Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 3)
In so doing, she destroys any possibility of gaining new insight into the religion from which hers derived.
The prioress seeks to further validate her anti-Semitic views by associating Jews with Satan. As the boy sings Alma Redemptoris through the Jewish quarter, Satan whispers into the Jew’s ears. Evidently, Jews are close friends, or at least loyal subjects, of Satan. Indeed, the dark lord “hath in Jewes herte his wasps nest” (125). This is demeaning on several levels. Not only is there the obvious association with Satan himself, but apparently the very hearts of Jews are empty, sub-human shells. Love may dwell in Christian hearts, but Jews have only a wasp’s nest. Satan goes on to admonish the Jews for allowing the boy to sing his prayer against “oure lawes” (130). This is an inflammatory creation on the part of the prioress. The “oure” is slightly problematic; some lesser manuscripts read “youre. ” Either Satan is the lord of the Jews or he at least functions as a protector of their laws. In either case, the implications are the same. Jewish law, as conceived of by the prioress, is violently anti-Christian. By created this falsehood of mutual antipathy, she can better justify her own rabid anti-Semitism.
All of the evils in this tale stem from a lack of knowledge, or misinformation. Bad information ultimately stems from bad epistemology. Neither the prioress, nor any character in her stories, exhibits an understanding as to how to obtain legitimate, truthful knowledge—the kind from which progress flows. As a substitute for real knowledge, rationally ascertained and disseminated, the prioress relies on the emotional response of the audience to physical gore. Acting on direct orders from none other than Satan, the Jews conspired to kill the boy. They hired a murderer who grabs the boy on his way home from school and “kitte his throte, and in a pit him caste” (137). This highly sensational murder is told to incite a purely emotional reaction. There is nothing wrong with emotions, per se. Emotions serve as an automatic manifestation of our most sincere and innate values. However, they are not infallible. A misidentification of how a specific action applies to our values, or even of the values themselves, can result in the wrong emotional response. Emotions wield a strong power over us, but we are still fundamentally rational beings and we need not act on our emotions when reason tells us otherwise.
After the throat slitting, the tale quickly turns even more macabre and disturbing. The boy’s mother finds him and he sings the prayer loudly. Through divine intervention, he is able to overcome physical limitations. He tells the people, “Me thoghte she leyde a greyn upon my tonge” (228). The act of Mary extending the life of a fatally injured boy is theologically complex. How can someone live with a slit throat? How can that person sing? The “greyn” has no direct, logical connection to its effect. It is not a bandage or ointment. The “greyn” is not even placed that close to the wound. So what is the “greyn”? Communion wafers are placed on top of the tongue by the clergy in the Catholic Church. This “greyn” could be a literal grain or seed, or it could be a metonymy for a communion wafer. The prioress, despite her position of religious authority, operates on a very simplistic level regarding religion, just like the boy. She needs a concrete object present. The same principle applies to the sale of absolutions by a pardoner. It is too abstract to just say that by God’s grace the boy was allowed to stay alive a little longer.