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  • Sadism And Sentimentality:Absorbing Antisemitism in Chaucer's Prioress
  • Merrall Llewelyn Price

The Prioress's tale of the little clergeon fascinates and appalls for its very medievalness. Its paradoxical blend of earthiness and spirituality and its unsettling attitude to both children and Jews make the tale a profoundly uncomfortable experience for a modern reader. However, while perhaps the most popular and notorious of its genre, the Prioress's Tale is by no means unique in its linking of sadism, sentimentality, and antisemitism; such a linking is characteristic of later contributions to the genre of the Marian miracle and is, as we shall see, deeply charged with anxieties about vexed boundaries, both of the Virgin and of the Christian social body.1 What the Prioress's Tale does contribute is the Prioress herself, a framing device that has allowed some of Chaucer's defenders to find enough authorial irony to clear him of charges of antisemitism, but one that, as I will argue in this essay, can also be read as laying the psychological foundations for the horrors of the tale itself, horrors that do not quite become understandable, but at least can be seen to follow their own logic, profoundly disturbing though that logic may be.

I propose here to apply psychoanalytic theory to the Prioress as she is revealed through her prologue, tale, and description in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Viewing this character through a psychoanalytic interpretive lens may well produce a reading that Chaucer himself may not have recognized, but this is no less true of postcolonial, queer, and feminist readings of his work, many of which have offered enormously fruitful scholarly insights. As to its relevance to Chaucer, as R. Howard Bloch pointed out nearly twenty years ago, "The question is not whether the Chaucerian moment is the same as the Freudian moment, since any historian must recognize that no two moments are ever really the same; rather, the question is how Chaucer, as later Shakespeare, contributed to the development of a psychology of depth that will culminate in the West in the Freudian model of personality which still dominates many of our assumptions about the world."2 The Prioress, with her repressively [End Page 197] perfect table manners and gleefully horrific tale, seems particularly ripe for analysis.

As she is described in the General Prologue, the Prioress is a bastion of remarkable personal hygiene and decorum in an unsanitary world. This is, we are told, the result of her upbringing, as she was "wel ytaught" neatness and etiquette at the table to the extent that she scrubs at her upper lip before drinking:

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepeThat no drope ne fille upon hire brest.In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.Hir over-lippe wyped she so cleneThat in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng seneOf grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.

(I 128–35)3

In addition to the description of her table manners, Chaucer also explains her concerns and priorities, which seem to be primarily social rather than spiritual: it

      peyned hire to countrefete cheereOf court, and to been estatlich of manere,And to ben holden digne of reverence.

(I 139–41)

"Countrefete" implies a simulation or copy; it is worth noting that Chaucer's other uses of "counterfeit" in the Canterbury Tales consist of references to the forged letters in the Man of Law's Tale (II 746, 793), to the inability of humankind to seamlessly reproduce Nature in the Physician's Tale (VI 13), to the incapacity of others to match the artful faithlessness of the falcon's love in the Squire's Tale (V 554), and to Chaunticleer's luckless imitation of his father in the Nun's Priest's Tale (VII 3321). Each reference contains the implication of fraudulent or unsuccessful reproduction, implying that the Prioress is at best inexactly simulating courtly behavior. This element of performance is reinforced by the fact that we are told that her desire is not that she be worthy of reverence, but that she...


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