hear of her poweress both in marriage and in the marriage bed. For

12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, DA-2

12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, by Terry Heath, DA-2. Craft acrylic and Elmer's Glue on canvas.

12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, DA-1

 12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, by Terry Heath, DA-1. Craft acrylic and Elmer's Glue on canvas.