Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Prioress Tales

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The Prioress tells a tale set in an Asian town dominated by the Jewry in which usury and other things hateful to Christ occurred. The Christian minority in the town opened a little Christian school for their children in this city. Among these children was a widow’s son, an innocent seven year old who was, even at his young age, deeply devoted to his faith. At school he learned a song in Latin, the Alma redemptoris, and asked the meaning of it. According to his comrade, this song was composed about the Virgin Mary in order to greet her, and also to pray to her to be our help and succor when we die. The seven year old then said that he would learn the Latin song before Christmas. Day by day his comrade taught it to him secretly on the way home until he knew the song by heart. The seven year old would sing it twice a day, once on the way to school and once on the way home. The heart of the child was set on Christ’s mother.

As he was walking home from school one day singing this song, he provoked the anger of the Jews of the city, whose hearts were possessed by Satan. They hired a murderer who slit the boy’s throat and threw the body into a pit. The poor widow searched for her missing child, begging the Jews to tell her where her child might be found, but they refused to help. When she found him, although his throat was slit, he began to sing the Alma redemptoris. The other Christians of the city rushed to the child and carried him to the abbey. The provost cursed the Jews who knew of this murder and at once ordered their death by first dragging them with wild horses and after that he hanged them according to law.

Before the child was buried, he began to speak. The Virgin Mary had placed a grain on his tongue that allowed him to speak, despite his fatal wound, but when the grain was removed he would finally pass on to heaven. The story ends with a lament for the young child and a curse on the Jews who perpetrated this crime.

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The Prioress’ tale is overtly a religious tale centered around Christian principles and a devotion to the Virgin Mary, but within the warm affection that the Prioress shows for her Christian faith is a worrying anti-Semitism that will be immediately obvious to the modern reader. The tale is a stressed melodrama, filled with scenes of moral instruction. The tale is a courageous celebration of motherhood. The guiding figure of the tale is the Virgin Mary, who serves as the paradigm for Christian values and the intervening spirit who sustains the murdered child before he passes on to heaven. Her mortal parallel is the mother of the murdered boy, who dearly loves her son and struggles to find the boy when he is lost. The illustration of the mother is the most realistic section of the story, for the Prioress finds in the mother a legitimate fear and concern that transcends the more sentimental and guilty portions of the tale.

Yet surrounding the kernels of legitimate pain and suffering in the Prioress’ Tale are sections that are nothing more than shallow sentimentalism and vicious prejudice. The child is angelic, at seven years old more devoted to Christian teachings than anyone in the story. The final moments of the tale in which the Virgin Mary sustains him after his throat is slit are a shameless exploitation meant to persuade false tears. The Prioress extends warmth and sympathy only to the mother and her child, while heaping unabashed wrath upon the Jews of the city, who are portrayed as nothing less than allies of Satan. The details of the murder are gruesome the child is murdered for singing the praises of the Virgin Mary and dumped in a pit. The logical conclusion of this tale is the Prioress’ curse on the Jews for their actions.


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