Canterbury Tales: The Prioress’s Tale

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer  | Date: 1380


Domine, dominus noster.

O Lord, Our Lord, Thy name how marvelous

Is spread through all this mighty world," said she;

"For not alone Thy praise so glorious

Is given by men of worth and dignity,

But from the mouths of children Thy bounty

Is hymned, yea, even sucklings at the breast

Do sometimes Thy laudation manifest.

"Wherefore in praise, as best I can or may,

Of Thee and of that pure white Lily-flower

Who bore Thee, and is yet a maid alway,

I tell a tale as best is in my power,

Not that I may increase Her heavenly dower,

For She Herself is honour and the one

From Whom spring wealth and goodness, next Her Son.

"O Mother-Maid! O Maiden-Mother free!

O bush unburnt, burning in Moses’ sight,

Who ravished so the Soul of Deity,

With Thy meekness, the Spirit of the Light,

That His virtue, which was Thy soul’s delight,

Conceived in Thee the Father’s wise Essence,

Help me to speak now with all reverence!

"Lady, Thy goodness and Thy generous grace.

Thy virtue and Thy great humility-

No tongue may say, no pen may fully trace;

For sometimes, Lady, ere men pray to Thee.

Thou goest before, of Thy benignity,

And givest us the true light, by Thy prayer,

To guide us all unto Thy Son so dear.

"I cannot bear the burden, blessed Queen,

Of fitly praising all Thy worthiness,

My wisdom and my knowledge are too mean;

But as a child of twelve months old, or less,

That scarcely any word can well express,

So fare I now, and therefore do I pray,

Guide Thou that song of Thee which I shall say!’


In Asia, in a city rich and great

There was a Jewry set amidst the town,

Established by a rich lord of the state

For usury and gain of ill renown,

Hateful to Christ and those who are His own;

And through that street a man might ride or wend,

For it was free and open at each end.

A little school for Christian folk there stood,

Down at the farther end, in which there were

A many children born of Christian blood,

Who learned in that same school, year after year,

Such teachings as with men were current there,

Which is to say, to sing well and to read,

As children do of whatsoever creed.

Among these children was a widow’s son,

A little choir boy, seven years of age,

Who went to school as days passed one by one,

And who, whenever saw he the image

Of Jesus’ Mother, it was his usage,

As he’d been taught, to kneel down there and say

Ave Maria, ere he went his way.

Thus had this widow her small son well taught

Our Blessed Lady, Jesus’ Mother dear,

To worship always, and he ne’er forgot,

For simple child learns easily and clear;

But ever, when I muse on matters here,

Saint Nicholas stands aye in my presence,

For he, when young, did do Christ reverence.

This little child, his little lesson learning,

Sat at his primer in the school, and there,

While boys were taught the antiphons, kept turning,

And heard the Alma redemptoris fair,

And drew as near as ever he did dare,

Marking the words, remembering every note,

Until the first verse he could sing by rote.

He knew not what this Latin meant to say,

Being so young and of such tender age,

But once a young school-comrade did he pray

To expound to him the song in his language,

Or tell him why the song was in usage;

Asking the boy the meaning of the song,

On his bare knees he begged him well and long.

His fellow was an older lad than he,

And answered thus: "This song, as I’ve heard say,

Was made to praise Our Blessed Lady free,

Her to salute and ever Her to pray

To be our help when comes our dying day.

I can expound to you only so far;

I’ve learned the song; I know but small grammar."

"And is this song made in all reverence

Of Jesus’ Mother?" asked this innocent;

"Now truly I will work with diligence

To learn it all ere Christmas sacrament,

Though for my primer I take punishment

And though I’m beaten thrice within the hour,

Yet will I learn it by Our Lady’s power!"

His fellow taught him on their homeward way

Until he learned the antiphon by rote.

Then clear and bold he sang it day by day,

Each word according with its proper note;

And twice each day it welled from out his throat,

As schoolward went he and as homeward went;

On Jesus’ Mother was his fixed intent.

As I have said, as through the Jewry went

This little school-boy, out the song would ring,

And joyously the notes he upward sent;

O Alma redemptoris would he sing;

To his heart’s core it did the sweetness bring

Of Christ’s dear Mother, and, to Her to pray,

He could not keep from singing on his way.

Our primal foe, the serpent Sathanas,

Who has in Jewish heart his hornets’ nest,

Swelled arrogantly: "O Jewish folk, alas!

Is it to you a good thing, and the best,

That such a boy walks here, without protest,

In your despite and doing such offense

Against the teachings that you reverence?"

From that time forth the Jewish folk conspired

Out of the world this innocent to chase;

A murderer they found, and thereto hired,

Who in an alley had a hiding-place;

And as the child went by at sober pace,

This cursed Jew did seize and hold him fast,

And cut his throat, and in a pit him cast.

I say, that in a cesspool him they threw,

Wherein these Jews did empty their entrails.

O cursed folk of Herod, born anew,

How can you think your ill intent avails?

Murder will out, ’tis sure, nor ever fails,

And chiefly when God’s honour vengeance needs.

The blood cries out upon your cursed deeds.

"O martyr firm in thy virginity,

Now mayest thou sing, and ever follow on

The pure white Lamb Celestial"- quoth she-

"Whereof the great evangelist, Saint John,

In Patmos wrote, saying that they are gone

Before the Lamb, singing a song that’s new,

And virgins all, who never woman knew."

This widow poor awaited all that night

Her child’s return to her, but be came not;

For which, so soon as it was full daylight,

With pale face full of dread, and busy thought,

At school she sought and everywhere she sought,

Until, at last, from all her questioning she

Learned that he last was seen in the Jewry.

With mother’s pity in her breast enclosed

She ran, as she were half out of her mind,

To every place where it might be supposed,

In likelihood, that she her son should find;

And ever on Christ’s Mother meek and kind

She called until, at last, Our Lady wrought

That amongst the cursed Jews the widow sought.

She asked and she implored, all piteously,

Of every Jew who dwelt in that foul place,

To tell her where her little child could be.

They answered "Nay." But Jesus, of His grace,

Put in her mind, within a little space,

That after him in that same spot she cried

Where he’d been cast in it, or near beside.

O Thou great God, Who innocents hast called

To give Thee praise, now shown is Thy great might!

This gem of chastity, this emerald,

Of martyrdom the ruby clear and bright,

Began, though slain and hidden there from sight,

The Alma redemptoris loud to sing,

So clear that all the neighbourhood did ring.

The Christian folk that through the ghetto went

Came running for the wonder of this thing,

And hastily they for the provost sent;

He also came without long tarrying,

And gave Christ thanks, Who is of Heaven King,

And, too, His Mother, honour of mankind;

And after that the Jews there did he bind.

This child, with piteous lamentation, then

Was taken up, singing his song alway;

And, honoured by a great concourse of men,

Carried within an abbey near, that day.

Swooning, his mother by the black bier lay,

Nor easily could people who were there

This second Rachel carry from the bier.

With torture and with shameful death, each one,

The provost did these cursed Hebrews serve

Who of the murder knew, and that anon;

From justice to the villains he’d not swerve.

Evil shall have what evil does deserve.

And therefore, with wild horses, did he draw,

And after hang, their bodies, all by law.

Upon the bier lay this poor innocent

Before the altar, while the mass did last,

And after that the abbot and monks went

About the coffin for to close it fast;

But when the holy water they did cast,

Then spoke the child, at touch of holy water,

And sang, "O Alma redemptoris mater!"

This abbot, who was a right holy man,

As all monks are, or as they ought to be,

The dead young boy to conjure then began,

Saying: "O dear child, I do beg of thee,

By virtue of the Holy Trinity,

Tell me how it can be that thou dost sing

After thy throat is cut, to all seeming?"

"My throat is cut unto the spinal bone,"

Replied the child. "By nature of my kind

I should have died, aye, many hours agone,

But Jesus Christ, as you in books shall find,

Wills that His glory last in human mind;

Thus for the honour of His Mother dear,

Still may I sing ’O Alma’ loud and clear.

"This well of mercy, Jesus’ Mother sweet,

I always loved, after poor knowing;

And when came time that I my death must meet,

She came to me and bade me only sing

This anthem in the pain of my dying,

As you have heard, and after I had sung,

She laid a precious pearl upon my tongue.

"Wherefore I sing, and sing I must, ’tis plain,

In honour of that blessed Maiden free,

Till from my tongue is taken away the grain;

And afterward she said thus unto me:

’My little child, soon will I come for thee,

When from thy tongue the little bead they take;

Be not afraid, thee I will not forsake.’"

The holy monk, this abbot, so say I,

The tongue caught out and took away the grain,

And he gave up the ghost, then, easily,

And when the abbot saw this wonder plain,

The salt tears trickled down his cheeks like rain,

And humbly be fell prone upon the ground,

Lying there still as if he had been bound.

And all the monks lay there on the pavement,

Weeping and praising Jesus’ Mother dear,

And after that they rose and forth they went,

Taking away this martyr from his bier,

And in a tomb of marble, carved and clear,

Did they enclose his little body sweet;

Where he is now- grant us him to meet!

O you young Hugh of Lincoln, slain also

By cursed Jews, as is well known to all,

Since it was but a little while ago,

Pray you for us, sinful and weak, who call,

That, of His mercy, God will still let fall

Something of grace, and mercy multiply,

For reverence of His Mother dear on high. Amen.

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Chicago: Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: The Prioress’s Tale Original Sources, accessed July 25, 2024,

MLA: Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales: The Prioress’s Tale, Original Sources. 25 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Chaucer, G, Canterbury Tales: The Prioress’s Tale. Original Sources, retrieved 25 July 2024, from