Chaucer and the Jewish Ritual Murder Narratives

by David Zhang


Despite the enormous amount of attention that scholars pay to Chaucer, the thirteenth-century writer still remains largely an enigma to modern readers. This is particularly true for The Prioress’s Tale, included in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The tale narrates a case of Jewish blood libel, which was a topic that is extremely sensitive to a post-Holocaust audience. Although studies of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is yet inconclusive, since the end of WWII, scholars have been making significant progress in locating possible literary sources from which Chaucer drew inspirations. The understanding of the character of Prioress, who is the narrator of the scene, has also become increasingly complex.

Chaucer’s rendition of Jewish ritual murder also poses an interesting question regarding the context of this class. As the class discussion has established, each case of Jewish blood libel in history is the result of the combined force of a specific set of social, political, and cultural circumstances. Chaucer’s literary rendition of Jewish ritual murder is no exception. A comparison between Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale and earlier narratives of Jewish ritual murder indicates a sharp contrast in both content and perception of the Jewish community. For example, the Clergeon in Chaucer’s story, unlike the victims of most of other Jewish ritual murder narratives, resurrected after his death. This paper seeks to provide a synthesis of existing scholarships on Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, and, by doing so, use the existing theoretical framework to explain the discrepancies between Chaucer’s version of Jewish blood libel case and earlier ritual murder narratives. With a relative limited knowledge about the literary sources that influenced Chaucer, this paper confines the scope of early Jewish ritual murder narratives to Thomas Monmouth’s account of the death of William of Norwich, the earliest medieval Jewish blood libel case, and an Anglo-Norman poem narrating the death of Little Hugh of Lincoln, whose death was explicitly mentioned by the Chaucer in The Prioress’s Tale.


Ever since the end of the WWII, the interest in The Prioress’s Tale has increased dramatically, due to the nature of the tale. The first generation of Chuacerian scholars studying the tale focused on proving Chaucer as not anti-Semitic, which is probably caused by the belief in the moral infallibility of the literary master and the post-Holocaust trauma. While some of these scholars believed that Chaucer was mocking the bigotry of the Prioress, who was the embodiment of anti-Semitism, others, such as Florence H. Ridley, proved that Chaucer was only using Jewish ritual murder as a literary device to portray the Prioress as a mother figure, and was therefore was not intentionally anti-Semitic. These lines of inquiries, however, were overly formalist and failed to consider the fact that The Prioress’s Tale belongs to a broader narrative. They also ignore the psychological complexity of the character of the Prioress. The analysis of the Prioress’s character became increasingly complex since the 1980s, as scholars move away from the debate of whether Chaucer was anti-Semitic, which is largely irrelevant afterall since the poet himself lived in a country where Jews have been expelled for decades. Instead, the main focus became analyzing the underlying motivations that created the tale. Scholars have proved, for example, that the Prioress was actively borrowing but modifying Christian liturgies that she would have known as a nun while telling the tale. In doing so, the Prioress establishes her religious authority among her pilgrim audiences. An influencial Chaucerian scholar, Lee Patterson, have also established that the Prioress was extremely interested in restoring the religious purity while telling her story, since some of the earlier tales in the book contained themes that she would have considered morally corrupting. While we are all familiar with the not-so-clean Miller’s Tale, another tale that the Prioress was influenced by was probably The Shipman’s Tale, in which the narrator was obsessed with money and commerce.

Primary Sources

“The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation.” Harvard University. <>

This is a line-by-line translation provided by Harvard University. The translation has fairly high quality and the website also contains the original Middle English text.

“The Prologue to and Tale of Sir Thopas, and the Host’s Interruption.” Harvard University. <>

The Harvard University site also has has the Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas, which is the chapter that came immediately after The Prioress’s Tale. The beginning of the Prologue og Sir Thopas records the pilgrims’ response to the Prioress’s story, which is useful to my paper because it corresponds to how Chaucer expected his medieval readers to react to The Prioress’s Tale.

Dahood Roger. “The Anglo-Norman ‘Hugo de Lincolnia’: A Critical Edition and Translation From the Unique Text in Paris,Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS fr.902,” The Chaucer Review, vol. 49, no. 1 (2014), 1-38.

Roger Dahood is a professor of English literature at Arizona State University. During the past decade, he has published a number of articles on the representation of Jewish ritual murder  among medieval English literature. Here, I am citing one of the Anglo-Norman vernacular poem that he has translated, from Anglo-Norman French, into modern English. The poem narrates the death of Little Hugh of Lincoln, who is mentioned specifically by the Prioress at the end of her tale, therefore proving that both Chaucer and the Prioress were aware of the story. Little Hugh of Lincoln himself is a young boy from the English town of Lincoln, who was allegedly kidnapped by the local Jew Jopin, starved for twenty-eight days, and later crucified. The tale narrates that during the month when Hugh was held alive, the richest Jews of England congregated at Lincoln to witness the crucifixion. After being sold to another Jew for thirty coins, the boy was killed and thrown away. In the mean time, the King has been conducting investigation at the request of Hugh’s mother. The discovery of Hugh’s body eventually led to the execution of all of the Jews involved. Beside thie specific account, there are three other contemporary chronicles that recorded the death of Hugh of Lincoln. Unfortunately, none of the chronicles are available in modern English either digitally or physically in libraries around Boston.

Secondary Sources


Frank, Hardy Long. “Chaucer’s Prioress and the Blessed Virgin,” The Chaucer Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (Spring, 1979).

I chose thie article not only as a “bad apple”, but also to support my argument about the historiography of the Chaucerian studies of The Prioress’s Tale. This article, published in 1979, belongs to an earlier literary tradition whose research methodology is rejected by later scholars. This paper is not immediately concerned about the relationship between Chaucer and anti-Semitism. Instead, the author argues that the figure of the Prioress highly resembles other motherly figures in contemporary French literature. Although it is likely that such literary prototype has influenced Chaucer, the methodology of this paper is problematic because it fails to establish whether Chaucer’s audiences would have been familiar with these character types.

Schoeck, R. J. “Chaucer’s Prioress: Mercy and Tender Heart,” Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales, ed. R.J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1960).

This article by R. J. Schoeck is both somewhat iconic of Chaucerian studies of The Prioress’s Tale before the 1980s and highly influential among later schoalrs. In the article, Schoeck argues that the Prioress is not anti-Semitic by her intention. Instead, she was only using the Jewish ritual murder narrative as a way to establish herself as a tender, motherly figure. The tremendous interest of the author to establish the relationship between Chaucer and anti-Semitism, as previous established, is iconic of this period. On the other hand, Schoeck is aware of the character complexity of the Prioress, and proceeds to analyze her psychological activity during her tale-telling to explain her tale. The assumption that the Prioress has a conscience separated from Chaucer allowed later scholars to gain more insights into the mind of the Prioress.

Parks, Ward. “The Oral-Formulaic Theory in Middle English Studies”, Oral Tradition, 1/3 (1986).

This article, by Parks, provides an argument that provides one of the foundations of my paper. The author presents a specific method of understanding medieval English literature called “the Oral-Formulaic Theory”, which argues that, since medieval literature such as The Canterbury Tales are meant to be performed orally through story-telling, it requires a different method of inquiry comapre to later literature. The Oral-Formulaic Theory is, as I understand, a type of reader-response criticism. The assumption underlying this theory is very useful to my paper, as it explains the beginning of Sir Thopas’ Prologue, where the pilgrims, having listened to the horrendous story told by the Prioress, showed an ambiguous reaction, whereas the listener of the Anglo-Norman poem showed a different reaction by showing strong hatred toward Jews.

Calabrese, Michael A. “Performing the Prioress: ‘Conscience’ and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 44, no. 1 (Spring 2002).

This article studies the Prioress’s conscience as she was telling the tale. The approach of the research is both literary and, in a sense, psychoanalytical, as the author analyzes the underlying motivation of the Prioress, while telling the story, by her word choices and senten structures. The author notices the Prioress’s increasingly child-like language as the tale develops. The author concludes that the Prioress’s conscience is “pure and perverse”.

Patterson, Lee. “’The Living Witness of Our Redemption’: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 31, no. 3 (Fall 2001).

Lee Patterson is a very influential scholar of medieval English liturature. In this 2001 paper, Patterson includes many insights into The Prioress’s Tale. I used this specific article because it provides a synthesis of existing studies of the tale since the 1980s. On the one hand, the author takes a literary approach when analyzing the tale, stating the close resemblance between The Prioress’s Tale and some contemporary Christian liturgies. This method of inquiry also avoids the problem confronted by earlier generation of scholars, who, best exemplified by Frank, ignores the consciences and backgrounds of the fictional characters. While the Prioress is not likely to have been familiar with contemporary French vernacular poems, it is most certain that she would have been familiar with common Christian liturgies. On the other hand, Patterson provides insights into the Prioress’s personality and underlying motivation when telling the tale. His conclusion is similar to, and is most likely influenced by, other scholars of his time, as he concludes that the Prioress is actively imitating the voice of the Little Clergeon, who is the young victim of the Jewish ritual murder.

Fenn, Jessica. “Apostrophe, Devotion, and Anti-Semitism: Rhetorical Community in the Prioress’s Prologue and Tale,” Studies in Philology, vol. 110, no. 3 (Summer 2013).

Jessica Fenn takes on an interest method in examining the character of the Prioress. Fenn argues that the Prioress extensivesly employs the medieval rhetoric device apostrophe, which address an absent other. Similar to Patterson, Fenn starts by examining the Christian liturgies and psalms that the Prioress most likely had in mind when narrating her story. Fenn points to certain Christian psalms that resemble The Prioress’s Tale in both message and structure. Most importantly, many of the psalms that the Prioress would have been familiar with use apostrophe by addressing an absent audience rather than their real audiences.

McGrath, Kate. “English Jews as Outlaws or Outcasts: The Ritual Murder of Little St. Hugh of Lincoln in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora,” British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011).

This article provides an analysis of the medieval chronicler Matthew Paris’ version of the murder of Little Hugh of Lincoln. As aforementioned, there are three medieval chronicles that record the story of Hugh (The Burton Chronicle, The Weaverly Chronicle, and the Matthew Paris’ Chronicle). The article essentially evaluates the credibility of Paris’ account and points out aspects of the story that were possibly manipulated.

Park, Hwanhee. “’To Ben Holden Digne of Reverence’: The Tale-Telling Tactics of Chaucer’s Prioress,” A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 46 (2015).

Similar to many other Chaucerian scholars analyzing The Prioress’s Tale, Park examines the language that the Prioress used. The author argues that, by showing an obsession with religious purity and impersonating the young victim, the Prioress establishes her religious authority among her listeners.


Rose, E. M. “The Murder of William of Norwich.” Oxford Scholarship Online. <>.

Surprisingly, I find the book by E. M. Rose extremely useful. In my paper, I compare The Prioress’s Tale not only with the death of Little Hugh of Lincoln, but also with the death of William of Norwich, as it is often considered the first Jewish blood libel case. Furthermore, E. M. Rose provides many insights into the factors that contributed to the creation of Jewish blood libel cases that are relevant to my case.

Florence H. Ridley, The Prioress and the Critic (Berkeley: University of California Press 1965).

The book by Ridley is one of the earliest ones written specifically on the subject of The Prioress’s Tale, which is a good indicator of the increasing interest in the story after WWII. Ridley’s argument in the book is generally in line with many other Chaucerian scholars during this period, in the sense that she is interested mainly in discovering the relationship between Chaucer and anti-Semitism. Her book argues that the Prioress’s use of Jewish ritual murder narrative is not anti-Semitic by intention.