Retelling the Prioress's Tale

When April arrived, with its not-so-sweet showers, I found myself sitting in a tavern at Southwark, surrounded by a motley crew of walkers in medieval dress. Sound familiar? Over the course of four days, this enthusiastic team led by literary walker, Henry Eliot, trod the paths of Chaucer’s pilgrims, telling the Canterbury Tales along a sixty-eight mile route. The opportunity arose for me to tell the Prioress’s Tale, and I seized the chance. All creative avenues were open – I could adapt the text however I wished.

The story of a seven year old Christian boy, whom a group of Jews conspire to murder, first came to my attention in 2006, when I saw the RSC’s stage production of the Tales. The Prioress, visibly moved with a holy fervour while actors in menacing masks performed the murder, was presented in accordance with the text – yet to some members of a modern audience, she appeared almost fanatical in her devotion, and I distinctly remember how the Tale’s sentimental dénouement provoked uneasy laughter. The anti-Semitism of the Tale has attracted substantial attention from Chaucerian critics and readers of the Canterbury Tales, some of whom condemn Chaucer outright for the Tale’s content, whilst others have approached the text from structuralist and historicist angles so as to contextualise Chaucer’s negative portrayal of the Jewish figures. Bearing these wider debates in mind, I approached the text with two questions: how should the anti-Semitic content be treated? And, what can the process of adaptation teach us about the Tale?

Amidst the arguments about whether there is an ironic distance between Chaucer and the Prioress, and to what extent the anti-Sematism of the Tale reflects contemporary prejudices, critics also remind us that Chaucer does not foreground hatred of the Jews, but the cult of Mary. The Tale is a Marian miracle structured around an enchanting song. The little boy, upon hearing the antiphon, ‘Alma redemptoris mater,’ becomes enthralled by the chant, and it significantly heightens the Christian boy’s devotion to Mary. This angers Satan, who persuades the Jews to take action against the boy. Song therefore acts as a means by which divine (or diabolic) figures interact with people. It socially and spiritually defines and divides. Furthermore, as noted in Friedman’s article on ‘The Prioress’s Tale and Chaucer’s Anti-Semitism,’ the Prioress’s Prologue draws on the chants of the Divine Office, and the melodic quality of her verse is extended into the Tale itself, which she calls a ‘song’ (l.35).
It therefore seemed natural to perform the Tale as a piece of music. The miraculous (and unnerving) quality of the Tale initially suggested an ethereal piece based on a contemporary musical setting of ‘Alma redemptoris mater’ (in my mind’s eye, I even had images of smoke machines and dry ice). Yet I found myself writing a highly structured folk-style ballad, with stark, blocky chord changes. Whilst I could attribute this to my ignorance of writing chant-inspired ambient vibes, it seemed rather that this decision grew from a reading of the Tale itself. The story is short, but has a powerful narrative drive, with few reflective asides. In a paper entitled, ‘Song and the Ineffable in the Prioress’s Tale,’ Russell argues that the Chaucerian topos of song and the ineffable underlies Chaucer’s decision not to include the whole song in the Tale. Yet his argument does not acknowledge that there are practical considerations to be taken into account. Including too much of the song interrupts the speedy and dramatic series of events leading to the martyrdom. I found that, in writing the song, I first inserted excerpts of the chant, and then removed all but one for the sake of narrative pace.
The Tale, of course, presented an even bigger challenge – how would I treat the anti-Semitic content? Studies of landscape in medieval narrative, and trauma theory, offered ways of articulating the act of martyrdom in the story, and its modern implications. In a sense, my retelling retained the binary oppositions of Chaucer’s original, but instead of setting Jews against Christians, my song foregrounded the structures and monuments mentioned in the poem. By focusing on sites – the ‘temple of marbul stones cleere’ (l.194) in which the boy’s body is laid, and the hanging post from which the Jews were executed – I found that I could write more freely about the acts committed in the tale, and the legacy that they leave. While the temple becomes a site at which the martyr can be venerated, those who conspired against him are remembered by an instrument of death. It is also significant that the Jewish side of the story is left untold. Besides the stanza in which Chaucer presents the persuasive words of ‘Sathanas’ as an inner monologue in ‘Jewes herte’ (ll.71-72), we hear nothing of the Jews’ words. In highlighting this absence, I aimed to tell the Tale from a fresh perspective, drawing out new ‘sentence’ from Chaucer’s material without imposing an ideological agenda or distorting the poem with anachronisms.
The performance added another new dimension. Darnley mausoleum, the location of my Tale, could not have been more apt. As we walked through Cobham Woods, the monument slowly rose into view like a mysterious castle from a medieval romance. I draped myself in a make-shift headdress, closed my eyes and began the song, and just at that point, the sun broke through the steely clouds and lit up the mausoleum. The awe-inspiring structure became a part of the performance, representing the marble tomb in which the young saint was laid to rest.
As demonstrated throughout the pilgrimage, literature and landscape interact, gaining significance from each other. By physically wending our way to Canterbury, we discovered how to navigate the Tales; by treading literary routes of old, we fell upon new interpretations. My experiences of retelling the Prioress’s Tale certainly exposed the art of Chaucer’s narrative structure and revealed how, by altering the landscape of the poem and placing certain elements in the foreground, new territory – and new questions – can be explored.
The Prioress’s Tale (retold)
Prologue (sung):
Oh Father, oh Father, this tongue of clay
That moves to sing your praises
Lumbers within my mouth to say
How manifold are your graces.
I have the tongue of a child, my Lord,
But none of the blessings of their tender youth.
Never could they be beguiled, my love,
By those who speak untruth.
Oh Mother, oh Mother, I reach for the light
Kindled within you by Wisdom.
I pray that it may help my words take flight
And unlock a heavenly kingdom.
Give me the grace of a child, my Lady,
Let me sing plainly, but let me sing free.
I pray we may not be beguiled, my dove,
By those who use their words falsely.
Tale (sung):
There is a rift in the heart of this city
(a strange place in a distant country).
A road runs throughout this settlement –
A thread that connects what history has rent.
At one end of the road, a tomb stands gleaming
In which a little child is dreaming;
Down at the other, a hanging post high
Is a warning to those nearby.
On the side of the tomb, there are words of a song,
Echoes of days long gone:
Redemptoris mater, it says,
And for the protection of Mary it prays.
But the post, it is stained with anonymous blood
Of bodies cut down and lost in the mud.
Their song is unheard, their story unspoken,
And all that they leave is a city that’s broken.
But what is the tale? What is the meaning
Of the glorious tomb that stands there gleaming?
The mumbling and buzzing of busy tongues
Tell of a past that is stung by wrongs.
A child, they say, just seven years old,
Part of the Christian fold,
Heard a melody so sublime
That it buried into his heart over time.
Touched to the core by this mystery
He asked what the meaning might be,
And found that the tune that had taken his breath
Was a hymn to Mary for help at our time of death.
He repeated those words of beseeching and praise
Again and again throughout his short days
Until, walking into the wrong end of town,
A gang of Jews cut him down.
The devil had whispered into their ears
That this little boy was a cause for their fears
And that his song which resounded all day and all night
Was sung in their despite.
It was late in the evening, he hadn’t come home.
His panicking mother, she started to roam
Through shadow-webbed streets, asking, ‘where did he go?’
But each answer she got was, ‘I wouldn’t know.’
But the guidance of Christ, her shining light
Brought her to the fateful site -
There, she heard how his song rose up
From the depths of a pit of muck.
Well, the Christian people all gathered around,
And a rescue team was sent below ground.
The boy was dragged up from the pit,
Singing although his throat had been slit.
The wound was deep, but the melody
Rang like a bell through the dark city.
In the name of the law, the guilty gang
Were cut up, and strung up, and left to hang.
And once Mass for his soul was over and done,
Song rose again from the infant’s tongue
‘Til a man who was known for his holiness
Asked the child why he was not at rest.
The child stopped his singing, and raised his eyes
Up to the stained-glass skies.
He told the tale of a visitation
And how it had led to his salvation:
In the dark and the cold and the lonely place
There came the bright Mother of grace.
Into my mouth, she placed a grain
And bid me sing her sweet refrain
And I will always sing for my lady
Until the grain is taken from me.
She wants me to pay reverence
To the glory of her presence.
Alma redemptoris mater…
The holy man removed the grain.
The boy’s spirit left without any pain.
Stillness fell upon his face
And silence fell upon the place.
The citizens could only understand
The tragedy that marked their land
As a sign of the love of the Lady dear
And the aid that she gives in moments of fear.
So even now the rift remains,
And while one group sings the martyr’s strains,
For those who were taken in by a lie,
Such stories are left to die.
Sophie Sawicka-Sykes

your wonderful retelling

this is so inventive and original: I love the rhymed version of the Tale and your song. What you say about transferring the markers of the story into the landscape is really interesting. Do you think it worked because you were on the move in telling the narrative? I wonder what that implies about the imaginative world of the Canterbury Tales? I must admit I think more and more that Chaucer was constructing something that was quite cerebral and far removed from the realist issues of travelling on a pilgrimage!