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GEOFFREY CHAUCER The Prioress's Tale There seems little doubt that the most famous literary articulation of Jewish ritual murder is Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. It involves ritual murder rather than the blood libel, strictly speaking, since the murdered boy's blood is not mentioned at all in the narrative. Inasmuch as Geoffrey Chaucer (1340~-1400) is one of the acknowledged giants of English literature and his masterpiece is generally conceded to be his Canterbury Tales, of which the Prioress's Tale is one, Chaucer's version of the story is very much part of the history and dissemination of this anti-Semitic plot. Chaucer, to be sure, did not invent the story. Indeed, a great many of the Canterbury Tales have been shown to have derived from original folk narrative traditions. For a convenient overview of the folktale and legendary sources of the Canterbury Tales, see Francis Lee Utley, "Some Implications of Chaucer's Folktales," IV. International Congress for Folk-Narrative Research in Athens, Laographia 22 (1965): 588-99. For the possible sources of the Prioress's Tale in particular, see Carleton Brown, "Chaucer's Prioress' Tale and Its Analogues," Publications of the Modern Language Association 21 (1906): 485-518, and the same author 's A Study of the Miracle of Our Lady Told by Chaucer's Prioress (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Triibner eJ Co., 191OJ, pp. 51-141. See also Margaret H. Statler, "The Analogues of Chaucer's Prioress' Tale: The Relation of Group C to Group A," Publications of the Modern Language Association 65 (1950): 896-910, as well as other references in Lynn King Reprinted from Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill (London: Penguin Books, 19771, pp. 18793 . Copyright © Nevill Coghill, 1951, 1958, 1960, 1975, 1977. 91 Geoffrey Chaucer Morris, Chaucer Source and Analogue Criticism: A CrossReferenced Guide (New York: Garland, 1985), pp. 168-70, and Beverly Boyd, ed., A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, vol. 2, The Canterbury Tales, pt. 20, The Prioress's Tale (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), pp. 4-26. At least the reader does not have to wonder if Chaucer knew about the story of Hugh of Lincoln when he wrote the Prioress's Tale ca. 1387. Chaucer makes a direct reference to the alleged murder in 1255 and although he pretends to set his story in Asia, the details rather suggest Europe or even England. One of the issues debated in the scholarship devoted to the Prioress's Tale is whether or not Chaucer himself was anti-Semitic. One view is that he was very much a product of his own fourteenth-century time and that it was natural enough for him to have shared anti-Semitic sentiments. The opposing view is that Chaucer was indulging in satire in the tale and thatheput the anti-Semitic talein themouth of a pious Christian prioress precisely to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Christians who preach brotherly love and tolerance at the same time as they advocate the murder of Jews. For samples of the debate, see Albert B. Friedman, "The Prioress's Tale and Chaucer's Anti-Semitism," Chaucer Review 9 (1974): 118-29; J. Archer, "The Structure of Anti-Semitism in the 'Prioress' Tale,'" Chaucer Review 19 (1984): 46-54; Richard Rex, "Chaucer and the Jews," Modern Language Quarterly 45 (1984): 107.:....22; and the Variorum Edition of the Prioress's Tale cited above, pp. 43-50. Rather than force the reader to wrestle with Chaucer's original Middle English language, I have elected to select a modern English rendering of the tale by the late Chaucer scholar Nevill Coghill, who was Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford from 1957 to 1966. 92 The Prioress's Tale In Asia once there was a Christian town In which, long since, a Ghetto used to be Where there were Jews, supported by the Crown For the foul lucre of their usury, Hateful to Christ and all his company. And through this Ghetto one might walk or ride For it was free and open, either side. A little school stood for the Christian flock Down at the further end, and it was here A heap of children come of Christian stock Received their early schooling year by year And the instruction suited to their ear, That is to say in singing and in reading - The simple things of childhood and good breeding. Among these children was a widow's son, A little chorister...


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