Summary and Analysis of The Prioress' Tale

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Summary and Analysis of The Prioress' Tale (The Canterbury Tales)

The Prioress' Tale:

The Prioress tells a tale set in an Asian town dominated by the Jewry in which usury and other things hateful to Christ occurred. The Christian minority in the town opened a school for their children in this city. Among these children was a widow's son, an angelic seven year old who was, even at his young age, deeply devoted to his faith. At school he learned a song in Latin, the Alma redemptoris, and asked the meaning of it. According to an older student, this song was meant to praise the Virgin Mary. As he was walking home from school one day singing this song, he provoked the anger of the Jews of the city, whose hearts were possessed by Satan. They hired a murderer who slit the boys' throat and threw the body into a cesspool. The widow searched for her missing child, begging the Jews to tell her where her child might be found, but they refuse to help. When she found him, although his throat was slit, he began to sing the Alma redemptoris. The other Christians of the city rushed to the child and carried him to the abbey. The local provost cursed the Jews who knew of this murder and ordered their death by hanging. Before the child was buried, he began to speak. The Virgin Mary had placed a pearl on his tongue that allowed him to speak, despite his fatal wound, but when the pearl was removed he would finally pass on to heaven. The story ends with a lament for the young child and a curse on the Jews who perpetrated this crime.


The Prioress' Tale is overtly a religious tale centered around Christian principles and a devotion to the Virgin Mary, but within the warm affection that the Prioress shows for her Christian faith is a disquieting anti-Semitism that will be immediately obvious to the modern reader. The tale is an overwrought melodrama, replete with scenes of such banal sentimentalism and simplistic moral instruction. The tale is an unabashed celebration of motherhood. The guiding figure of the tale is the Virgin Mary, who serves as the exemplar for Christian values and the intervening spirit who sustains the murdered child before he passes on to heaven. Her mortal parallel is the mother of the murdered boy, who dearly loves her son and struggles to find the boy when he is lost.

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