4: Excerpt, “Matthew Paris's English history: from the year 1235 to 1273,” translated from Latin, 1852; music and lyrics, “Sir Hugh,” 1956; and music and lyrics, “Little Sir Hugh,” 1975.
In the very last stanza of “The Prioress’s Tale,” Chaucer references “youngè Hugh of Lincoln, slain also/ With cursèd Jewès.” The tale of Hugh of Lincoln was an early blood libel story concerning the murder of a young English boy in 1255. Some scholars believe that Chaucer based “The Prioress’s Tale” on this story.
Suggested Activity: Matthew Paris was a monk and English chronicler who wrote exaggerated accounts of English history in the thirteenth century. Read Matthew Paris’s recounting of the story of Hugh of Lincoln. What similarities do you notice between the story of Hugh of Lincoln and “The Prioress’s Tale?” How are Jewish people portrayed in this story?
Long after the events occurred, the story of Hugh of Lincoln was popularized as a folk ballad throughout the British Isles and, later, in the United States. Listen to two different versions of the ballad (A. L. Lloyd’s 1956 recording “Sir Hugh” and Steeleye Span’s 1975 rendition, “Little Sir Hugh”) while reading and comparing the lyrics.
What similarities do you notice between Matthew Paris’s account and the story told in the song? Lloyd’s recording explicitly names Jews as the murderers, while the Steeleye Span version elides this detail. Why might folk musicians choose to include or leave out this detail? What similarities do you see between Matthew Paris’s account, the two ballads, and “The Prioress’s Tale” (pay close attention to the figure of the young boy, the role of the boy’s mother, and the boy’s ability to speak after death)?
Sources: Matthew Paris, Matthew Paris's English History: from the year 1235 to 1273, trans. J. A. Giles (London: H.G. Bohn, 1856), 138.
A. L. Lloyd, “Sir Hugh,” recorded in 1956, remastered in 2011, track 2 on cd 2 of Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun, accessed online. Lyrics compiled by Sadie Gold-Shapiro.
Steeleye Span, “Little Sir Hugh,” recorded in 1975, track 5 of The Best of Steeleye Span, accessed online. Lyrics compiled by Sadie Gold-Shapiro.