English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tale from the Prioress

14th century, Middle English. Handful of 15th century manuscripts, numerous printed copies.

'The abbot stuck a finger inside the little boy’s mouth and removed the seed, and the boy stopped singing and died. That's the climax of the tale, and no one ever seems to want to explain it.’

'You know the really weird thing?' asked Quintin.

'About Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale from the Prioress?' asked Miranda.

'Yes. The really weird thing is that no one asks the most intriguing question of all. They get caught up in the antisemitism and all that sort of Medieval horribleness and go on to say nothing about the real climax of the tale.'

'Which is?'

'The grain of seed in the little boy’s mouth.'

'A grain of seed?' replied Miranda.

'The story's about a little boy,' said Quintin, 'who used to sing hymns loudly to the Virgin Mary through the streets of his town and was accosted by thugs one day in the Jewish quarter and has his throat cut and his body thrown into a cesspool?'

'I thought it was about something like that.'

'Yes, but he couldn’t die,' said Quintin. 'That's the point of the tale. They took the body to the abbey but the little boy kept on singing, although his throat had been cut. Then the abbot looked inside his mouth and found a grain of seed in there. The little boy told him that the Virgin Mary had put it there. The abbot stuck his finger inside the little boy’s mouth and removed it, and the boy stopped singing and died. That's the climax of the tale, and no one ever seems to want to explain it.'

'How about a pomegranate seed then?' asked Miranda. 'The Homeric Hymn to the goddess Demeter. The myth associated with the foundation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Percephone was abducted by the Lord of the Underworld, Hades. Her mother Demeter, in her anguish, and in her capacity as corn goddess or even Mother Earth, made all the seed corn stay within the ground and not germinate. The Earth became baron. So in their anxiety, the gods of Olympus made Hades give up Percephone and allow her to re-emerge back into the light of day from the dark regions of Death. But not before Hades had tricked Percephone into eating something, forcing her to return to the underworld for a part of every year and so make a regular journey backwards and forwards from Death, and out into the sunshine every September, when the first rains of autumn fell in Greece. I guess eating something made her partly mortal and so she had to return to the underworld again and again. It was a pomegranate seed.'

‘Not a grain of wheat, then,' said Quintin.

'But you know how Chaucer likes to allude to things in a very roundabout way,' replied Miranda. 'I bet he was frightened of being racked by the Inquisition! While the little boy had the seed in his mouth he couldn't die. Oh!' Miranda exclaimed suddenly. 'So the pomegranate seed was a sacrament!'

Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Prioress recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press. Canterbury Tales. The Prioress's Tale. written c. 1390.

Fragment of the story of Demeter and Percephone retold from: Homeric Hymns. Online Medieval and Classical Library. II. Homeric Hymn to Demeter.


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