The canterbury tales, p.115
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.115

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  The anti-Semitism implicit in the tale, and explicit in lines 559, 574–8, has given difficulties in modern times, and attempts have been made to exculpate Chaucer by attributing its disturbing combination of tenderness and cruelty to the Prioress, from whom Chaucer is supposed to be ironically distancing himself (see F. H. Ridley, The Prioress and the Critics (Berkeley, CA, 1965), pp. 1–4, for a summary of such attempts, and for a more recent argument along these lines, see R. Rex, Modern Language Quarterly, 45 (1984), 107–22). But, as R. W. Frank, Jr, has pointed out (The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, ed. L. D. Benson and S. Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI, 1982), pp. 177–88, 290–97), anti-Semitism is pervasive in Miracles of the Virgin, and there is no reason to credit Chaucer with greater sensitivity than his contemporaries in this matter; the pathos of Christian martyrdom required villainous persecutors, and also required that a difference of faith should motivate their persecutions. The complete absence of Jews in fourteenth-century England, following their expulsion by Edward I in 1290, did not prevent them from playing an important role in the emotional and symbolic configurations of medieval Christian literature. The best route to understanding the Prioress’s Tale is probably through comparison with – in the first instance – the Man of Law’s Tale, which shares its combination of violence and pathos. In both tales, Satan is portrayed as exerting his influence in the world by making specific social groups (the Jews in the Prioress’s Tale, women in the Man of Law’s Tale, 365–71) into instruments of his will. The Prioress’s Tale also shares with the Man of Law’s Tale an emphasis on Mary as an exemplar of suffering and compassionate motherhood; both tales can be linked with those of the Clerk and Physician as being especially concerned with the relation between parents and children as a model for the relation between humankind and God (see Mann, ‘Parents and Children’). Throughout these tales there runs an implicit contrast between the cruel father and the tender mother, which focuses the question of the relation between suffering and love. In the Prioress’s Tale this takes the form of the problematic relation between the tenderness represented by Mary and the boy’s mother on the one hand, and on the other, the cruelty inflicted by and on the Jews, both of which (from a medieval Christian point of view) form part of the divinely dictated plan of salvation history. It is not the Prioress but the Christian Church, and ultimately God, who authorizes the attitude to the Jews expressed in Pri 574–8. While this interpretation of the tale as an exploration of suffering and love does not defend it against the charge of contributing to the reinforcement of anti-Semitic stereotypes, and so to the perpetuation of the cruelty it deplores, it perhaps makes it possible to see the particular interest that Chaucer might have had in this story.

  488 Asie: PriT is the only version of this story to set the action in Asia, and Chaucer’s motive in choosing this remote setting is not obvious. Many versions of the tale do not specify its location, but those that do, place it in England (where its action must be assumed to pre-date the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, and in one instance is said to have been its cause), in Italy (Pisa), Spain (Toledo) or France (Le Puy, Paris, Carcassonne or the region of Albi).

  489 Jewerye: ‘Throughout history, religious and social solidarity, reinforced by Gentile aversion, brought about a tendency for the Jews to foregather in one street or quarter of each town. This received a powerful impetus when the Third Lateran Council [1179] forbade Christians to live in the immediate propinquity of the infidel, so as to avoid any possibility of being contaminated by his disbelief. The Jewish quarter was thus universally familiar. In England it was called the Jewry’, C. Roth, A Short History of the Jewish People, rev. edn (London, 1969), p. 216.

  491 usure: The Church forbade Christians to practise usury (the lending of money at interest), but a monetary economy could hardly function without it. Since Jews were largely debarred from other kinds of commercial activity, they increasingly took on the role of bankers or money-lenders in medieval society (Roth, History of the Jewish People, pp. 204–8).

  494 The Jewish quarter in medieval towns was usually surrounded by a wall, with a gate at each end, guarded by Christian gatekeepers. After nightfall Jews were not allowed outside the ghetto nor Christians within it (Roth, History of the Jewish People, p. 298). Chaucer seems to imagine the Jewish quarter here as a single street without any enclosure.

  500 to singen and to rede: The elementary education that Chaucer describes here is that which obtained in fourteenth-century England. Children began their education around the age of seven, and after mastering the alphabet would immediately begin learning to recognize and pronounce Latin words. ‘Little attention at the beginning stage was given to meaning and grammar. Word recognition and pronunciation were sufficient and were taught in two ways. One way was through plainchant, by which the student learned the pronunciation of the words that occurred in the liturgical texts of the church, the hymns, and the Psalter. The other way was through reading a primer containing religious and devotional texts, such as the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria, and simple prayers’ (W. J. Courtenay, Schools andScholars in Fourteenth-Century England (Princeton, NJ, 1987), pp. 16–17; see also n. to Pri 517). This education prepared students to become choristers or to enter minor orders, as well as serving as a basis for those going on to more advanced study of Latin grammar and syntax which would qualify them for the higher orders of the clergy (ibid., p. 17). See also J. A. Hoeppner Moran, The Growth of English Schooling 1340–1548 (Princeton, NJ, 1985), ch. 2.

  503 The boy’s extreme youth is an individual touch of Chaucer’s; see Headnote.

  505–6 The implication is that images of the Virgin were placed in niches on the outside of buildings or in wayside shrines, as in Catholic countries today.

  508 The Ave Maria is a simple prayer based on the words used by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28): ‘Ave Maria gratia plena, dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus uteris tui’ (‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’). It was one of the first prayers learned by children (see n. to Pri 517).

  512 Proverbial; see Whiting C219.

  514–15 St Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop of Myra (in southwestern Turkey). Little else is known about his life, but the popularity of his cult ensured the proliferation of legends about him. The reference here is probably to the story that, as a suckling infant, he took the breast only on Wednesdays and Fridays, and fasted on the other days of the week (Golden Legend, I, 21).

  517 primer: The ME term for a Book of Hours, which was a collection of liturgical texts designed as a devotional manual for lay people. Its core constituents were the Little Office (or Hours) of the Virgin (composed of selected biblical texts to be recited daily at each of the eight ‘canonical’ hours, in parallel to the Hours recited by members of the regular clergy; see n. to Mil 3655), the seven Penitential Psalms and the Office of the Dead. Other devotional texts (such as the fifteen Gradual Psalms, the Litany of the Saints and the Commendation of Souls) were added to this core. See C. Wordsworth and H. Littlehales, The Old Service-Books of the English Church (London, 1904), pp. 248–54, and C. de Hamel, The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition, ed. J. L. Sharpe III and K. van Kampen (London, 1998), pp. 137–43. The Book of Hours ‘was known by heart by nearly every person of any education whatsoever in late medieval Europe. It was the text from which children first learned to read … and then recited every subsequent day of their lives’ (de Hamel, pp. 138–9). Most primers of this sort were in Latin, but a number of English primers also survive (Wordsworth and Littlehales, p. 249); for an example, see The Prymer or Lay Folks Prayer Book, ed. H. Littlehales, EETS o.s. 105, 109 (London, 1895–7).

  Based on this model, there were also elementary reading books designed specifically for children, beginning with an alphabet, and containing basic prayers such as the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, and other elements of the f
aith such as the Creed and the Ten Commandments. See Courtenay, quoted in n. to Pri 500, and N. Orme, English Schools in the Middle Ages (London, 1973), p. 62. A manuscript of this type, written in French and Latin, is reproduced in G. A. Plimpton, The Education of Chaucer Illustrated from the Schoolbooks in Use in his Time (London, 1935), Plates XIII.1–39. It includes both the Ave Maria (see Pri 508) and ‘Alma redemptoris’ (see Pri 518).

  518 Alma redemptoris: The first words of one of the four major Marian antiphons (Latin songs in praise of Mary), written in hexameter verse. For texts and translations of all four, see M. Britt, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal (London, 1922), pp. 86–9. The full text of ‘Alma redemptoris’ is as follows:

  Alma redemptoris mater quae pervia caeli

  Porta manes et stella maris, succurre cadenti

  Surgere qui curat populo, tu quae genuisti

  Natura mirante tuum sanctum genitorem,

  Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore

  Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

  (‘Gentle mother of the Redeemer, ever-open door of heaven and star of the sea, succour your fallen people who long to arise – you who gave birth, to Nature’s wonderment, to your own holy Father, a virgin both before and afterwards, receiving that “Ave” from Gabriel’s mouth – be merciful to sinners.’)

  For a ME version of this antiphon, see SA, p. 469. The tune of the antiphon has been reconstructed from medieval sources by A. Davidson, Substance and Manner: Studies in Music and the Other Arts (St Paul, MN, 1977), pp. 21–9, 92–5 (reproduced in B. Boyd, ed., A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Prioress’s Tale (Norman, OK, 1987), p. 16). The term ‘antiphon’ usually denotes a short text sung (rather like a refrain) between the verses of a psalm, but the Marian antiphons are pieces of liturgical chant quite separate from psalmody (see W. Apel, Gregorian Chant (London, 1958), p. 189, and New Grove Dictionary, s.v. Antiphon). According to Davidson, M. P. Hamilton was wrong to conjecture, on the basis of later practice, that ‘Alma redemptoris’ was sung, as it is now, in the Mass from Advent to Candlemas (p. 97, n. 15), but it was so frequently used at Vespers and other services of the English rite as to be ‘ubiquitous in liturgical practice’ (Davidson, p. 27).

  519 antiphoner: A book containing a collection of antiphons, or pieces of sacred chant (see preceding n.). For a facsimile of a thirteenth-century antiphoner (Cambridge, University Library, MS Mm.2.9) containing the words and music of ‘Alma redemptoris’, see W. H. Frere, Antiphonale Sarisburiense: A Reproduction in Facsimile from Early Manuscripts (London, 1901–24), V, 529. Since the words and music in antiphoners were written in large separate letters, they were ‘especially suitable for children to study’ (N. Orme, ChauR, 16 (1981), 38–59, at p. 48).

  536 That is, the older boy is learning to pronounce Latin by memorizing the words and music of liturgical texts, songs and the Psalter; Latin grammar and syntax would be taught, if at all, at a later stage (see n. to Pri 500).

  540 Since the Feast of the Innocents takes place on 28 December, the Christmas season is an appropriate time for the action of this tale.

  541 Instead of memorizing the items in his primer (see n. to Pri 517), the little boy intends to devote himself to learning the antiphon. This combination of naughtiness and sanctity resembles Virginia’s avoidance of parties by pretending to be sick (Phys 61–6); sanctity in both these children is a kind of natural instinct rather than a willed conformity to rules.

  564 youre*] oure El Hg. The reading ‘oure’ could be defended on the grounds that Satan is speaking through the mouth of one of the Jews, who is stirring up his fellows, but in that case one would expect ‘us’ and ‘oure’ to be used in lines 561 and 563 respectively.

  574 Herod, king of the Jews, ordered the slaughter of all male children under two years old in Bethlehem and the surrounding region because he had been told by the wise men of the appearance of a star heralding the birth of a child born to be king of the Jews (Matthew 2:13–18). These verses of Matthew formed the Gospel reading at the Feast of the Innocents (Hamilton, p. 91). For other references to the Slaughter of the Innocents in this tale, see Headnote.

  576 Proverbial; see Whiting M806, and cf. NPT 3052, 3057.

  578 Cf. Genesis 4:10, where the blood of the murdered Abel is said to cry out from the ground. The responsories in the first and second nocturns of Matins for the Feast of the Innocents (see Headnote) incorporate verses from Psalm 78 (AV 79) (3, 10) and Revelation 6 (9–11), which supplicate God for vengeance on blood that has been shed, and the fifth lesson is a passage from a sermon of St John Chrysostom, which links the blood of Abel crying to heaven with the Innocents (‘They speak with blood, because they cannot do so with their tongue. They sing with their suffering, because they never knew speech … since the blood of Abel cries to heaven, let the souls of these murdered ones also cry out to God from the altar’). See H. A. Kelly, MedHum, n.s. 19 (1992), 133–46, at p. 144; Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarum, ed. F. Procter and C. Wordsworth, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1879–86), I, ccxxxi–ccxxxvii.

  580–85 These lines refer to Revelation 14:1–5, which describes a vision of the Lamb who is Christ, accompanied by 144,000 virgins, ‘who were not defiled with women’, singing a ‘new song’. (A marginal Latin gloss in Hg quotes Jerome’s citation of this passage in Adv. Jov. I.40.) Revelation 14:1–5 was the first Lesson at the Feast of the Innocents (Hamilton, pp. 91–2); see Headnote. the grete evangelist … In Pathmos: The author of Revelation gives his name as John (1:4, 9; 22:8); he also indicates that he wrote the book on Patmos, an island in the Aegean off the coast of present-day Turkey (1:9). In medieval tradition this John was identified with the author of the fourth Gospel, but this has been disputed by modern biblical scholars (see Jerome Biblical Commentary, II, 64:10–13).

  585 flesshly: An interlinear gloss ‘carnaliter’ in El/Hg shows that this is an adverb rather than an adjective.

  607–8 Like the opening of PriPr (see n. to Pri 453–9), these lines echo Psalm 8:2–3.

  616 provost: This term was used of a variety of officials, both religious and secular, but here it seems to be used as on the Continent to denote the chief magistrate of a town (MED a). Boyd suggests that this provost is ‘a secular official with some kind of judicial authority over the Jews corresponding to that of a sheriff, a royal appointee under English law through whom the king normally dealt with the Jews in borrowing and repaying money’ (Variorum: Prioress’s Tale, p. 22).

  627 The historical Rachel was the mother of Joseph (Genesis 30:22–4) and Benjamin (Genesis 35:16–18), but she did not suffer bereavement. The reference here is to a prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15) in which her name is used to typify Jewish motherhood: ‘A voice was heard on high of lamentation, of mourning, and weeping, of Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted for them, because they are not.’ The Gospel of Matthew quotes this prophecy (rather freely), seeing its fulfilment in Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents (2:18). Matthew’s verse (which is partially quoted in a marginal Latin gloss in Hg) was used as the Communio of the Mass of the Innocents (Hamilton, p. 91); see Headnote.

  632 The principle enunciated in this maxim underlies the Old Testament law of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, for which Christ substituted the rule of turning the other cheek (see Exodus 21:23–4, Matthew 5:38–9). The idea here is that the Jews are punished according to the principle of their own law.

  633–4 In Chaucer’s day, those convicted of treason (which included a range of particularly heinous crimes) were subjected to ‘an aggravated form of capital punishment’: men were drawn behind carts to the gallows and then hanged (B. A. Hanawalt, Crime and Conflict in English Communities 1300–1348 (Cambridge, MA, 1979), p. 44).

  660 antheme: The anglicized form of the word antiphon (see n. to Pri 519).

  676 been*] lein El Hg. Manly and Rickert claim that ‘lein’ ‘was not the reading of O1’, on the grounds that it is absent in other manuscripts belonging to the sa
me group as Hg, El and several related manuscripts (IV, 498–9). G. Dempster justifiably calls this judgement ‘puzzling’ (PMLA, 61 (1946), 379–415, at p. 412, n. 193). But ‘been’ may still be preferred to ‘lein’ on the grounds that the latter repeats ‘lay’ in a stylistically clumsy way.

  684–5 yonge Hugh of Lincoln: Under the year 1255, the thirteenthcentury chronicler Matthew Paris relates that in the city of Lincoln, an eight-year-old boy named Hugh was ritually murdered by Jews, in a grotesque re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion, and his body was thrown into a well. As in PriT, the distraught mother of the boy sought for him and eventually discovered his body (Chronica Majora, ed. H. R. Luard, vol. V (London, 1880; repr. 1964), pp. 516–19; Matthew Paris’s English History, tr. J. A. Giles, vol. III (London, 1854), pp. 138–41). Nineteen Jews were executed for this alleged crime. For an analysis of the historical documents and an attempted reconstruction of the circumstances giving rise to the accusation, see J. Jacobs, Jewish Ideals and Other Essays (London, 1896), pp. 192–224. The initial stimulus to such tales of ritual child-murder seems to have been the story of William of Norwich, allegedly crucified by Jews in 1144 (SA, pp. 455–6). For a recent analysis, see J. M. McCulloh, Speculum, 72 (1997), 698–740.

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