Jews have suffered much by being persecuted by people who hated them. Were these people anti-Semites? Or was there something else that caused the hatred? Let’s look at one example.
One of the tales that is told in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” is the controversial story told by a prioress called “The Prioress’s Tale.” A prioress is a woman who is head of a house of nuns. She is next in rank below an abbess. She is seemingly a religious person with religious ideas. Chaucer describes his prioress in his book in two ways. She is introduced in his Prologue as an aristocratic, genteel, pious nun, but the story she tells shows her demeaning Jews and stating that Jews drink Christian blood in a Jewish ritual. She describes how Jews were rounded up, treated brutally, and then murdered by the Christian community.
The Prioress’s Tale
Jews were segregated and assigned to a Jewish ghetto, away from Christian folk. Christians used Jews as a source for borrowing money with interest charged by the Jews, a practice which was hateful to Christ and to his followers. Christians were allowed to go through the ghetto.
A widow’s son aged 7 was very religious. He walked through the ghetto to get to school. He sang a song about Jesus’ mother Mary as he strolled through the ghetto.
The serpent Satan which resides in the heart of Jews said to the Jews, will you allow this boy to dishonor our faith, this blasphemy!
The Jews persuaded a coreligionist to kill the boy. The murderer cut his throat and cast his body into a cesspool.
The poor widow searched for her son among the loathsome Jews. She found him. Although dead, he continued to sing about the mother of Christ. It was a miracle. The Christians gathered together and beseeched the magistrate for justice. He ordered the binding of all the Jews in the ghetto, and condemned them to die. The community of Christians tore the Jews apart with horses. Then hung their bodies.
Though dead, the child continued to sing the praise of Mary.
An Abbot asked the child how he could sing after having his throat cut. He replied that Mary came and made it possible.
Thus, concluded the prioress, it was like young Hugh of Lincoln who was also slain by accursed Jews.
Chaucer comments that after the tale was told, all sat mute and thought about the miracle.
The story raises many questions. Is the story anti-Semitic? Should we understand that the prioress was an anti-Semite? Was Chaucer, the author of the story, an anti-Semite? Charles Dickens also depicted a Jew in “David Copperfield” in a despicable manner, as did Shakespeare in his “The Merchant of Venus.” Are their books anti-Semitic? Where Dickens and Shakespeare and many similar authors anti-Semites? Should these books be taught in school and, if so, when the student is at what age? Did Chaucer see the blatant hypocrisy of a religious woman clearly violating the basic teaching that the New Testament? Didn’t the New Testament say that Jesus taught that one of the principle teachings is “Love your neighbor as yourself”?
Who was Chaucer?
Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1340 and died around 1400. He is considered by many authorities to be the greatest English poet of the middle ages. He has been called the “father of English literature” and the “father of English poetry.” He is best known for his delightful book with fascinating characters “The Canterbury Tales.” His other books include “The Book of the Duchess,” “The House of Fame,” “The Legend of Good Women,” and “Troilus and Criseyde.” He introduced or at least legitimized the writing of books in Middle English when the dominant languages used in England during his age were French and Latin. Many readers today find Middle English hard to understand, although many colleges encourage students to read his books, including this tale.
It should surprise no one that there is no consensus regarding these questions. Most readers, scholars and lay readers, consider the tale to be anti-Semitic. In 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy considered the prioress tale and the blood libels groundless and malicious. He wrote that stories such as this one were used as an “excuse for the cruelties exercised upon that wretched people, and probably never happened in a single instance.” Some scholars contend the opposite. Chaucer did not approve of the prioresses’s tale but wrote it as a satire to highlight the hypocrisy of a highly placed religious woman, an example for the community, having inadequate feelings about fellow humans. But there is no evidence that the public in his time or now saw the tale as a satire, with perhaps one or two exceptions.
We can never know whether Chaucer was an anti-Semite. We have little information about him and none about his views. It is possible that Chaucer had no personal ideas about Jews and was with insensitivity reflecting the idea of the people among whom he lived. It is highly unlikely that the story was meant to be a satire, an example of hypocrisy. The story itself is anti-Semitic.
May it be taught in school? Perhaps in the higher grades of elementary schools and colleges where the teacher stresses that the anti-Semitism in the tale is terrible, indeed inhuman. It could be used to teach respect for all people. This, however, reminds me of the sensible rule that public schools should not teach religion, but may teach about religion. This makes sense, but I am convinced that too many teachers are unable to hide their own religious views.