8: The Prioress's Tale Summary and Analysis.
After jesting rather coarsely about the monk in the Shipman's Tale—and monks in general—the Host switches to a tone of exaggerated politeness in inviting the Prioress to tell her tale.
A very young schoolboy learns a difficult Latin hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary because of his deep devotion to her. Every day, on the way to school and on the way home, he passes through the Jewish ghetto of the town singing the hymn.
Taking his singing as a direct insult, a group of wicked Jews has an assassin slit the boy's throat. The child's widowed mother searches for him everywhere. She finally discovers his poor little body on a dung heap. Miraculously, the child is still singing his hymn.
The Christians of the town bear his body to the monastery for burial, awed by the miracle of the child's continued singing. The boy, still able to speak, reveals to the abbot that the Virgin Mary has placed a miraculous kernel on his tongue which enables him to hold to life and continue his song. Profoundly affected, the Abbott removes the kernel and the child's pure spirit ascends to heaven. All the Christians are confirmed in their faith and the wicked Jews are tortured and killed.
Discussion and Analysis
True to her perfectionist, sentimental nature, the Prioress begins with a long apologetic prayer to the Virgin Mary. Her story of the martyred child resembles popular saints' stories of the day. It has a very preachy and morbid tone.
Though they appear to the modern reader as very negative aspects of this story, her reverence for chastity and her harsh judgment of the Jews are both reflections of common medieval Catholic beliefs. The violent nature of the events in the story seem to be in contradiction to a personality as sensitive as the Prioress's is supposed to be, suggesting that she may be much tougher than she wishes to reveal. She is, after all, in a position of great authority over others.