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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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By writing the Prioress as a character who is not fond of Jewish people in the Prioress' Tale, is Chaucer painting her as a critique or a reflection of the time?

Many critics have debated whether the Prioress' dislike towards Jewish people in the Prioress' Tale represents Chaucer's own views or is a critique of that viewpoint. Chaucer likely interacted very little with Jewish people in his everyday life, although he did travel and meet them. The harmful stereotypes and violent depictions of Jews by the Prioress may suggest an overtly negative tone towards them.

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The ongoing debate about the anti-Semitism that permeates the “Prioress’s Tale” seems fairly divided about whether Chaucer himself was anti-Semitic, or if he is using the character of the Prioress to criticize this aspect of his society. The dominant opinion also has oscillated depending on the historical era in which the critics wrote.

Those who believe that Chaucer is revealing his own prejudices point to the fact that few if any Jews lived in England in the fourteenth century, as the Church had expelled them. Based on the idea that Chaucer, who had traveled widely, had himself met Jews has been used to support that idea. This seems to sidestep the fundamental problem that the bias represented is not about one person’s opinion of actual individuals but that person’s adoption of systemic social bias. The promotion of the “blood libel” accusation was a standard feature of Medieval intolerance of Jews. The idea that Jews are not living in England is also a separate issue, as the story is set in a distant land.

The question of tone in the lines Chaucer gives the Prioress should be considered for the entire tale, not only the lines about the Jews’ abduction and murder of the child. She is clear from the outset that her tale is motivated by extreme devotion to the Virgin Mary, whom she addresses and praises extensively at the beginning. When she refers to the Jews in the Asian city, she uses standard stereotypes of the time: they live by “foul usury,” a practice that the country’s lord support and is “hateful to Christ” and all Christians. The little boy who, like the Prioress, is devoted to Mary is deemed an “innocent child” who does not forget to worship her, as symbolized by his constantly singing her praise song.

While the Prioress clearly states that the Jews deliberately hired a murderer to kill the child, she also attributes the blame to Satan, “our first foe”; as a serpent, he nested in the hearts of Jews. In this way, she lays the blame on the devil more than the humans through whom he acted. The Prioress also exaggerates the murderer’s actions to make them seem as heinous as possible, heightening the shock value. The reader might doubt if she intends the story to be taken literally: he not only killed the boy, but threw his body into the privy—a symbolic defilement of the child’s purity.

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