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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale

January 13th, 2011

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Through her words and actions, the prioress of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale makes it plainly evident that she is a hypocrite who does not understand her own religion. The prioress’s misconceptions about her own religion lead to an illogical condemnation of Jews, a people who could scarcely be found in England in Chaucer’s period. Her insecurities regarding her sex and confidence in the validity of her faith and also her close-mindedness prevent her from gaining any sort of meaningful knowledge of other religions and peoples. Instead, she tries to spread her bigotry and willful ignorance with an inflammatory version of a tale common in the 14th century. Her tale seeks to elevate Christian women, such as herself, by constant invocations to Mary and the denigration of Jews. Tearing down another group makes hers seem, by comparison, better. To that end, she spews vitriolic anti-Semitism in her ridiculously macabre tale.

To ensure outrage at the murder to come, and to set up her tale, the prioress first must establish the victim as a wholly sympathetic character. While no one doubts the boy’s innocence, the prioress goes to almost comic (and satirical? lengths to also establish his near inhuman virtue. After learning that the Alma Redemptorisis about Mary, whom the boy and prioress both venerate with obsession, he declares:

“Now certes, I wol do my diligence

To conne it al, er Cristemasse be went.

Though that I for my prymer shal be shent,

And shal be beten thryes in an houre,

I wol it conne, oure Lady for to honoure. ” (105–109)

This sort of dedication may be expected from a member of a religious order, such as the prioress, who clearly approves of such a sacrifice. Indeed, the boy’s willingness to suffer multiple beatings for failure to study his primer could even be described as self-flagellation. The problem is that this boy is only seven years old. No amount of indoctrination is going to make a child that young eagerly accept physical abuse in exchange for the opportunity to memorize “by rote” (88) a song. He is not even going to truly study the song and its depths. How could he? He learned of the song by hearing other boys singing it. His peers, even the older ones, have only a superficial understanding of the prayers. So, too, does the prioress. Later on, the boy survives, temporarily at least, a vicious attack. The boy explains to an abbot that “for the worship of his moder dere Yet may I singe O Alma laude and clere” (220–221). Does it matter that he lacks all meaningful comprehension of the prayer? Not according to the prioress. He can mimic the sounds of the prayer and he worships Mary. That is more than sufficient for her. She doesn’t understand the prayer much better than he does; by her standard, he has done all that he needs to. After all, “in Chaucer’s day you were ignorant, or mad, or demonic to think that God did not exist, or could be anything other than the ultimate reality” (Besserman, 60). The laity did not need to spend much time contemplating metaphysics and ethics. However, a religion that lasts requires a careful and thorough examination of its fundamentals. Incoherent mysticism can gain an ephemeral following, but for a religion to survive a millennium, smart people must dedicate time and energy to the development of cohesive, internally consistent theological concepts and tenets. The prioress fails to comprehend the complexities of Catholicism. She reduces Christian virtue to rote memory of prayers. While such memory work is at least valuable in a Christian context, it is not fundamental to the religion.

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