The Court Poets Their Function Status And Craft Leiws Ceri

Lewis, Ceri W. "The Court Poets: Their Function, Status and Craft." In A Guide to Welsh Literature, Vol. 1, edited by A. O. H. Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes, 123-156. Swansea: Christopher Davies, 1976.

Kathleen H. Formosa

"PRIORESS'S TALE, THE" Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1385) "The Prioress's Tale" is part of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Written in stately rhyme royal, the tale is 238 lines long and the shortest of the completed tales. The shortness of the poem suggests that it had been recited during a visit on March 26, 1387, by King Richard II and Queen Anne to Lincoln Cathedral, which houses the shrine of St. Hugh, the young Christian martyr mentioned at the end of this tale. "The Prioress's Tale" belongs to the narrative grouping called the Miracles of the Virgin, which is a subgenre of the greater group known by its Latin term legenda (saints' legends); it is related to hagiography. "The Prioress's Tale" is based on these stories in which, upon hearing the pleas from her devotees, the Virgin Mary rescues them from danger or harm. These stories of miraculous rescue and protection by the Virgin Mary became highly popular between the 12th and 15th centuries and were disseminated throughout Europe in a variety of narrative forms, both written and oral.

The tale's prologue is a devotional prayer to the Virgin Mary. The five stanzas mark an allusion to the five joys and five sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Praising the Virgin Mary's power and goodness, the Prioress pleads for her aid in telling the story of the little Christian boy who becomes a martyr in the service of the Virgin Mary. This devotion is a masterful interweaving by Chaucer of echoes and allusions from a variety of religious sources, such as Psalm 8, the biblical story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents, the Mass of the Holy Innocents, and the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. Emphasis is placed heavily in the tale on the theme of innocence, thereby providing the stark and brutal contrast to the realities of earthly and material affairs. Words such asyong, tendre, and smale permeate the story in order to underscore the meek and mild nature—two traits highly valued in the medieval Christian culture—of the little Christian boy, who presses forward through life each day, blissfully unaware of the worldly dangers that constantly surround him.

Chaucer sets the boy's story in the exotic locale of Asia, and there, in the midst of a nondescript Jewish ghetto, is a Christian school. Each day the seven-year-old boy, a widow's son, walks through the ghetto to the school. During his short journey, he sings the antiphon Alma redemptoris mater as proof of his deep devotion for the Virgin Mary. Hearing this child's song, Satan stirs up the Jewish community to plot and kill the Christian boy. The Jews hire a murderer to slit the boy's throat and throw him into a latrine filled with waste and sewage. When the boy fails to return home after school, his mother begins a frantic search for him, all the while praying to the Virgin Mary, whom the widow believes will understand her desperate plight.

Not finding her little boy anywhere, the widow enters the Jewish ghetto and begs and pleads with each Jew for any news of her son. The Jews reject her pleas, but help comes through Christ, who leads the widow to the site where her boy's body is lying. The boy once again begins to sing the Alma redemptoris mater in a loud, clear voice. upon hearing the antiphon, Christians from the community appear at the site and marvel at this miracle. The boy is then lifted out of the latrine and taken to the nearest abbey for proper burial.

Chaucer wastes little time with the punishment of the Jews for their crimes. In stark and matter-of-fact language, they are summarily put to death as prescribed by law—hanged and drawn by horses. In the medieval period, this act of punishment is usually reserved for those who committed treasonous acts. Chaucer's description of the Jews' punishment as a treasonous act may tie back to the New Testament story of the treasonous act of Judas against Christ, which led to his crucifixion.

Meanwhile, the little Christian boy explains to the abbot that at the time of his death, the Virgin Mary appeared and placed a seed on his tongue so that he could sing and promised to take him to her when the seed was removed. The abbot then removes the seed, and the boy "softly gave up his soul," after which his body is placed in a marble tomb. Chaucer ends the tale with an invocation, a plea through prayer, to Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, asking the saint to pray for sinful folk and that God grant his mercy in honor of the Virgin Mary.

"The Prioress's Tale" is not only connected to Virgin Miracle tales but is also more directly based on the myth of "blood libel," which involves the depiction of Jews as soldiers of Satan, and the ritualistic act of murder, particularly of Christian children, as a commonplace, and perhaps enjoyable, undertaking. The myth extended to the idea that the blood of a Christian child was used to make Passover matzohs. Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, who is invoked at the end of the tale (ll. 684686), and St. William of Norwich were both considered part of this tradition. Blood libel saints were all boys, though more general stories sometimes included girls. This division based on sex was directly linked to the Christian fear of circumcision and the belief that it would "convert" a Christian male.

The violent and anti-Semitic nature of "The Prioress's Tale" has proven problematic for modern readers. In general, anti-Semitism was part of the social fabric of medieval Christian Europe, and Chaucer, as many other writers of the medieval period, used stereotypes as a means to heighten the pathos of a predominantly Christian audience. For instance, the reference to "Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also / with cursed Jewes . . ." is a deliberate device. Hugh (d. 1255) was not actually murdered by Jews, and that was known even in Chaucer's day; however, it was widely believed to be the case since 19 Jews were executed for the crime. It is difficult to address the nature of anti-Semitism within such a cultural context; nevertheless, it is egregious and pervasive. Chaucer was, at minimum, an insightful observer of human nature, and "The Prioress's Tale" can be perceived as an investigation into a society's capability for violence and cruelty in contrast to an individual's innate ability for compassion and pity.

The narrative layout of "The Prioress's Tale" follows three major Christian themes that can be found in many other religious tales of the 14th century. These include several Canterbury tales, such as "The Man of Law's Tale," "The Clerk's Tale," "The Second Nun's Tale," and, to some extent, "The Pardoner's Tale." Each of these tales highlights the themes of travel, suffering, and reward. In "The Prioress' Tale," for example, the theme of travel is reflected in the boy's journey through the Jewish ghetto to his school; the theme of suffering is underscored by his death and the agony experienced by his mother; the reward is brought when the seed is removed and the boy goes to heaven. It can also be linked to the genre of exemplum, particularly illustrating the moral "mordre wol out" (l. 576)— murder will be revealed. The tale's religious affiliations are further strengthened by its continual reference to prayer: It opens with an invocation, refers to a hymn throughout, and also contains several instances of prayer-like interruptions by the narrator (e.g., "O martir sowded to virginitee . . .," l. 579).

"The Prioress's Tale" also shares other important themes with the tales of the Clerk and Physician, such as parenthood and children, for example. The social turmoil following the Black Death—including the increase in child mortality rates—is revealing in "The Prioress's Tale," rendered even more poignant through the widow's extreme grief and her social class. She is often compared to the Virgin Mary, as a humble earthly representation of the mater dolorosa (grieving mother). Reading "The Prioress's Tale" with these themes in mind reveals the greater complex nature of medieval society and Chaucer's attempt at tackling stark realities.

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