What is so disturbing about "The Prioress's Tale"?

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luannw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The blatant anti-semitism is disturbing in "The Prioress's Tale" as is the brutality. Briefly, the story is about a young Christian boy who, having learned a song that was in praise of the Virgin Mary, sang it walking to and from school each day.  His path took him through the Jewish ghetto region of the city.  Some people in the ghetto took offense to the song and brutally killed the boy by slitting his throat and then dumped the child's body in a pit of excrement.  The boy miraculously continues to sing allowing his mother to find him.  The perpetrators of the crime were found and savagely put to death.  Several times in her tale, the Prioress refers to the Jews in very negative terms.  She makes it seem that the Jews, simply by being Jewish, are liars because the boy's mother goes door to door in the Jewish neighborhood asking about her son and getting no response.  The Prioress also says that "all these Jews conspired" indicating that it was a wide-spread quality.

aguacaliente | Student

The Prioress's Tale refers to Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. You can find much information and further links elsewhere on the Web. See also William of Norwich, Simon of Trent, and Robert of Bury.

I have been reading a translation of Canterbury Tales and had no idea that "Prioress" was about Hugh, whose story also found its way into song (Child Ballad). In any case, I was upset by it and had to take a break from reading Canterbury.

All Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and were not permitted to return until 1655; thus, Chaucer himself may never have met a Jewish person. Even with historical context though, it isn't a fun tale to read.

Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

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