illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
Start Free Trial

For the Prioress’s Tale, what historical event does the Prioress claim her tale is based on? Do some research and evaluate the likelihood that this is true.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Prioress's Tale is a particularly unpleasant example of medieval anti-Semitism. The story is set in Asia. It tells of a young Christian boy murdered by Jewish people and then thrown on a dung-heap. In life, the boy was a very devout child. He had a particularly strong devotion to the Virgin Mary. He taught himself to sing the first verse of the popular hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater, which is the Latin for "Loving Mother of Our Savior".

The Jews of the city are blamed for the boy's death and are brutally put to death. They are drawn by wild horses before being hanged. Yet the boy continues to sing his song during his Requiem Mass. Apparently, he had a vision in which the Virgin Mary laid a grain on his tongue; he will keep singing until it is removed. The holy abbot of the community removes the grain and the boy finally dies.

An explicit parallel is drawn in The Prioress' Tale between the story and the real-life case of Little St. Hugh of Lincoln. He was a little boy in 13th century England who died after accidentally falling down a well. Unfortunately, the local people immediately blamed Jews for his death. This kind of immediate and unfounded blame was an all too common practice throughout Europe at that time.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were widely hated. They were regularly made scapegoats for every misfortune. In particular, they were subjected to notorious blood libel, which held that they performed evil rituals on Christian children as part of their religion. Many innocent people suffered because of this repulsive smear, not least in Lincoln. A large number of Jews were put to death over the alleged murder of Little St. Hugh.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team