Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" ("The Prioress's Tale")

Resource Kit by
Chaye Kohl, Sadie Gold-Shapiro

Module Content



Written in the late fourteenth century in Middle English, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by pilgrims making their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas a’ Beckett in Canterbury, England. The twenty-four characters Chaucer created are from various social strata and have been lauded by scholars because they provide a sociological view; the character depictions are seen as a way to learn about how people lived in Chaucer’s England. In “The Prioress’s Tale,” a nun tells the story of a devout Christian boy who was supposedly snatched and brutally murdered by Jews as he was walking through a Jewish neighborhood on his way to school. Scholars have debated whether or not the character of the prioress and her treatment of Jews was meant to be ironic; some scholars argue that Chaucer is clearly being ironic and the prioress’s anti-Semitism is in the story to critique the hypocrisy of the Church, while others argue that the prioress’s anti-Semitism should be taken at face value. It is important to note that when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, there were no Jews in England; Edward I ordered all Jews to be expelled from the country in 1290, and no Jews were allowed to return until 1657.

Cover image: Illustration of the Prioress from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ed. Alfred W. Pollard (London: Macmillan and Co., 1903).