I heard a novelist state on the radio this morning (BBC World Service) that Chaucer was an anti-Semite. Her case rested entirely on one of the Canterbury Tales, The Prioress’s Tale. On the face of it, her claim is easily defended, since in this tale a pious Christian boy is murdered by Jews.

The first complication arises from the fact the story is told, not directly by Chaucer himself, but by the Prioress. So to claim that Chaucer was an anti-Semite we would have to show that the Prioress was an anti-Semite and also that he shared the opinion of his character.

Why did the prioress tell this story? Her main reason seems to have been to extol the piety of the murdered boy, who miraculously continues to sing the praises of Mary after his death. But in the course of doing this she repeats a libel against the Jews, which she need not have done. The boy could have met his death in some other way entirely. So there is, at the very least, an uncritical anti-Semitism here. Bearing in mind that the Prioress was in holy orders, this could easily be explained as suiting her theology which was then much given, and in some quarters still is, to blaming the death of Jesus on the Jews.

Did Chaucer agree with the Prioress? There is no way of knowing, but his portrait of her is not uncritical. To take just one of several examples, she is clearly more concerned with the welfare of animals than that of her fellow human beings.

Tales of the type told by the Prioress were common in Chaucer’s time. That doesn’t mean they are defensible, but not reporting the fact isn’t defensible either. How would journalists get by if they only reported good news?  In many ways, and especially in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer was a social reporter. I don’t feel it is safe to call him an anti-Semite since there is no evidence that he was.