Anti-Semitic Tone in the Prioress’s
By Lanette Calvetti
October 27, 2013
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?
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
“A litel clergeon, seven yeer of age”(Skeat, 392) being
a devout Christian, works really hard to learn the
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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)
Prioress was definitely Anti-Semitic (con’t)
“ Far from irrelevant,
this historical layering is
central to the meaning
of the tale that is now
Reffering to the
combined elements of
tales of Jewish ‘ritual
Associated tales of Blood Libel
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,
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
( Abrahams, 80)
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
The idea of keeping England pure
Stories of Blood-libel still
“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”
“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)
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
Abrahams, Lionel. The Expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. The Jewish
Review, Vol 7, No 1. University of Pennsylania Press, PA. Oct. 1894. p.75-100
Calabrese, Michael. "Performing The Prioress: 'Conscience' And
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.