Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 2)
But, the prioress is not concerned so much with the adherence to legitimate Christian principles but rather to the institution of the Catholic Church, of which she is a part. Her insecurities about her beliefs, a result of not thinking them over, result in her desperate need to cling to the institution. This explains her position as a prioress. She lives in her own cloistered world, leading a group of nuns who do not bother her with provocative or critical questions about the nature their religion. She is a shepherd so engrossed with the affairs of her own flock that she is incapable of understanding outsiders of any sort. Thus, the attack against the boy receives a sudden, too-broad and ultimately unthinking reaction in the tale.
The prioress goes further than mere childhood innocence; she makes the boy Christ-like. She calls the Jews the “cursed folk of Herodes” (140). This not-so-subtle epithet invokes the Biblical account of Christ’s birth and his escape from the infamous order by Herod to slay all the baby boys. The boy in this tale also suffers an untimely death for his Christianity, but at a much earlier age than Jesus. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two is still clearly present, fixed in the minds of the audience. The song itself also conjures associations between the boy and Christ. It was commonly sung during the Boy Bishop rituals, popular in England at the time, which coincided with the Mass of Holy Innocents. “In the Middle Ages, the Holy Innocents were traditionally understood as types of Christ, who was himself in turn often represented in late medieval religious writing and drama as a sacrificial child” (Patterson, 510). Thus, the boy’s Christian goodness is magnified to that of the ultimate exemplar, Christ Himself.
Having elevated the sacrificial victim to a quasi-divine status, the prioress continues her over-the-top tale by vilifying the Jews. She gives the setting as Asia Minor, a Muslim area. In the Middle Ages, Judaism and Islam were often conflated by the Christians of Western Europe. Both groups have darker skin and write using alphabets different from the Roman alphabet. To many of the less than well-traveled people of medieval England, the differences between Judaism and Islam were minor and, more importantly, irrelevant. After all, if Christianity is true, then other religions are necessarily false—at least in the popular view. The special status of the Jews, God’s “chosen people,” within a Christian culture was largely overlooked in the Middle Ages. The particular region she describes is ruled by a Christian, but with a Jewish quarter, sustained by the lord of that country “For foule usure and lucre of vileynye, Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye” (57–58). Medieval Catholic teachings forbade Christians from usury, but that did not mean the practice disappeared. Economic enterprise requires the lending of money—and people tend to be unwilling to lend money without any sort of benefit. In short, usury is a vital component of a healthy economy. The Church condemned a requirement of the society that sustained it. To have it both ways, they simply let Jews become the bankers. According to the prioress, this makes the Jews “hateful to Crist. ” This is blatant hypocrisy. The Christians condemned Jews for taking up a profession that they were simply unwilling to do themselves. This snap-judgment further reveals the Prioress’s own simplistic world-view. She uses inappropriate absolutes to describe religiosity: Christians are good; Jews are evil. What is not evident here is any attempt to understand Judaism or even Christ’s own comments regarding the Jews. She shuts out the Jews, immediately dismissing them as evil.