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The Prioress's Tale and the Pardoner's Tale: Chaucer's Two Religious Fables Video

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  • 0:10 The Prioress and The Pardoner
  • 0:47 The Prioress's Tale
  • 5:15 The Pardoner's Tale
  • 9:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Sjol
In this lesson, we'll take a look at The Prioress's Tale and The Pardoner's Tale to get a better sense of the types of tales told by religious members of the pilgrimage party.

The Prioress and the Pardoner

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.

The Prioress's Tale

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.

The Pardoner's Tale

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.)

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