One-way Streets: Urban Geography and Anti-Semitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale
By Glenn Keyser
Chronica: The Journal of the Medieval Association of the Pacific, No.62 (2003)
Introduction: Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ continues to prompt the most polarized of critical responses. To understand why, it is necessary only to summarize the story. Set in an unnamed city in Asia, the narrative centres around a particuar pious seven-year old school boy who desires more than anything to praise Mary by learning the ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ by heart. This ‘clergeon’ can neither read nor write, yet he learns the song ‘by rote’ with the help of an older classmate, and soon he is cheerfully and reverently singing the songs as he walks to and from school.
His journey always takes him, however, through a ghetto and the singing of the song, along with some well-timed taunting by the Devil, eventually incites the Jewish community en masse to hire a murderer to cut his throat. The boy’s widowed mother goes out to look for him, and her search seems in vain until the boy, his throat still cut, miraculously begins to sing the ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ from inside the privy into which he has been thrown.
The boy’s body is then taken by all those who hear him up to a nearby abbey, the guilty Jews are rounded up at command of the provost and put to death, and the boy remains animate long enough to tell the tale of his own miracle. The Canterbury Company is suitably awed at the closing: “Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man/As sobre was that wonder was to se” (691-692).