Chaucer, Twice: the Prioress and Criseyde

I’ve just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress’s Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: “As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is one of them. It’s antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there’s no way around it: it’s awful.”

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like “I think this story is antisemitic,” “it seems unfair to Jews,” “it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil,” “it tells us that antisemitism is really old,” or, the variant, “the antisemitism in the Prioress’s Tale is still around today.”

I warned them, but they’re still shocked. I’m befuddled but I’m also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I’ve tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale’s antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says “this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic,” I, of course, say “the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they’re confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific”; but when a student just condemns the tale’s antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:

  • What’s the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy’s 10 years old; here he’s 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the ‘holy abbot’ in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that ‘simplicity’ and ‘goodness’ tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress’s intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I’ll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I’d argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story…
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews’ hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don’t murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress’s Tale isn’t a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who — as a sign of his pureness — sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They’re both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?

In the next class, I’m also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students’ presentations on the Prioress’s Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I’ve recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what’s most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they’d gone to ArtStor, they’d find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down….).

I’m going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I’ll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale’s hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I’ll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother — the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 — as the tale’s actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy’s innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

For more on the painting, see Eileen A. Joy in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:

all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of “disappear” in or move into the background of our “readings” of various texts.


Here’s another bit of recent Chaucer grumbling:

I’m thinking of a recent conversation with a very senior colleague, someone who’s been at my institution for a lifetime, mine, specifically. He was on his way out of the class; I was on my way in. As best I remember, here’s how it went:

“What are you teaching?”


“Matthew Arnold said that Chaucer lacked ‘high seriousness.'”

“Certainly not true for Troilus & Criseyde.”

“”Slydynge of corage’. I like that. Always on her way to the next man.”

“What choice did she have?”

He repeats: “‘Slydynge of corage.'”

“What else could she have done?”

A nasty nutshell. It’s a prefeminist, prepolitical way to teach the poem, preserved in amber, and no doubt preserved even in some of our younger teachers.

  1. The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don’t they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn’t want to enter the Symbolic or doesn’t want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It’s basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah?