In her prologue, the Prioress offers a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary. She extols Mary, the mother of Jesus and the "whitest Lily-flower." This hymn acts as a preview of the tale to follow.
In a Christian town in Asia, one fourth of the area is occupied by Jews. Because a school for young Christian children is at the far end of the street through the ghetto where the Jews are isolated, the children are free to walk through the street to and from school. One of the young Christian pupils hears the older children singing O Alma Redemptoris. Day after day, he draws near and listens carefully as the other students sing. In very little time, he memorizes the first verse. Learning that the song is in praise of the Virgin Mary, the child decides to learn the entire song so that, on Christmas day, he can pay reverence to Christ's mother. Every day, the child walks along the Jewish street, boldly and clearly singing the song. At about this time, Satan whispers to the Jews that this boy is a disgrace to them and that he sings to spite Jewish holy laws. The Jews, conspiring to rid themselves of this boy, hire a murderer. One day, as the child walks through the ghetto singing O Alma Redemptoris, the murderer grasps the child, slits his throat, and tosses his body into a cesspool.
The boy's mother, a poor widow, goes house to house, inquiring of the Jews the whereabouts of her son. Yet everyone lies to her, saying they know nothing of the child. Then Jesus himself puts in her thoughts the direction to the alley where the child had been murdered and the pit where his body was cast away. As the widow nears the place, the child's voice breaks forth singing O Alma Redemptoris. The Christian people gather around in astonishment. The provost of the city is called; upon seeing the child, he bids all the Jews to be fettered, bound, and confined. Later, they are drawn by wild horses and hanged.
The child's body is taken to a neighboring abbey. As the burial mass draws near, the child continues to sing O Alma Redemptoris loudly and clearly. He then tells the abbots that Christ has commanded him to sing until his time for his burial and that the Virgin Mary placed a pearl on his tongue. The child explains that he must sing until the pearl in taken away. "[T]hen a holy monk . . . / Touched the child's tongue and took away the pearl; And he gave up the ghost so peacefully, So softly." ("This hooly monk . . . hym meene I, / His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn (pearl) / And he yaf up the goost ful softely.")
The child is proclaimed a martyr, and a tomb of marble is erected as a memorial to the young boy, whose name was Hugh of Lincoln.
The Prioress' prologue aptly fits the Prioress' character and position. She is a nun whose order relies heavily upon the patronage of the Virgin Mary. Furthermore, her hymn to the Virgin Mary acts as a preview to the tale itself, which concerns the same type of hymn of praise, O Alma Redemptoris. The prologue also functions as an invocation — very similar to the style of invocation found in the great classic epics — in which the Prioress prays for help in narrating the greatness of the "blissful Queen" (the Virgin Mary).
The Prioress' Tale shows the power of the meek and the poor who trust in Christ. The Prioress is a devoted and meek Christian lady (at least as she understands herself), and she begins by offering a prayer to Christ and especially to the Virgin Mary, the gist of which is that, because the Prioress is herself like a child, the Virgin must help her with this story in her honor.
To fully understand The Prioress' Tale, one must first understand the background for tales such as these. In medieval England, the Christian hatred of Jews took the form of religious passion. This passion was periodically renewed by stories such as this one and passed along as true. This hatred has been expressed in such literary characters as Shylock (Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice), Rebeccah (Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe), and Fagin (Dickens' Oliver Twist).
In the tale, the Prioress sets up an opposition between Jews, whose concern is solely with the power of this world — especially money — and between the Christians, whose concerns are otherworldly. She insists from the start on the physical vulnerability of the Christian position. For example, the Christian school is small ("litel"), and the children are repeatedly called small or little (smale or litel); even the book the scholar in the tale reads is also "litel." His mother is a widow and, by implication, poor and defenseless. But the seeming power of the Jews, who can accumulate money and kill little children, is overwhelmed by the Virgin's miracle of restoring the boy's singing voice and also by treasures of the spirit symbolically represented by the pearl on the dead child's tongue.
Corpus Dominus Chaucer has clever ways of commenting on his characters. Here, he lets us know that the Host is not an expert in Latin. He meant to say "corpus Domini," which means "the body of our Lord."
Saint Augustine (354-430) One of the great church fathers, he consolidated the diverse elements of the early church and authored Confessions and The City of God.
Bush unburnt, burning in Moses' sight F.N. Robinson maintains, "The figure of the burning bush . . . was of course a familiar symbol of the Virgin" (The Poems of Chaucer, page 840). God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush to give him instructions about receiving the Ten Commandments.
O Alma Redemptoris Latin, meaning "O redemptive soul."
usury lending money at an exorbitant interest rate
greyn This word in Chaucer's time carried many meanings, such as a grain of corn, a grain of paradise, and, most important, a pearl. Throughout medieval literature, the pearl takes on heavy significance; it can represent purity, chastity, innocence, and other related virtues.
a new Rachel Rachel was the wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph and was regarded in medieval times as prefiguring Christ.