Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale: Antisemitism and Medieval Culture
Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the most important contributors to the development of the English language. His most famous works are the “Canterbury Tales,” a collection of poems and short stories which are told by a group of pilgrims traveling to the grave of Thomas Becket. The tales were made up of both prosaic and poetic works which formed a greater narrative of virtue, corruption, comedy and tragedy. The “Canterbury Tales” are a commentary on European society during Chaucer’s time, and they often reflect the culture and period of his writing. “The Prioress’s Tale” is a specific poem of the “Canterbury Tales” that highlights to influence of medieval society on Chaucer’s work.
Chaucer was born some time between 1340 and 1345 around London (“The Geoffrey Chaucer Website Homepage,” Harvard University.) He was raised by vintners in London and descended from wealthy English merchants. The records of civil cases involving his family, the fines they paid, and those they had levied on others suggest that they were of some economic means. Chaucer worked as a civil servant in London, and this allows us to see a much more detailed record of his life and work as compared to other figures of the time. (Hulbert, 230)
Chaucer served in the English Army during King Edward III’s war in France. He was sent as an envoy of the King to Milan in 1378. Milanese culture and literature inspired much of his literary work in English. Milan was one of the great centers of culture and art in the fourteenth century, and when trade and diplomacy was conducted in Milan, their advances were exported. In this way, Italy had inspired many of the great English writers and poets such as Shakespeare and Robert Browning to create their works. (“The World of Chaucer,” University of Glasgow.) The cultural, linguistic, and social developments made in Milan helped men such as Chaucer as they contributed to the same development in England. (Ward 214)
Throughout his life Chaucer wrote his poetry and stories about the culture and religion of his time. His most famous works are the “Canterbury Tales”. Since he spent much of his time as a courtier and civil servant in the king’s court in London, he dealt with people from all parts of society. Chaucer would have viewed a cross section of Medieval English society that covered the clergy, landed gentry, peasants, and merchants. Chaucer’s time in London further acquainted him with the church, and he was forced to deal with what he saw as the corruption of the faith. (“The World of Chaucer,” University of Glasgow.)
In addition to Chaucer’s connections to the complex facets of medieval London, he would have also been in contact with a Jewish minority in the city. The common view on Jews in the fourteenth century was far from positive. What many of us would see as terribly offensive or racist views were commonplace in the time of Chaucer. Jews were often restricted in which jobs they could hold and where they could live. This environment of hatred and distrust of Jews contributed to the antisemitic tone of “The Prioress’s Tale”. (Hulbert, 230)
During “The Prioress’ Tale,” the Prioress tells the story of a Jewish Ghetto in Asia. A Christian boy in the city is singing the prayer Alma Redemptoris on his way home from school. When the Jews hear his prayer, they become furious with him. In their rage, the Jewish people hire a thug to slit the boy’s throat, and they throw the body into a pit. The boy’s mother laments , and when the boy is discovered and a funeral held, the Jews are killed by hanging. The boy is sprinkled with holy water, and he begins to sing. He says that he has been given a grain by the Virgin Mary, and when it is removed he dies. The Christians in the city bury the boy in a marble tomb as a martyr. (“The Geoffrey Chaucer Website Homepage.” Harvard University.)
The obviously hateful and ignorant undertones of antisemitism found in this story illustrate how not only Jews, but all those who were different were framed in the middle ages. Chaucer is not alone in his views, but it is perhaps more startling to realize that one of the great fathers of the English language was, by modern standards, a bigot. It is necessary to look beyond the fear of the middle ages to see that this story is really about how the purity of society, namely that of the church, must be maintained. Although the Jews are used as antagonists, they really represent the greater threat of corruption against the Catholic Church. (“ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.”)
The Prioress’s story expresses many of the common social conventions of the time. This tale, among many others, reflects the culture of fourteenth century Europe by depicting the common view of Jews as evil and murderous. Clearly the tale isn’t based on true events, but it is treated as a warning about Jews. Chaucer was heavily influenced by the cultural, political, and religious norms of his period. Medieval culture during Chaucer’s lifetime was rapidly changing as a result of problems with the church, and shifts in the ways people thought were occurring with increasing regularity. Increased social mobility, less dependence upon the church, and more self government within the cities became common. (“ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.”)
“The Prioress’s Tale” along with the tales of the friar and the monk illustrate the views Chaucer held regarding the Church at the time. He, like many of his time, saw the church as corrupt and earthly. The church had been slowly accumulating wealth over hundreds of years of dominance in Europe, and it flaunted it with golden reliquaries and rich, expensive cathedrals. Chaucer took particular offense at the fact that even the monasteries had become corrupt. These views are reflected in the fact that he depicts the clergy in the “Canterbury Tales” as, at best earthly and aristocratic, and at worst corrupt and greedy. (Hadow, 393)
The poem makes many connections between its protagonists and the Virgin Mary. The child makes direct reference to her during the miracle of his singing while dead. Mary was the consummate symbol of purity in the middle ages, and Chaucer is evoking her to symbolize the need for a return to the earlier days of the church. In contrast, the story ties the Jews to Satan. Chaucer says how the ghetto where the Jews live is a place where the king has “allowed” usury and evil things to happen. Clearly the ghetto is seen as a benefit to the Jews, and the king is viewed in a less positive light because the ghetto is allowed to be present in the city. Jews were often seen as dirty or corrupt. In addition to being a reflection upon medieval culture, this serves as a metaphor for the decay of society. (“ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.”)
“The Prioress’ Tale” is a perfect example of how much of our early history and literature is based on antiquated ideas about race and religion, however it is also an influential piece of poetic and literary work. Chaucer shaped much of the way in which modern poetry is written by using iambic pentameter. It originally allowed the illiterate to understand his story, but it continued to be used as a rhyme scheme for centuries. Though the rhyme scheme and other poetic aspects of the tales are difficult to see once translated into Modern English, when read in Middle English, it is clear that the impact of Chaucer’s work is present in the works of Shakespeare and others.(“The World of Chaucer.” University of Glasgow.)
Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” were written in Middle English, an earlier form of English. Middle English is the language which eventually developed into the modern English we use today. Chaucer is often considered one of the fathers of the English language, an important contributor to the growth of the language. In the poetic stories in the “Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer used iambic pentameter similarly to Shakespeare’s poems. This is one of the ways by which modern scholars have been able to determine the proper Middle English pronunciation. Middle English is, contrary to popular belief, far from what Shakespeare spoke. William Shakespeare spoke Early-Modern English. Chaucer’s English was a far older version of the language, spoken from the eleventh century AD until as late as the seventeenth century in some rural areas. (“ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.”)
In his work, Chaucer creates an engaging narrative of the travels of the pilgrims on the road to the tomb of the great defender of the Church, Thomas Becket. He does this by using the stories they tell to one another, rather than by directly telling the story of their travels. This allows him to develop their character using the stories they tell. Chaucer’s tales analyze members of Medieval society such as the Prioress, and he uses this to comment on society and to send a message about the church. Chaucer’s views on Jews and other cultural differences between his time an ours are evident in his writing, and they illustrate the rich historical period in which Chaucer live out his days. (Ward 105)
Beers, Henry A. “From Chaucer to Tennyson [Hardcover].” From Chaucer to Tennyson: Henry A. Beers: 9780554329208: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.amazon.com/From-Chaucer-Tennyson-Henry-Beers/dp/0554329204>. Used P. 50-106 regarding the influence of Chaucer on English poetry.
“The Geoffrey Chaucer Website Homepage.” Harvard University. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/>. Homepage of the Chaucer studies at Harvard.
Hadow, Grace E. “Chaucer and His Times [Paperback].” Chaucer and His Times: Grace E. Hadow: 9781162729510: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. Used pages 93-272 regarding the life of Chaucer related to his writing.
Hulbert, James. “Chaucer’s Official Life …” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books/about/Chaucer_s_official_life.html?id=17wLAAAAYAAJ>. Used pages 9-239 regarding Chaucer’s time as a courtier in London.
“ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.” ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.the-orb.net/textbooks/anthology/beidler/life.html>. Online article regarding the life and works of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Ward, Adolphus William. Chaucer,. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880. Print. Used pages 97-490 regarding the influences on Chaucer in his time.
“The World of Chaucer.” University of Glasgow. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/chaucer/index.html>. Copies of the actual works of Chaucer, including the Prioress’ tale.