illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Prioress’s Tale Summary

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The Prioress’s Prologue

The Prioress opens her prologue by praising God. Next she venerates the Virgin Mary, explaining that she will strive to honor Mary by her story. She sings Mary’s praises, comparing her to the burning bush that Moses saw and proclaiming her magnificence, virtue, and humility. She asks Mary to pray for God’s people and guide them to her son. Then she asks her to help her tell the story she intends.

The Prioress’s Tale

In a city in Asia, there is a Jewish ghetto that Christian children must pass through to get to their school. A seven-year-old boy, the son of a widow, has a great devotion to the Virgin Mary. He learns all he can at school, and one day, he hears others singing a hymn to Mary. He does not understand the Latin, but soon he has the first verse memorized.

The little boy asks an older student to explain the hymn and teach it to him. He decides that he will learn the whole song in honor of Mary, and he soon does. The boy sings the song constantly, especially on his way to and from school. When the Jews hear it, they are angry, and the devil stirs them up to harm the innocent child.

One of them captures the boy one day, cuts his throat, and throws him in the latrine. His mother is frantic when her son does not return home, and she searches for her child, asking all the Jews if they have seen him but getting only a firm “nay.”

Then the widow hears a song. It is her little boy, singing his hymn to Mary. The Christians quickly send for the magistrate, and they find the child and take him into the church, still singing. The guilty Jews are tortured and put to death for the crime.

The miraculous song continues even though such a thing would be physically impossible, and an abbot asks the child how he can still sing with his throat cut. He explains that the Virgin Mary came to him and put a grain on his tongue so that he could continue to sing and be found. The abbot removes the grain, and the boy dies peacefully as the abbot weeps. The Christians bury the little martyr, whose soul has gone to God.

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