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Anti semitic tone in the prioress’s tale



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  • 1. Anti-Semitic Tone in the Prioress’s Tale By Lanette Calvetti Authentic Assessment English 309 October 27, 2013
  • 2. Was the Prioress’s Tale an illustration of Chaucer’s disdain for Jews? Was the Prioress’s Tale meant to focus on the hate for Jews that had spread across England and the rest of Europe, therefore expressing Chaucer’s own feelings toward Jews? Was it meant to be a tale that highlighted one of the “Marian Miracles”, that unfortunately portrayed Jews in a poor light? What aspects of the tale are considered Anti-Semitic?
  • 3. Summary of Prioress’s Tale      The Prioress tells starts off by praying to God that she would tell the best story she could. The Prioress then proceeds to tell a tale that is criticized by many as being anti-Semitic. The story takes place in a predominately Jewish part of town that was also the location for the Christian school. “A litel clergeon, seven yeer of age”(Skeat, 392) being a devout Christian, works really hard to learn the Alma Redemptoris. Once he learned the words he sang it everyday to and from the school, to the dismay of the local Jewish families that also lived in the neighborhood.
  • 4. Summary of the Prioress’s Tale (con’t)     The Jews took offense to this and hired someone to kill the little boy. After questioning several of the people in the Jewish neighborhood, the mother found the little boy in a cesspool. He was dead, but still singing the Alma Redemptoris. Jews were accused and immediately executed in a violent manner. She took him to the local abbey where a funeral was held for him- all the while he sang, stating that Mary had placed a seed in his mouth that allowed him to continue to praise her by his singing.
  • 5. Upon first reading:  The mention of Jews seems to be a background story.  The main focus is the little boy who could still sing after having his throat slit. Thus illustrating a Marian Miracle.  It is not until rereading the story and understanding the timeframe in which it was written that the undertones of anti-Semitism are sensed.
  • 6. Anti Semitic Points  Christian boy (at an age of innocence) is murdered by someone that Jews hired (presumably Jewish)  Guilty Jews are hunted down and punished severely.  Story line resembles the old stories of Blood libel passed down over the last century or more.  Story ends with the ‘witnessing’ of the Marian miracle that the boy can still sing, because of the seed Mary has placed in his mouth.
  • 7. Anti-Semitic Points (con’t)   “Yet the anti-Semitism of the Prioress’s Tale is both blatant and surprisingly extensive. The tale contains virtuallly every slander against the Jews circulated by medieval Christians” (Patterson 51920). Evidence in text:    “Hateful to Crist and to his companye” (Skeat, 392) “Our primal foe, the serpent Sathanas, That hath in Jewes herte his waspes nest” (393) “Oh cursed folk of Herodes al newe…the blood out cryeth on your cursed dede” (393)
  • 8. Prioress was definitely Anti-Semitic  “Chaucer was not denying the possibility that Jews were instruments of the devil who would murder little boys, but his focus was rather on the Prioress's treatment of the Jews- undoubtedly guilty as seen through medieval eyes- and on her "unchristian" demand for adherence to the law” (Zitter,278)
  • 9. Prioress was definitely Anti-Semitic (con’t)  “ Far from irrelevant, this historical layering is central to the meaning of the tale that is now retold” (Patterson,507).  Reffering to the combined elements of tales of Jewish ‘ritual murder’
  • 10. Associated tales of Blood Libel  William of Norwich Story of boy who was killed by Jews for the use of his blood at the Passover feast. The accused were not allowed to defend themselves. Many were executed as revenge. (Abrahams, 81)  Little St. Hugh of Lincoln Boy allegedly murdered by Jews of Lincoln. Even though guilt could not be proven, a number of Jews were executed for his death. (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906) news.bbc.co.uk 
  • 11. Religious climate in the times of Chaucer. • The Edict of Expulsion, issued in the year 1290, forced all Jews out of England. “Jews were forbidden by the act of the King and his Council to enjoy a freehold in manors, lands, tenements, fiefs rents or tenures of any kind” ( Abrahams, 100) • Prior to this Edict of Expulsion, many Jews were accused of Blood-libel ( the murdering of Christian children so that their blood can be used for making matzo) William of Norwich Little St Hugh of Lincoln – The Prioress refers to this martyr in her tale. ( Abrahams, 80)
  • 12. Map of Expulsion of Jews
  • 13. Chaucer’s Times  Chaucer was born approximately 50 years after the Edict of Expulsion, which means that he was born in a time when no or very few Jews even lived in England.  The idea of keeping England pure still existed  Stories of Blood-libel still circulating. www.biography.com 
  • 14. Anti-Semitic?  “But if Chaucer meant the Prioress to criticize anti-Semitism, he simply would not have made the story work so well. With the stateliness of its rime royal stanzaic form, the tenderness of the opening lines of its Prologue, and the careful building up of pathos and emotion, Chaucer's masterly hand has created a work that moves even modern-day readers and critics” (Zitter,277)
  • 15. Or not? “Chaucer’s culture was not wholly anti-Semitic, and Chaucer satirizes those who were by creating insipid anti-Semites; the Prioress, not her maker, therefore is anti-Semitic, and Chaucer was a sensitive, tolerant man, ahead of his time and thus welcomed in our own.” (Calabrese, 74)
  • 16. In conclusion:  We will never know what Chaucer’s true feelings were toward Jews. Creating an anti-Semitic character does not define an author.  Chaucer’s character The Prioress definitely holds antiSemitic values.  As in the other characters, we can reasonably assume that Chaucer created a satirical character in the Prioress, using her to bring attention this problem of his times.
  • 17. Works Cited  Abrahams, Lionel. The Expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol 7, No 1. University of Pennsylania Press, PA. Oct. 1894. p.75-100  Calabrese, Michael. "Performing The Prioress: 'Conscience' And Responsibility In Studies Of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale." Texas Studies In Literature & Language 44.1 (2002): p66-91 . Web.  Patterson, Lee. "'The Living Witnesses Of Our Redemption': Martyrdom And Imitation In Chaucer's Prioress's Tale." Journal Of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 31.3 (2001): 507.Academic . Web.  Skeat, W. W. "The Prioress's Tale." Great Books of the Western World:Chaucer. Vol. 22. Chicago, IL.: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952. 392-94. Print.  Zitter, Emmy S. “Anti-Semitism in the Prioress’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review, Vol 25, No 4. Penn State University Press, PA. 1991. p.277-284  “Hugh of Lincoln” . JewishEncyclopedia.com. The Kopelman Foundation, 1906.  http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7921-hugh-of-lincoln