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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 4)

January 13th, 2011

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There are actually several layers, each progressively more concrete. God is highly abstract, Jesus less so. Mary, who is just a human being, is even more concrete. But even that is not enough. The prioress needs something she can touch. It is highly unlikely that the prioress fully grasps the concept of transubstantiation, but she clearly appreciates religious rituals. She advocates going through with the rituals, such as prayer, even if the person performing the ritual has absolutely no idea what it all really means. Her need for visuals to convey knowledge carries over into the discomforting violence of the final dozen stanzas. Not only is there the violent crime against the boy, and his supernatural singing, but also the retributive justice and dirge by the public and the boy’s mother over his death.

This odious murder of the little boy incites barbarous violence against the Jews. The prioress attempts to justify the wholesale execution of a large number of people though their often tenuous complicity in the heinous crime. The local magistrate gathers up the Jews, declaring:

“Yvel shal have that yvel wol deserve:”

Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,

And after that he heng hem by the lawe. (198–200)

The offending Jews are not only drawn by horses, but also hanged. More importantly, all of this is done in accordance with the law. The prioress already established that this region had a Christian ruler. It follows that the laws and punishments should reflect this Christian background. Christian theology is ostensibly based on love, which when consistently applied should not promote murder. Christ taught his subjects to “turn the other cheek” and love their “brothers. ” The prioress, in being both a woman and more specifically a nun, might reasonably be expected to be a pacifist. She is not; the outraged populace in her tale wants vengeance and they get it. A calm, reasoned approach to the murder (if such a thing is possible), would be to methodically determine whom to blame. With guilt established, perhaps even a Christian argument could be made to justify execution of those involved. Instead, the entire group is mercilessly slaughtered. What follows is treacle displays of mourning for the murdered boy, then a stanza of pure hypocrisy. The prioress offers a final prayer emphasizing, of all things, mercy: “That, of his mercy, God so merciable On us his grete mercy multiplye” (254–255). In only two lines, “mercy” appears three times. In one respect, the prioress is finally getting something right: Christianity does indeed teach mercy. However, they just had an opportunity to show mercy to the Jews, or at least humanity. Instead, they brutally murdered them. Once again, she is able to express the Christian ideas without even beginning to grasp what they mean. A request for mercy is not a meaningless string of words offered because social institutions say it’s the right time. It is a profound statement of humility before a person whose powers exceed your own or, in this case, before God Himself.

The Prioress’s Tale is one of brazen self-righteousness, gross ignorance of other cultures and religions. The title character is hopelessly solipsistic with no ability to look beyond her own carefully constructed fantasy world. As a result, she ends up blindly advocating a host of evils and lesser wrongs.

Bibliography

Besserman, Lawrence. “Ideology, Antisemitism, and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. ”The Chaucer Review 36. 1 (2001) 48-72

Patterson, Lee. “‘The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption’: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. ” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31. 3 (2001) 507-560.

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