Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 140 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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We're going to take a look at two tales told by some of the 'religious job' pilgrims in Chaucer's party. So, we've got the Prioress and the Pardoner. Quick recap: A prioress is kind of like a head nun, so she's in charge of other nuns, and a pardoner sells indulgences, which are basically forgiveness from sin that you can pay for. You can see how that would inevitably get a little corrupt, and he definitely is. So these are people involved in the church, and it's interesting to look at what kinds of tales they tell. I'll give you a hint: They tell weird tales.
Let's start with the Prioress. The Prioress's Tale is like an anti-Semitic circus. It's crazy and it's awful. It's related to these 'blood libel' stories of the time, which insisted that Jewish people were killing Christians to use their blood in all sorts of ways. Actually, Sarah Palin made a famous faux pas when she used the term 'blood libel' and upset some people. So to set the scene, here are the opening lines to this tale:
Ther was in Asye, in a greet cite,
Amonges Cristene folk, a Jewerye,
Sustened by a lord of that contree
For foule usure and lucre of vileynye
So I think we can see how the Prioress feels about the 'Jewerye'. She's saying that they're awful and they have money and they're bad. How Chaucer feels is a point of contention. This is the Prioress speaking, but it's up for debate what Chaucer's own attitude is about this. Basically what happens in this city in Asia that has a Jewish quarter is there's a seven-year-old boy who's a Christian (he's called the Clergen throughout the story), and he lives in the 'cite' with his widowed mother. Every day on his way to school, he has to walk through the Jewish quarter. And he's really into worshiping the Virgin Mary; I guess it's kind of like the Star Wars of the day. He learns a song called 'Alma Redemptoris'. He doesn't really understand the words, but he does know it's kind of about Mary, so he decides he's going to sing it all the time. It's kind of like if your little brother started singing along to 'The Thong Song.' He doesn't really understand it, but knows it's vaguely dirty and that it makes mom upset. Except again, this is Mary and religiousness, but it's the idea that he doesn't really know what it means but he knows what it does. Because he's only seven; he doesn't know stuff. So he's wandering through the Jewish quarter singing this song, and the Jews decide to kill him because they're all motivated by Satan. Chaucer describes their motivation by saying:
Our firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,
That hath in Jewes herte his waspes nest
If you got that, it said Satan has his 'wasp's nest' in Jews' hearts. I warned you this is an anti-Semitic bonanza! So they murder the little boy and they cut his throat. When his family finds his body, he's still singing the song! It's a miracle; he's still singing the song even though his throat is cut. It's so he can still worship Mary even after death. By a miracle he has a grain laid on his tongue that allows him to keep singing. The abbot who's in charge of the funeral finally removes the grain, and the boy stops singing and dies for real. All the Jews get dragged around behind horses and then hung, so they all die. It's such a wonderful and charming story. Good job, Chaucer!
The most obvious thing about it, the thing that really gets talked about the most, is its absurd portrait of Jewish people and its rabid anti-Semitism. But it's also interesting because the Prioress makes a point of describing the little boy as a virgin, which is kind of strange because he's seven. You wouldn't think that would be in dispute at that age. But it resonates with this idea that he's singing the song even though he doesn't totally know what it means. It's faith without the possibility of doubt, or virginity without the possibility of sin. The Prioress raises this up to be an ideal that is unattainable for most of us, this idea of innocence and being faithful without any kind of doubt. It's something most of us can't achieve past the age of seven, but this little kid was like that. She raises him up, in addition to being really nasty to Jewish people. So that's The Prioress's Tale, one tale a religious pilgrim tells.
Moving along to The Pardoner's Tale. Now I realize that throughout this course, I've been a little heavy-handed with the Harry Potter references. It might have something to do with the fact that I read the books a bazillion times when they came out. But in this case, it is somewhat relevant because J.K. Rowling cites The Pardoner's Tale as pretty much the inspiration for the Deathly Hallows that are in the final Harry Potter book. (You know, those three objects and that whole story.)
So here's what happens in The Pardoner's Tale. A bunch of Flemish people, who are people that live in the area near the Netherlands and Belgium, are partying, drinking too much and generally sinning. They find out that one of their friends was killed by this mysterious figure named Death. They're drunk and upset, which is not a good development, and they decide they're going to go show Death who's boss. It's kind of like if you get drunk and start writing angry letters to your congressman or calling the airline, or any of those things you probably shouldn't do but you do because you've got the courage. That's what they do with Death. They run into an old man who's looking for Death, because he's old and tired and wants to die, and he's seen Death hanging out by a tree. So they go over by the tree looking for Death, and instead they find a whole bunch of gold. That's a nice surprise. They get all excited and are going to cart it back to town when one of them suggests they shouldn't do it during the day because everyone will think they're thieves, that they've stolen it all.
So they decide let's draw lots and send someone to go get some bread and wine, and then we'll wait and then we'll bring the gold back. The youngest draws the shortest straw and has to go get the bread and wine. Meanwhile, the two that stay decide that when he comes back they're going to kill him, because then they can split the gold just between them and not all three of them. But don't feel too sorry for the guy who went to get the wine, because at the same time, he is plotting to kill the two who stayed behind. He's going to poison two of the bottles of wine that he brings back. (I guess they each get their own bottle, which is fine by me.) He comes back with the food, including the poisoned wine, the other two jump him and kill him, and then they celebrate and drink his wine, but they drink the poison wine and they die too. The Pardoner then jumps in and says the moral of this story is that you shouldn't be too greedy. Because they were super greedy and wanted all the gold for themselves, they ended up all killing each other - they didn't need Death to do it for them.
How this relates to Harry Potter is, if you remember, the 'Tale of Three Brothers' explains how the Deathly Hallows (the wand, the resurrection stone and the invisibility cloak) came into being. Three brothers meet Death while successfully crossing a river. He's all upset because they didn't drown, so he pretends to offer them fun gifts. But they're actually prizes that will kill them. The oldest gets this fancy wand, and it eventually gets stolen and he's killed for it. The middle one gets the stone that's going to bring his lover back from the dead, but she doesn't really come back in a meaningful way, so he ends up killing himself. The youngest asks for the invisibility cloak, and he's fine. But you can see the same sort of theme: three people going out, encountering death and kind of messing it up, because they want things for themselves. It's this greed; they want the cool thing, but the cool thing is actually maybe going to be the thing that kills you.
So we've talked about The Prioress's Tale and The Pardoner's Tale as example of two tales told by pilgrims who were involved in the church. They are quite different, especially in their approach to death. The Prioress's Tale is about a martyr, someone who dies for religion. He's just a little boy who's singing a song about Mary when the 'evil Jews' get him. In The Pardoner's Tale, death really is a punishment for being a bad person. So you can see the two different figurations of death in these stories; it's kind of interesting.
Again, quick summary of what happens, The Prioress's Tale, little boy sings a song, gets killed by Jews, Jews get killed. Horribly anti-Semitic. The Pardoner's Tale, three people try to cheat death and end up killing themselves because they're greedy and want the gold. Those are the two stories!
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 140 lessons | 10 flashcard sets