The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer/Prioress’ Tale
The Prioress' Tale
Here beginneth the Prioress' Tale.
In a great city of Asia amongst the Christian folk there was a Jewry, sustained by a lord of that land for foul usury and villainous lucre, hateful to Christ and his followers; and men might ride or walk through the street, for it was free and open at both ends. Down at the farther limit there was a little school of Christian folk, in which there were a throng of children of Christian blood, that learned year by year in that school such lore as was wonted in that place, that is to say, to read and sing, as small children do in their childhood.
Among these children there was a widow's son, a little chorister-boy seven years of age, that day by day went to school, and eke as he had been taught it was his wont, where he saw the image of Christ's mother as he went by the way, to kneel down and say his Ave Marie. So hath this widow taught her little son to honour aye our blessed lady, Christ's mother dear, and he forgot it in no wise, for a good child will alway learn soon; and ever, when I have this thing in remembrance, Saint Nicholas standeth aye before me, because he did reverence to Christ so young. This little child, as he sat in the school, learning his little primer, heard sung Alma redemptoris, as the children learned their anthem-book, and as he durst, he drew nearer and nearer and hearkened ever the words and the note till he knew the first verse all by heart. He wist not at all what this Latin meant, for he was so young and tender in years ; but one day he prayed his fellow to expound him this song in his own language, or to tell him why this song was in use. This he prayed him to construe and explain full oft a time upon his bare knees.
His fellow, that was older than he, answered him thus: "I have heard tell that this song was made to salute our noble blessed lady, and eke for to pray her to be our succour and help when we die. I can expound no more thereof; I learn singing; I know but small grammar."
"And is this song made in reverence of Christ's mother?" said this innocent, "now certes I will do my best to know it all, ere Christmas is gone; though I shall be scolded for my primer and be beaten thrice in an hour, I will know it to honour our lady."
His fellow taught him in secret from day to day on the way home, till he knew it by heart, and then he sung it boldly and well from word to word in accord with the tune; twice a day it passed through his throat, when he went schoolward and homeward; his mind was set on Christ's mother. As I have said, this little child, as he came to and fro through the Jewry, would sing full merrily, and cry evermore O alma redemptoris; the sweetness of Christ's mother hath so pierced his heart, that in prayer to her, he cannot stint singing by the way.
Our first foe, the serpent Sathanas, that in a Jew's heart hath his wasp's nest, up-swelled and said: "O Hebrew people is this, alas! a thing seemly to you, that such a boy shall walk as he list in your despite and sing of such a theme, which is against the reverence of your law?" From thenceforth the Jews have conspired to hunt this innocent out of this world. Thereto they have paid an homicyde that had a privy dwelling in an alley; and as the child gan pass by, this cursed Jew seized him and held him fast, and cut his throat and flung him into a pit.
O cursed folk of new Herods, what may your evil mind avail you? Murder will out; verily it must; and chiefly where the honour of God is pledged, the blood crieth out on your cursed act. O martyr, confirmed to virginity, now mayst thou sing, following ever and ever the white lamb celestial, of which the great evangelist wrote, Saint John in Pathmos, who saith that they that go before this lamb and sing a fresh song, never carnally know women.
All that night this poor widow awaiteth her little child, but he came not; for which, as soon as it was day, with face pale for dread and anxious disquietude, she hath sought him at school and elsewhere, till finally she espied thus far that he was last seen in the Jewry. With mother's pity pent in her breast, she goeth as it were half out of her mind to every place where by likelihood she hath supposed her little child might be, and ever she cried on Christ's mother meek and kind, and at last she came to seek him among the cursed Jews.
She asketh and prayeth piteously of every Jew that dwelt there to tell her if her child had passed by. They said "Nay;" but after a little while, Jesu of his grace put it in her thought to call aloud for her son in that place where he was cast beside the way into a pit. O great God, that performeth thy praise by the mouths of innocents, lo Thy power! This gem of chastity, this emerald and eke this bright ruby of martyrdom, where he lay prone with slashed throat, began to sing Alma redemptoris so loud that all the place rang. The Christian folk that passed through the street came in to wonder upon this thing, and sent forthwith for the provost, who cometh anon without delay and praiseth Christ that is king of heaven and eke the glory of mankind, his mother, and after that he causeth the Jews to be bound.
With piteous lament, this child was taken up, alway singing his song, and with honours of a great procession they carried him unto the nearest abbey. His mother lay swooning by the bier; so that scarce could the people draw this new Rachel from his corse.
This provost causeth these Jews that wist of his murder to be slain, and that anon, with torment and shameful death; he would suffer no such cursedness. Evil shall have what evil deserveth, therefore he let them be drawn with wild horses and after that he hanged them by law. Aye upon his bier lieth this innocent before the chief altar while mass was singing, and after, the abbot and his monks sped them to bury him, and when they cast holy water on him yet spake this child and sang—"O alma redemptoris mater!"
This abbot, that was an holy man, as monks be, or else ought to be, begun to conjure this young child and said, "O dear child, in virtue of the holy Trinity, I supplicate thee tell what is thy reason for singing, sith to my seeming thy neck is cut?" "My throat is cut to my neck-bone," said this child, "and by way of nature, I should have died, yea, long time ago, but as ye may learn in books, Jesu Christ willeth that his glory last and be kept in mind, so for the worship of his sweet mother, I may still sing 'O alma' clear and loud. This well of mercy, Christ's dear mother, I loved alway according to my knowledge and when I was to lose my life she came to me and bade me to sing this anthem even in my death as ye have heard, and while I was singing, methought she laid a grain on my tongue. Wherefore I sing, and needs I must sing in honour of that blessed and noble maiden, till the grain is taken from off my tongue ; and afterward she said to me thus: 'My little child, I will fetch thee when the grain is taken from thy tongue ; be not aghast, I will not forsake thee.' "
This holy monk, this abbot I mean, caught out the child's tongue, and took off the grain, and full softly he gave up the ghost. And when this abbot had beheld this wonder, his salt tears trickled down like rain and prone he fell all flat on the pavement, and lay still as he had been bound.
The abbey-monks eke lay on the pavement weeping, and praised Christ's dear mother, and after that they rise and be gone forth and take this martyr from his bier and in a tomb of fair marble-stones they enclose his little sweet body. Where he is now God grant us that we may come.
O young Hugh of Lincoln, slain eke by cursed Jews, as is well known, for it was but a little while ago, pray also for us, unstable, sinful folk, that of his mercy God who is so pitiful may multiply his great mercies upon us, for reverence of his mother Mary. Amen.
Here is ended the Prioress' Tale.