HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe Canterbury TalesThe Prioresss Prologue And Tale Summary

The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | The Prioress's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

Harry Bailey now politely calls on the Prioress to tell her story, and she agrees. First she prays and dedicates her story to the Virgin Mary, Jesus's mother. Then she begins: A widow's son, a boy of seven, was a student at a small Christian school. He was a devout child and would say a "Hail Mary" (a brief prayer to the Virgin) any time he saw an image of Christ's mother.

One day at school, he overhears some other children singing a Latin hymn, "O Alma Redemptoris." He asks another student to explain the meaning of the song and is told that it is about praying to Mary for "help and comfort on our dying day." The boy learns the whole hymn and sings it often in a clear voice.

Satan, disliking such innocence and devotion, incites some of the town's Jews to do away with the boy. One day a hired murderer grabs the boy as he walks down the street, cuts his throat, and throws him into the sewer. The boy's worried mother searches everywhere for him. Finally she hears his voice singing "O Alma Redemptoris" from underground and discovers where his dead body is. The boy's body is taken to the nearest abbey, still singing. The guilty men are executed.

The dead boy continues to sing throughout his funeral mass, and finally the abbot asks him how it is possible that he sings even though he is dead. The boy tells him that, as he was dying, the mother of Christ appeared to him, placed a grain on his tongue, and told him to sing "O Alma Redemptoris" until the grain was removed. The abbot then removes the grain, and the boy dies peacefully. All of the people gathered are overcome, and they weep and give praise to Christ's mother. The boy's body is buried in the abbey.

Analysis

Scholars classify this tale as a miracle, an inspirational story for Christians. Many of these miracle stories (from outside The Canterbury Tales) focused on the Virgin Mary and the value of devotion to her. The tales tend to be sentimental and emotionally appealing rather than theological or concerned with church teachings. This tale, like many stories in this genre, features a strongly anti-Semitic tone.

Though some scholars accept the story's anti-Semitism as reflecting Chaucer's own, others suggest that the Prioress, not Jews, are the object of Chaucer's scorn in this tale. In the general Prologue, Chaucer's description of the Prioress gently mocks her vanity and affectedness. Her own over-the-top prologue, in which she protests her speaking ability in extremely flowery language, makes her seem disingenuous. Her extremely maudlin descriptions of the dead boy, juxtaposed with her vulgar description of the Jewish community, seem melodramatic at best and unhinged at worst.

The Prioress's prologue is a prayer to Mary, mirroring the prayers and devotion of the boy in the story she will tell. Clearly the Prioress identifies with and takes inspiration from the young martyr of the tale.

The intervention of supernatural powers is a feature of this story, but the Prioress suggests that faith, or its opposite, are preconditions for such interventions. The Virgin Mary performs a miracle on behalf of a deeply devout boy. Likewise, the devil is able to encourage the Jews' treachery because their hearts are the "waspish nest" of Satan.

The helplessness and innocence of the boy at the center of this tale supports the Christian idea that God shows his power in the weak and in those who suffer. The words little and small are used repeatedly throughout the tale to describe the child, the school, the child's schoolbook, the child's throat, and so on.

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