The Prioress's Tale

A great city of Asia once contained, Amid the Christians in majority, A Jewry that a local lord maintained 490 For venal lucre, foulest usury, Hateful to Christ and to his company; And through its street all men might ride or wend, For open was this Jewry's either end. A little Christian school stood by this place 495 Down at the farther end, to which would go Many a child of Christian blood and grace. There they would learn, as yearly they would grow, Such things as in that land were good to know-- That is, they learnt to sing and read, as all 500 Such children learn to do when they are small. Among these children was a widow's son, A little scholar seven years of age, Whose daily wont was to this school to run; And if he chanced to see at any stage 505 An image of Christ's mother, he'd engage In that which he was taught: he'd kneel and say His Ave Maria ere he went his way. Thus was the youngster by this widow taught Our dear and blissful Lady to revere; 510 And so he kept her near to him in thought-- A guiltless child learns quickly, seeing clear. (Always when I recall this matter, dear Saint Nicholas stands ever in my presence, So young he was to do Christ reverence.) 515 And while his book this child was studying As he sat with his primer in the hall, Alma redemptoris he heard them sing, As children learn from the antiphonal; Nearer and nearer he would draw, that all 520 The words he might then hear, and every note, Until the first verse he had learnt by rote. He didn't know what all this Latin meant, For in his tender years he was too young; One day he begged a friend there to consent 525 To tell to him this song in his own tongue, Or tell him why this song so much was sung; That he might so instruct him was his plea Many a time on bare and bended knee. His friend (older than he) said to him thus: 530 "This song was written, so I've heard them say, For our dear Lady, blissful, generous, To praise her, and that she be (as we pray) Our help and succor when we pass away. I can no more expound, I'd only stammer; 535 I've learnt the song but still know little grammar." "Then is this song composed in reverence For our Lord's mother?" asked this innocent. "Now certainly I'll learn with diligence The entirety ere Christmastide is spent. 540 Though from my primer I shall thus relent And get three beatings in one hour, I Shall learn it all, to honor her on high!" His friend taught him in secret after school From day to day till he knew it by rote; 545 He boldly sang, and well by any rule, He knew it word for word and note for note; And twice a day it wafted from his throat When off to school and homeward he would start. On Christ's dear mother he had set his heart. 550 This little child, as you have heard me say, As through the Jewry he went to and fro, Would merrily be singing every day O Alma redemptoris as he'd go, The sweetness of Christ's mother piercing so 555 His heart that, praying to her his intent, He couldn't keep from singing as he went. That serpent known as Satan, our first foe, Who has his wasp's nest in the Jewish heart, Swelled up and said, "O Hebrew people! Woe! 560 Is this a thing of honor for your part, That such a boy should walk at will, and start To sing out as he's walking such offense To spite you, for your laws no reverence?" Thenceforth the Jews proceeded to conspire, 565 Out of this world this innocent to chase; They found themselves a murderer for hire, Who in an alley took his hidden place; And as the child passed at his daily pace, This curséd Jew grabbed hold of him and slit 570 His throat, and cast him down into a pit. Into a privy place, I say, they threw Him, where these Jews would purge their bowels. Wail, O curséd Herod's followers anew! Your ill intent shall be of what avail? 575 Murder will out, for sure, it will not fail; That God's honor increase, and men may heed, The blood cries out upon your curséd deed. "O martyr, ever in virginity, Now may you sing and follow ever on 580 The Lamb white and celestial," said she, "Of whom the great evangelist Saint John In Patmos wrote. He said that those who've gone Before this Lamb and sing a song that's new Are those who never carnally women knew." 585 This poor widow awaited all that night Her little child, but waited all for naught; When morning came, as soon as it was light, Her face grown pale with dread and worried thought, At school and elsewhere then her child she sought; 590 She'd finally learn, when she'd gone far and wide, That in the Jewry he'd last been espied. With mother's pity in her breast enclosed, She went as if halfway out of her mind To every single place where she supposed 595 It likely that her child there she might find; And ever to Christ's mother meek and kind She cried. At last, completely overwrought, Among the curséd Jews her child she sought. She piteously inquired, she prayerfully 600 Asked every Jew who dwelt within the place To tell her if her child they'd chanced to see. They answered, "Nay." But Jesus by his grace Put in her mind, after a little space, To cry out for her son, and where she cried 605 The pit wherein he lay was near beside. O God so great, so praised in many a hymn By mouths of innocents, behold thy might! This emerald, of chastity the gem, Of martyrdom as well the ruby bright, 610 With throat cut, facing up toward the light, The Alma redemptoris began to sing So loudly that the place began to ring. The Christian folk who through that Jewry went Came by and stopped to wonder at this thing, 615 And for the provost hastily they sent. He came without the slightest tarrying, With praise for Christ who is of heaven King, And for his mother, honor of mankind; And after that the Jews he had them bind. 620 This little child with piteous lamentation Was taken up while still he sang. They had A great procession then, its destination The nearest abbey. By his bier his sad And swooning mother lay to mourn the lad, 625 And scarcely when they had to interfere Could they move this new Rachel from his bier. To pain and shameful death this provost sent Each of the Jews known to participate In knowledge of the crime. They early went, 630 For no such cursedness he'd tolerate; What evil shall deserve is evil's fate. He had them drawn by horses, then he saw That they be hanged according to the law. Upon his bier still lay this innocent 635 Before the altar while the mass progressed. After that, the abbot with his convent Made haste that they might lay the child to rest; With holy water by them he was blest-- Yet spoke the child, when sprayed with holy water, 640 And sang O Alma redemptoris mater. This abbot, who was such a holy man As all monks are (or so they ought to be), To conjure this young innocent began: "Dear child, I'm now entreating you," said he, 645 "By power of the holy Trinity, To tell me by what cause you sing, for it Would surely seem to me your throat is slit." "My throat's cut to my neckbone," then replied The child, "a wound that is of such a kind 650 That long ago indeed I should have died. But Jesus Christ, as in books you will find, Wills that his glory last and be in mind; And for the worship of his mother dear, Yet may I sing O Alma loud and clear. 655 "This well of mercy, Christ's sweet mother, I Have always loved as best as I know how; And when I was to forfeit life and die, She came to me and bade me give a vow To sing this anthem when I die (as now 660 You have already heard). When I had sung, I thought she laid a grain upon my tongue. "Wherefore I sing, and sing I shall again, In honor of that blissful maiden free, Till from my tongue they take away the grain. 665 For afterwards here's what she said to me: 'My little child, I'll fetch you, as you'll see, When that same grain has from your tongue been taken. Be not afraid, you will not be forsaken.'" This holy monk (the abbot's whom I mean) 670 Pulled out the tongue and took away the grain: The child gave up the ghost, soft and serene. And when he saw this wonder so obtain, With salty tears that trickled down like rain He, groveling, fell flat upon the ground 675 And stilly lay there, as if he were bound. Upon the pavement, too, the whole convent Lay weeping, and they praised Christ's mother dear; And afterwards they rose and forth they went And took away this martyr from his bier; 680 Inside a tomb of stone, of marble clear, They put away his body small and sweet. There he remains. God grant we all shall meet! O youthful Hugh of Lincoln, slain also By curséd Jews, as is so widely known 685 (As it was but a little while ago), Pray for us too (in sin we've wayward grown), That gracious God, in mercy from his throne, Increase his grace upon us as we tarry, For reverence of his sweet mother Mary. Amen. 690

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