by KARL STEEL
When I teach the Prioress’s Tale, as I did twice last semester, I have typically liked asking the students “who kills the Little Clergeon?” Most give the obvious answer, what we might as well call the correct one: “the Jews,” or “a Jewish professional murderer,” while others, when sufficiently prodded, blame the monk who plucks the grain from under the little boy’s tongue.
Who’s the murderer, then? And who makes a martyr? The boy miraculously keeps singing, despite being nearly decapitated, but only until he tells the monk where to find the kill switch. Having killed, the monk goes catatonic, falling as if bound to the floor. And now we in the classroom have something else to talk about. We can keep on about the Antisemitism of the Prioress, or Chaucer, or medieval Christian Culture. But now we can also talk about how stories of martyrs demand a victim, and how the love of sacrifice needs its deaths. And so on.
Now, though, I’m newly sympathetic to the monk. As a reminder, here’s the conversation, beginning with the undead boy (a translation into Modern English here if you need it):
“Wherefore [because of that grain] I synge, and synge moot certeyn,
In honour of that blisful Mayden free
Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;
And after that thus seyde she to me:
‘My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,
Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.
Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'”
This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I
His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,
And he yaf up the goost ful softely.
And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,
His salte teeries trikled doun as reyn,
And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,
And stille he lay as he had been ybounde.
The monk’s newly captured my sympathy, now, because I’ve made a similar decision, twice, with both of my parents. I was close to my mother (died in 2001) and not so close to my father (died early November, this year), but in both cases I was given and took the monk’s choice.
That’s far from unique. Most Americans die in hospitals now, many of them only through some decision to let them be allowed to die. In both cases, my parents were unconscious when they finally died: my mother in a coma, my father on morphine. Any decision was made with what was, at best, their literally tacit approval. But it was a decision, made by us more than by them. They did not die on their own.
My father consulted with his children when we decided to withdraw care for my mother (meanwhile, in a cruelty more than a little reminiscent of the Prioress’s Tale, I was told that we were “tying God’s hands” by letting my mother die). My father’s own father suffered a terrible stroke a year before he finally died, but was dragged back into life, not happily. Sometime in his last year, he told my father, “you should have let me die.” Probably with that in mind, but also all too aware of his own suffering, my father made it clear enough that he would be willing to be allowed to go when things got bad enough. We knew how to end things, and we suspected, at least, that they wanted things to end. But we could have kept it all going if we wanted to keep it going. The decision finally had to be ours, not theirs.
It’s odd and maybe stupid to find my own experience in Chaucer’s ugliest tale. It’s not as though either of my parents died as a martyr to Antisemitism. But having twice been a parricide, of a sort, like so many others, as so many of us are likely to be, I can’t help but feel with the monk, suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also “ybounde” to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain.