The Prioress's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

''The Prioress's Tale'' in ''The Canterbury Tales'' concerns a small boy who is killed, his grieving mother, and a miracle of the Virgin Mary that causes him to go on singing after he has died. This tale involves themes of motherhood, innocence, and antisemitism.

Brief Plot Summary

A boy, who is described as young and innocent, begins to sing a Latin song about Christ. He sings this as he walks through a Jewish neighborhood, where he is murdered and his body is thrown into a latrine. He continues singing after death because of a magic grain placed on his tongue by the Virgin Mary. Ultimately, the grain is removed, and he is allowed to rest in peace.

Genre: Miracle of the Virgin

''The Prioress's Tale'' is told in the Miracle of the Virgin genre. These stories involve the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, intervening on behalf of people who need her help, especially those who are particularly innocent and guileless.

Themes

Celebration of the Mother Figure

The mother figure is central to this tale in two ways: in the person of the mother of the boy who is killed, and with respect to the Virgin Mary. As is discussed above, the story is written in the genre of the Miracle of the Virgin, so the Virgin Mary is clearly an important figure. Her caring for the little boy is in stark contrast to the treatment of him by the story's villains. Similarly, the boy's mother is depicted in a particularly sympathetic manner, as she searches for her son all over the city, and is left heartbroken when she learns the truth. Both mothers in ''The Prioress's Tale'' represent the pure love of mothers and the selflessness with which they care for their children.

Innocence

When we meet the young boy, he is described as 'A young clergion (scholar) seven year of age, That day by day to scholay (study) was his won (wont), And eke also, whereso he saw th' image of Christe's mother, had he in usage, As him was taught, to kneel adown, and say Ave Maria as he went by the way.' The reader can see immediately that not only is the boy very young, but he does as he is told, and respects the figure of the Virgin Mary. He comes across as a particularly good little boy, making his murder and the depositing of his body in a latrine all the more devastating. Furthermore, the fact that the boy sings a Latin song that he does not understand, but memorizes and sings anyway, underscores his innocence -- he is not old enough or educated enough to understand the Latin, but sings to God in spite of this.

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