The Prioress's Tale

The Prioress would have been the head nun of a priory or assistant head over an abbey, perhaps like Bolton Abbey, a twelfth-century building that was destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries. As the Prioress, she would have had the responsibilities of managing the internal affairs of her Abbey as well as of contacts with the outside. She would have also had the responsibilities of discipline and organization within her convent. She would no doubt have come from a prosperous family, perhaps an aristocratic family with several daughters that would have made it unlikely for her to marry. Or perhaps she came from a wealthy merchant family with aristocratic pretentions.

The Prioress is accompanied by a small group, another nun and a priest at least, since it would be unfitting for her to travel alone. Because of the importance of her role to her monastery, and because nuns were forbidden from going on pilgrimages, we might ask ourselves why she absented herself on this occasion. Of course, as a Prioress, she was not subject to the same restrictions as a simple nun. Moreover, the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury was brief, and could have been accomplished in not more than four days. The Prioress may have been traveling for devotional purposes, and it is not excluded that she was traveling as a form of penance.


The Prioress's Tale and Medieval Anti-Semitism

The Church was hostile to Jews in part because of the canonical opposition to usury,  but in England,  under kings from Henry II to John to Richard I, Jews had enjoyed a variety of protections because of the increasing reliance of the royal treasury on Jewish financial functions, including that of collecting taxes. At a time when money was replacing feudal loyalty as the means by which land was controlled and transferred the money-lending activities of the Jews, activities forbidden to Christians,  and the influence that derived from these activities, especially from their dealings with the perennially indebted monarchy caused a great deal of fear and animosity in the general population. It is evident from the charters issued in the reign of Richard the influence that the Jews had obtained with the monarchs thanks to the king's financial dependence on them.

At the coronation of Richard I, a bitter dispute erupted over the admission of Jews to the coronation ceremony, a dispute that was followed several months later by  the massacre of 150 Jews at York and the despoliation of their houses and goods. Click here to read the an account of the disturbances that arose on that occasion.  Only a few weeks prior to the massacre, which took place at the time of Passover in 1190, Richard gave a charter to a Jew named Ysaac  which contained a confirmation of rights and privileges previously granted to the Jews by Henry I and Henry II, including very favorable rights regarding inheritance, the right to their own justice and special exemptions from taxes and tolls. Click here to read Richard's charter.

A decade later, Richard's brother John also issued a charter to the Jews which confirmed the privileges and protections they had had under Richard,  including the right to their own justice and special exemptions from taxes and tolls. The reason for this is clear: the Jews paid John the sum of 4,000 marks for the confirmation of this charter. Click here to read the regulation of the Jews under John.

Jews were finally expelled from England in 1290, as a concession by Edward I in exchange for a new tax.

Popular culture in the fourteenth century was thoroughly imbued with antisemitism, and popular literature, such as Miracles of the Virgin, or the stories of blood libel (the belief that Jews would kidnap, torture, and murder Christian children in the Passover season) portrayed Jews as agents of the devil, figures of almost supernatural malevolence, a superstition that was aided by the fact that no Jews lived in England (at least openly). The story the Prioress tells was well known in the fourteenth century, one of the most popular versions of the infamous blood libel stories. Another popular story with the same them is that of Little William of Norwich, which the Prioress mentions. Click here to read the story as told by Thomas of Monmouth.

At the same time, the Church at its highest levels was seeking to discourage such stories for fear of the violence they might incite. Popes Clement V, Innocent III, Innocent IV, and Gregory X all took steps to put the Jews to some degree under their own protection. As is evident from the letter of Gregory X, the blood libel accusations served as excuses to detain Jews and rob them of their goods. Click here to read Gregory X's condemnation of the blood libel  stories.

                                                                      Miracles of the Virgin

Miracles of the virgin were one manifestation of the cult of Mary that reached its apex in the twelfth century.

Mary was the most complex figure in the holy family. The growth of her cult was a twelfth- century phenomenon, a manifestation of the importance that personal piety had assumed. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, with his Sermons on the Song of Songs, was influential in developing the eroticized portrayals of Mary as the love ideal to which all men should aspire. She fulfilled virtually every role a woman can fulfill: tender sister, indulgent and forgiving mother, highly sensual erotic ideal. Miracles of the Virgin portray Mary as protecting those who are dedicated to her, including criminals who have no other virtue except devotion to Mary; they show her rebuking and punishing those who harm her favorites; they praise her  as a delicious and sensual lover who rewards devotion but jealously punishes those who betray her love for an earthly woman; they show her as a nurturing mother who heals the ills of her earthly offspring by tenderly suckling them with the miraculous milk from her breasts. She came to represent, in popular piety, the mutually exclusive ideals of the infinite mercy of a mother for her offspring as well as the sweet, sensual, desirable but eternally chaste lover.

Click here to read several miracles of the virgin and here to read the miracle of a clerk who was saved by Mary's milk.

In addition, Mary was the object of highly eroticized love lyrics, sometimes set to music, such as those composed by Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236) a cleric and musician who became became Grand Prior of Sain-Médard in Soissons in 1233.  This lyric,  Royne Celestre,  is a highly sensual love lyric addressed to the virgin as an erotic ideal:  her breasts taste of honey and she is sweeter than a fresh honey-cake or a perfumed rose. She also lacks the faults of ordinary women; there is no deceit, no cunning, no duplicity, trickery or falsehood in her. (Available on CD, Gautier de Coincy: Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame, France-Telecom Foundation)

The Prioress's Rosary
The prioress's fashionable rosary, which she wears around her arm like a bracelet, is made  of coral beads with large green beads separating the decades and is embellished with a gold brooch containing the inscription "Amor Vincit Omnia" ("Love Conquers All").  Like this commercially available rosary today, rosaries in the fourteenth century were sometimes expensive objects of luxury. For the Catholic Encycopedia's entry on the rosary, click here.

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