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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Explain the irony between the Prioress’ portrayal in the General Prologue and the story she chooses to tell in The Canterbury Tales.

The irony between the Prioress' portrayal in the General Prologue and the Prioress' Tale lies in her supposedly devout Christian view. In the General Prologue, the Prioress' superficial and pretentious nature is revealed, undermining her reputation as a perfect religious figure. This makes her tale about the violent Jewish murderer less about Satan's influence and more about her antisemitism.

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The Prioress in the General Prologue appears worldly and superficially refined. She speaks French, but has learned it in the East End of London rather than in Paris. She pays great attention to food and drink, even feeding her hounds on a diet that many people might envy. She is so sentimental that she cries if she sees a mouse caught in a trap. Finally, she is fastidious about her clothing and jewelry, wearing a brooch with the distinctly secular motto "Amor vincit omnia."

The Prioress's pretensions to devoutness have been sufficiently undermined in the General Prologue. It would merely confirm the reader's judgment if she were to tell a bawdy tale, as many of the other pilgrims do. Instead, Chaucer goes in the opposite direction and makes her tell a ferociously grisly tale about an angelic child who is brutally murdered and thrown into a cesspit by a gang of Jews for singing Christian songs.

The child is able to speak before he dies, due to a miracle which he attributes to the Virgin Mary. This places the story within a popular genre of Christian stories, a "Miracle of the Virgin Tale." However, the vitriol in the way the Jews are portrayed and the emphasis on violence and disgust make the Prioress, who appeared to take her faith very lightly in the General Prologue, appear to be a grim fanatic when she comes to tell her tale. Although the modern reader is likely to react more strongly to the Prioress's Anti-Semitism than Chaucer's contemporaries, her depiction of the Jews as deranged murderers motivated by Satan was extreme even by medieval standards.

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