Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are one of the great literary achievements of the later English Middle Ages. They comprise a complex work of literature, which engages in varied modes of storytelling, a layered narrative structure, and attempts to represent the viewpoints of men and women of many walks of life.
It can also sometimes show us a lot about medieval racism, often by engaging in that racism. Chaucer's Prioress and her tale provide one such example of both the complexity of the characters Chaucer creates as well as the disgusting cultural biases at work in the Middle Ages.
The Prioress is a nun, and she has committed herself to a spiritual relationship with Christ. She's also a very carnal woman, as Chaucer describes her in her portrait. She's very fastidious and concerned with mimicking the manners of the genteel classes, and she's much more interested in the care of her dogs (which she should not have) than with the care of other people.
The Prioress' Tale is a short tale, a miracle of the Virgin and also a libel against Jews. In her tale the Prioress tells the story of a child who sings Alma Redemptoris in the Jewish quarter of his town and is abducted and killed by a Jew for it. His body is cast into the dungheap.
This was not a tale of Chaucer's own invention - it had a great deal of currency in 14th-century England, and the closest analogue (a short tale called "The Child Slain by Jews") offers much the same story, with a few details different in Chaucer's telling. In Chaucer, the miracle is because Mary placed a magic grain in the child's mouth so that he can still sing even after his throat has been cut; in "The Child Slain by Jews," the miracle-device is a lily in the child's throat.
The tale is, quite clearly, a stock anti-Semitic tale. It promulgates the ritual murder libel against Jews. Yet, there is one detail Chaucer alters from the "Child Slain by Jews" version of the tale which adds another, very interesting dimension to the tale.
In "The Child Slain by Jews," the child's mother searches for him all around. She asks the Jew who killed him if he has seen her, and he denies the act. Yet, the child can be faintly heard singing from inside the privy pit.
When the mother asks the mayor to investigate, they discover the child. His murderer is discovered, and the body brought out. The bishop comes to administer rites, and this is what the tale says:
The meir let serchen hym so longe
Til he was founden in the gonge,
Ful depe idrouned in fulthe of fen.
The meir het drawe the child up then,
With fen and fulthe riht foule biwhorven,
And eke the childes throte icorven.
Anon riht, er thei passede forthere,
The Jeuh was jugget for that morthere,
An er the peple passede in sonder,
The bisschop was comen to seo that wonder.
In presence of bisschop and alle ifere,
The childe song evere illich clere. (107-18)
The child's song is only heard after his murder while the child is covered in filth "riht foule" (very foul filth - shit and piss). This is important, because Chaucer makes some changes to this scene.
Chaucer's version of the tale is much the same. The Prioress has the child singing in the privy pit, covered in all the attendant filth, until the provost has him brought up and the murderer charged. The murderer is then hanged, and the child's body brought into the church. The child sings all the way up from the pit but then the child is silent until the arrival of the abbot.
Chaucer's tale reports:
Upon this beere ay lith this innocent
Biforn the chief auter, whil masse laste;
And after that, the abbot with his convent
Han sped hem for to burien hym ful faste;
And when they hooly water on hym caste,
Yet spak this child, whan spreyned was hooly water,
And song o alma redemptoris mater! (635-41)
Do you see it? Because I'm seeing it. And it's hilarious.
In Chaucer's version of the tale, there are only two things which seem to trigger the miracle singing: being covered in (Jewish) piss and shit, and holy water. Chaucer, you sly, sly dog.
The Prioress' Tale is, without a doubt, anti-Semitic. There's no way around it - it just is. But, Chaucer does something with that. Chaucer puts that tale in the mouth of a prioress - a woman sworn to God. A prioress, moreover, who embodies one of the great contradictions of humanity: she feels more pity and sympathy for the pain and suffering of animals than for the pain and suffering of other humans.
Her portrait describes her as feeling great pity for a mouse caught in a trap and the small dogs she feeds from her table, but her tale revels in showing no pity, no mercy to the Jew - the Jew in her story is an archetype, a representation of the evil of all Jews.
She wolde wepe if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel breed;
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte,
And al was conscïence and tendre herte. (144-50 General Prologue)
The Prioress' character is complex and multifaceted. And Chaucer's addition to the miracle only adds to that. That the child sings while covered in the filth of the privy pit is, by itself, an uninteresting detail. That the child also sings immediately upon being sprayed with holy water, however, begs for comparison.
The implication seems clear enough: Chaucer's Prioress, a nun sworn to God, on some conscious or unconscious level connects holy water with the filth of the privy pit. Holy water and excrement (and let us not forget whose excrement) are rendered equivalent, interchangeable.
Many scholars have argued that Chaucer held anti-clerical, Lollard, proto-Reformationist attitudes. They would probably seize on this comparison for their arguments. Seems perfect, too: a critique of the church, buried in an on-the-surface church-affirming (especially with the miracle-giver being Mary) anti-Semitic tale spoken through the character of a nun. It's almost devious.
It certainly does nothing to lessen the anti-Semitism of the tale. But it sure does make things a bit messier - or perhaps filthier.