Chaucer: The Prioress’ Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE PRIORESS’ TALE
At the end of The Shipman’s Tale, the Host’s style changes abruptly and he becomes affectedly polite to the Prioress. Her Prologue comes in the form of a prayer, especially to the Virgin Mary, and also establishes her rhetorical tics and the pose. Clearly rhetorical apostrophes are, as it were, a habit with the Prioress, and the modesty pose involves consideration of herself as a child. She values holy praise performed “by the mouth of children” (457) and likes to think of herself as a child weak in understanding (481f) — even as an infant (484f). This skewed system of values is similar to that we saw in the General Prologue portrait, but now we realize she would have been the ideal customer for the Precious Moments industry.
The genre represented here is the miracle of the Virgin story — always a whopper designed solely to show the beneficence of Mary. One is trapped in a predicament; there’s no way out; Mary intervenes as a female deus ex machina. “God occasionally violates the rules of nature as we know them in order to work His own ends” (Donaldson 1096).
The tone is that of “blood and roses” (Donaldson 1097) by an affected soap opera matriarch. “The Prioress’ Tale is a strange mixture of delicacy and horror, so that it is capable of producing two entirely different impacts. From one side it is all delicacy and piety” (Donaldson 1096). This sentimentalism clashes with a chilling anti-semitism and viciousness. The Prioress’ sensitivity for the mother and the little martyr resembles her attitude towards mice and dogs in the General Prologue. But “Emotionalism that excludes the intellect–as it does in the Prioress’ Tale–can be a dangerous thing, for the psychological transition from exquisite sensibility to bloodshed is an easy one” (Donaldson 1097).
As for the anti-semitism, the Prioress is a product of her age (the ignorant side), and most Chaucerians seem to lament uncomfortably that Chaucer is also a product of his age on this count (e.g., Benson 16) and simply admit that anti-semitism was a way of life in the Middle Ages. Jews were officially banned from England in 1290. But the Church positioned itself against persecution and many saw the economic motives of persecution and expulsion. Chaucer as a clerk of customs seems insightful economically and always seems humane and tolerant. So what’s really going on here?
It’s the Prioress herself who refers to the Jewish ghetto as “free and open at either end” (494), similar to a disgusting comment made in The Reeve’s Tale (4164). After drippy adoration of the “litel clergeon” (503) with his “litel book lernyng” (516), and after the “hissing stanza” concerning Satan’s influence on the Jews (558-564), the Prioress is able to shift psychotically from sappy piety to vicious vulgarity (571ff). A similar phenomenon involves the somewhat skewed meting out of punishment (628ff), and especially at the abrupt disjoint between the melodramatic wailing (674-678) and the sudden coldness — both emotionally and imagistically (679ff). It brings up questions about the Prioress’ own emotional extremes and the connections between the pious “singing” in the tale with the Prioress’ own narration.
Consider the pilgrims’ reaction, ambiguously mentioned afterwards by the narrator.