The Prioress's Tale

Chaucer an anti-Semite?

Term Paper, 2006

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. Anti-Semitism in the Prioress’s Tale

2. The medieval image of the Jew
2.1. The political situation of the Jews in Britain during the Middle Ages
2.2. Ritual Murder Accusations
2.3. The Jews in medieval literature

3. Chaucer and the narrator: the Prioress
3.1. Characterization of the Prioress
3.2. The Role of the Prioress

4. Conclusion

Written sources
Online Sources


An examination of a tale on anti-Semitism affords a clear definition of it. In addition one could argue if an examination of a medieval text on a matter - which has only been called by its name since 1880 - is appropriate.[1] Anyway, in this comparatively short period of time many definitions of anti-Semitism have appeared surface, ranging from opposition to, hatred of, prejudice or discrimination against Jews and “one of the generally acknowledged intellectual heresies”[2] to “taking a trait or an action that is widespread if not universal, and blaming only the Jews for it”[3]. Taken literally, anti-Semitism does not only refer to the Jews, but to all ‘Semites’, which would also include the Arabs[4]; therefore anti-Judaism would be the more suitable term. Nevertheless I will make use of anti-Semitism in this paper because it is the well-established term and in contemporary application predominantly restricted to hostility towards the Jews.

In respect to the preceding definition, anti-Semitism is more than obvious in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale: The Jews murder - out of pure hatred - a little Christian boy who was just worshipping “His Lady” through his song and finally are tortured and killed. In the first chapter I will illustrate in detail to what extend the Prioress’s Tale is an anti-Semitic story.

As a matter of course the question raises, if Chaucer only illustrated the typical subjects of the time in the corresponding way[5] or if he was well aware of the unfairness of the tale’s content. In other words: did he believe the Jews to be an evil people (as that was the common belief in medieval times) or did he present the Jews as wicked on purpose, and therefore on anti-Semitic grounds? I will deal with the implications of this question in chapters two and three respectively. In chapter two I will elaborate on the medieval image of the Jews on the basis of their depiction in contemporary literature and their political situation during the Middle Ages.

In order to convict Chaucer of being anti-Semitic or not, knowledge about the style of the tale and its intention is needed. In chapter three I will take into consideration Chaucer’s use of the Prioress as the narrator of the tale and describe Chaucer’s function as the author.

Finally I will evaluate the information gained from chapters one to three and present an answer to the crucial question: was Chaucer an anti-Semite?

1. Anti-Semitism in the Prioress’s Tale

The Prioress – as the narrator of the tale – starts with pointing out that the Jews do “foule usure and lucre of vilanye”(39)[6]. That the Jews lend money on immense interest was a well-founded, but to some extent incorrect charge. In medieval times Christians were not allowed do lend money on interest due to several bible passages and the result of the first Lateran Council in 1139 that “declared usury by all Christians detestable in both divine and human law”[7]:

Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. (Psalm 15:1+5)[8]

The Jews interpreted these paragraphs differently and were therefore predestined to practise as creditors. They managed to gain some wealth and as a matter of course aroused displeasure on the Christians’ side. The rates of interest ranged from about 21 to 43 percent. But up to 87 percent were possible until Henry III defined the maximum rate at 43 percent.[9] From today’s point of view these rates sound exorbitant, but one needs to consider that these were annual fees. Hence, the charge of usury is founded on grounds of jealousy; nevertheless, medieval Christian recipients of the tale will probably have felt aroused by the mentioning of Jewish usury. If these people had missed that point, they would surely have understood the following subordinate clause: “[Jews were] [h]ateful to Crist and to his companye”(40) – a self-explanatory utterance.

In line 45, the Prioress refers to “[c]hildren an heep, y-comen of Cristen blood”. Maybe Chaucer just needed a rhyme on “stood”(43); one may however argue that this is a hint to racial anti-Semitism, because the Prioress obviously draws a clear distinction between Christian blood and that of the Jews.

In lines 106-112 the narrator illustrates the Jews’ close relation to the devil:

Our firste foe, the serpent Sathanas,

That has in Jewes herte his waspes nest,

Up swal, and seide, “O Hebraik people, allas!

Is this to yow a thing that is honest,

That swich a boy shal walken as him lest

In your despyt, and singe of swich sentence,

Which is agayn your lawes reverence?

With his exclamation the devil provokes the Jews, seduces them to act in his will and leaves them as devil incarnate. Other manuscripts render the last line of that stanza as such: “Which is agayns oure lawes reverence”.[10] [my emphasis] Here the close connection between the Jews and the devil becomes even more evident, for the Jews and the devil are subjects to the same law. These laws, however, apparently reject the worshiping of Mary, which the little scholar practises on his way through the Jewish quarter to and from his school, by singing the Alma redemptoris mater.[11] This reverence to Mary seems to provide enough crime to justify the killing of the boy according to the Jews’ (and the devil’s) law.

O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,

what may your yvel entente yow availle?

Mordre wol out, certein, it wol nat faille,

And namely ther th’ onour of God shal sprede,

The blood out cryeth on your cursed dede. (122-126)

Parallels to the life and death of Christ appear surface, as Alexander points out that “in murdering the clergeon the Jews are giving rein to the same evil nature which led them to kill Christ” (113). In addition the Prioress refers to Herod the Great, who had slain all children in Bethlehem up to the age of two as he had learned of Christ’s birth[12], and compares Herod’s deeds to that one of the Jews in the tale. Calling the Jews “cursed” can be interpreted in the very literal sense: the Jews had cursed themselves when they had pushed Pilate into killing Jesus.[13] This charge, namely that the Jews were responsible for Christ’s death, excused – in the eyes of medieval people - almost every other accusation against the Jews and furthermore justified all attacks on them.

The mother of the little boy went to look for her child and finally came to the Jewish quarter. She asked every single Jew if he had seen her son and “[t]hey seyde nay”(151). Of course every Jew knew what had happened to the little scholar and where he was, nevertheless they did not tell her, which does not only expose them as liars, but also proved their complete lack of conscience. The Jews’ unscrupulousness is stressed by the depiction of the scholar, who is always referred to as “litel” and “innocent”. Who, but someone who is in league with the devil, if not the devil incarnate, would be capable of killing a child, so young, so innocent and so passionate in reverence to Christ’s mother?

When the boy was found dead, but still singing, all Jews who knew of the murder were hanged, for “[yvel] shal have, that yvel wol deserve”(180). In line 232, the Prioress refers to little Hugh of Lincoln, an alleged victim of ritual murder. Although the boy in this tale was, strictly seen, not killed for ritual reasons, the reference to the accusations served perfectly well to harden the evil image of the Jew.

This tale presents the Jews as unabashed murderers, who are hateful to Christians and their faith. In fact, the Jews are as a whole blackened and illustrated as cold-hearted liars without conscience and the devil incarnate.

2. The medieval image of the Jew

How did people in medieval times see the Jew? Of course one cannot depict that in a clear and certain form, as the records of those times are rare and often subjective - one-sided and produced by only a small part of the medieval society. Anyway, these records are the only source of information and will be dealt with very carefully in order to avoid a biased picture of the Jew, and to produce, as far as possible, an objective concept of how the medieval British saw the Jewish people.

2.1. The political situation of the Jews in Britain during the Middle Ages

The history of the Jews in England can only be determined by contemporary records such as wordings of laws, eyewitness accounts or chronicles. In these sources the Jews are not mentioned up to the eleventh century. Probably some of the Jews arrived with or shortly after William the Conqueror. The first records, dating from 1073 and 1075 confirm Jewish settlements in Oxford and Cambridge respectively.[14]


[1] The term anti-Semitism is a loanword from German ‘Antisemitismus’, introduced by Wilhelm Marr in 1880. The expression appeared first in Die neue deutsche Wacht – the pamphlet of the ‘Antisemitenliga’.

[2] Alexander (1992:109)

[3] Dershowitz (2003:2)

[4] The term Semite derives from Shem - one son of Noah - and refers to the Arabs and the Jews.

[5] One must take into consideration that modern Anti-Semitism is different from the medieval form of it. Especially we – as Germans - are much more sensitized to hostility against Jews due to the historical events of the past century.

[6] The numbers refer to the lines of the Prioress’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1987:370-383)

[7] Roth (2003:455)

[8] “Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.”(Ezekiel 18:13)

[9] Roth (2003:459)

[10] See Blake, N.F. (1980) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Edited from the Hengwrt Manuscript, London.

[11] “Loving mother of our saviour” (modern English translation)

[12] “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” Matthew 2:16

[13] See Matthew 25 for further information

[14] Battenberg (1990:70)

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Prioress's Tale
Chaucer an anti-Semite?
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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Prioress, Tale
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Wiebke Formann (Author), 2006, The Prioress's Tale, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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