Richard Brodie's modern English translation
The Prioress's Tale
from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
Also completed: General Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook, Man of Law
© Copyright 2007
|"O lord oure lord, thy name how
Is in this large world ysprad," quod she
"For noght oonly thy laude precious
Parfourned is by men of dignitee,
But by the mouth of children thy bountee
Parfourned is, for on the brest soukynge
Somtyme shewen they thyn heriynge.
Wherfore in laude, as I best kan or may,
Of thee, and of the whyte lylye flour
Which that the bar, and is a mayde alway,
To telle a storie I wol do my labour;
Nat that I may encressen hir honour,
For she hirself is honour, and the roote
Of bountee, next hir sone, and soules boote.
O mooder Mayde! O mayde Mooder free!
O bussh unbrent, brennynge in Moyses sighte,
That ravysedest doun fro the deitee
Thurgh thyn humblesse, the Goost that in th'alighte,
Of whos vertu, whan he thyn herte lighte,
Conceyved was the Fadres sapience,
Help me to telle it in thy reverence.
Lady, thy bountee, thy magnificence,
Thy vertu, and thy grete humylitee,
Ther may no tonge expresse in no science,
For somtyme, lady, er men praye to thee,
Thou goost biforn of thy benyngnytee
And getest us the lyght, thurgh thy preyere,
To gyden us unto thy Sone so deere.
My konnyng is so wayk, O blisful Queene,
For to declare thy grete worthynesse,
That I ne may the weighte nat susteene,
But as a child of twelf monthe oold, or lesse,
That kan unnethes any word expresse,
Right so fare I; and therfore I yow preye,
Gydeth my song that I shal of yow seye."
"Our lord, how greatly in esteem is held
Thy name; throughout the world men are compelled,"
She said, "to sing thy praises, not just those
In high positions of great dignity,
But from the mouths of babes thy virtue flows
Who sucking at their mothers' breasts we see,
Thy praises being shown occasionally.
Wherefore in praise, as best I can or might,
Of thee, and of the lily flower white
Which thou didst bear, a virgin evermore,
To tell a story I will now essay;
Not that I may increase her honor, for
Next to her son she is herself the way
Through which God virtue does to souls purvey.
OVirgin, font of generosity!
Unburnt in Moses' sight, O burning tree,
That ravished was by God, yet undefiled,
Through thine humility, the Holy Ghost,
Whose virtue did, when on thine heart he smiled,
Conceive the Father's consecrated host,
With reverence help me of thine honor boast.
Lady, thy goodness, and thy splendor grand!
There is no language that man may command,
To tell thy virtue, and humility,
For ofttimes, lady, ere men to thee pray,
Already of thy great benignity
Thou showest us the light so that we may
To thy dear Son through thee discern the way.
O blissful Queen, my knowledge is so weak
Of thy unblemished worthiness to speak,
That I well nigh that weight may not sustain,
But as a child of one year, or not quite,
Who tries to say a word, but all in vain,
I'm like that; so my prayer is that you might
Assist my song that of you I'll recite."
|Ther was in Asye, in a greet citee,
Amonges Cristene folk, a Jewerye,
Sustened by a lord of that contree
For foule usure and lucre of vileynye,
Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye,
And thurgh this strete men myghte ride or wende,
For it was free and open at eyther ende.
A litel scole of cristen folk ther stood
Doun at the ferther ende, in which ther were
Children an heep, ycomen of Cristen blood,
That lerned in that scole yeer by yeer
Swich manere doctrine as men used there,
This is to seyn, to syngen and to rede,
As smale children doon in hir childhede.
Among thise children was a wydwes sone,
A litel clergeon, seven yeer of age,
That day by day to scole was his wone,
And eek also, wher as he saugh th' ymage
Of Cristes mooder, he hadde in usage
As hym was taught, to knele adoun, and seye
His Ave Marie, as he goth by the weye.
Thus hath this wydwe hir litel sone ytaught
Oure blisful Lady, Cristes mooder deere,
To worshipe ay; and he forgate it naught,
For sely child wol alday soone leere.
But ay, whan I remembre on this mateere,
Seint Nicholas stant evere in my presence,
For he so yong to Crist dide reverence.
This litel child, his litel book lernynge,
As he sat in the scole at his prymer,
He Alma redemptoris herde synge
As children lerned hir anthiphoner;
And as he dorste, he drough hym ner and ner,
And herkned ay the wordes and the noote,
Til he the firste vers koude al by rote.
Noght wiste he what this Latyn was to seye,
For he so yong and tendre was of age,
But on a day his felawe gan he preye
T'expounden hym this song in his langage,
Or telle hym why this song was in usage;
This preyde he hym to construe and declare
Ful often tyme upon hise knowes bare.
His felawe, which that elder was than he,
Answerde hym thus, "This song, I have herd seye,
Was maked of oure blisful Lady free,
Hir to salue, and eek hir for to preye
To been our help, and socour whan we deye.
I kan namoore expounde in this mateere,
I lerne song, I kan but smal grammere."
"And is this song maked in reverence
Of Cristes mooder?" seyde this innocent.
"Now, certes, I wol do my diligence
To konne it al, er Cristemasse is went;
Though that I for my prymer shal be shent
And shal be beten thries in an houre,
I wol it konne, oure lady for to honoure."
His felawe taughte hym homward prively
Fro day to day, til he koude it by rote;
And thanne he song it wel and boldely
Fro word to word acordynge with the note.
Twies a day it passed thurgh his throte,
To scoleward, and homward whan he wente;
On Cristes mooder set was his entente.
As I have seyd, thurghout the Juerie
This litel child, as he cam to and fro,
Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie
"O Alma redemptoris" evere-mo.
The swetnesse hath his herte perced so
Of Cristes mooder, that to hir to preye
He kan nat stynte of syngyng by the weye.
Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,
That hath in Jewes herte his waspes nest,
Up swal, and seyde, "O Hebrayk peple, allas,
Is this to yow a thyng that is honest,
That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest
In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,
Which is agayn oure lawes reverence?"
Fro thennes forth the Jewes han conspired
This innocent out of this world to chace.
An homycide therto han they hyred
That in an aleye hadde a privee place;
And as the child gan forby for to pace,
This cursed Jew hym hente and heeld hym faste,
And kitte his throte, and in a pit hym caste.
I seye that in a wardrobe they hym threwe,
Where as this Jewes purgen hire entraille.
O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,
What may youre yvel entente yow availle?
Mordre wol out, certeyn, it wol nat faille,
And namely ther thonour of God shal sprede,
The blood out crieth on youre cursed dede.
O martir, sowded to virginitee,
Now maystow syngen, folwynge evere in oon
The white lamb celestial -quod she-
Of which the grete evaungelist Seint John
In Pathmos wroot, which seith that they that goon
Biforn this lamb and synge a song al newe,
That never, fleshly, wommen they ne knewe.
This poure wydwe awaiteth al that nyght
After hir litel child, but he cam noght;
For which, as soone as it was dayes light,
With face pale of drede and bisy thoght,
She hath at scole and elleswhere hym soght,
Til finally she gan so fer espie,
That he last seyn was in the Jewerie.
With moodres pitee in hir brest enclosed,
She gooth, as she were half out of hir mynde,
To every place where she hath supposed
By liklihede hir litel child to finde;
And evere on Cristes mooder, meeke and kynde
She cride, and atte laste thus she wroghte,
Among the cursed Jewes she hym soghte.
She frayneth, and she preyeth pitously
To every Jew that dwelte in thilke place,
To telle hir if hir child wente oght forby.
They seyde "nay"; but Jhesu, of his grace,
Yaf in hir thoght, inwith a litel space,
That in that place after hir sone she cryde,
Where he was casten in a pit bisyde.
O grete God, that parfournest thy laude
By mouth of innocentz, lo, heer thy myght!
This gemme of chastite, this emeraude,
And eek of martirdom the ruby bright,
Ther he with throte ykorven lay upright,
He Alma redemptoris gan to synge
So loude, that al the place gan to rynge.
The cristene folk that thurgh the strete wente
In coomen, for to wondre upon this thyng,
And hastily they for the provost sente.
He cam anon withouten tariyng,
And herieth Crist that is of hevene kyng,
And eek his mooder, honour of mankynde;
And after that, the Jewes leet he bynde.
This child, with pitous lamentacioun,
Uptaken was, syngynge his song alway,
And with honour of greet processioun
They carien hym unto the nexte abbay;
His mooder swownynge by his beere lay,
Unnethe myghte the peple that was theere
This newe Rachel brynge fro his beere.
With torment and with shameful deeth echon
This provost dooth the Jewes for to sterve,
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe;
"Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve";
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng hem, by the lawe.
Upon this beere ay lith this innocent
Biforn the chief auter, whil masse laste,
And after that, the abbot with his covent
Han sped hem for to burien hym ful faste,
And whan they hooly water on hym caste,
Yet spak this child, whan spreynd was hooly water,
And song O Alma redemptoris mater!
This abbot, which that was an hooly man,
As monkes been - or elles oghte be -
This yonge child,to conjure he bigan,
And seyde, "O deere child, I halse thee,
In vertu of the hooly Trinitee,
Tel me what is thy cause for to synge,
Sith that thy throte is kut to my semynge?"
"My throte is kut unto my nekke boon,"
Seyde this child, "and, as by wey of kynde,
I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon,
But Jesu Crist, as ye in bookes fynde,
Wil that his glorie laste and be in mynde,
And for the worship of his mooder deere,
Yet may I synge O Alma loude and cleere.
"This welle of mercy, Cristes mooder swete,
I loved alwey as after my konnynge;
And whan that I my lyf sholde forlete,
To me she cam, and bad me for to synge
This antheme, verraily, in my deyynge,
As ye han herd, and whan that I hadde songe,
Me thoughte she leyde a greyn upon my tonge.
"Wherfore I synge, and synge I moot certeyn
In honour of that blisful mayden free,
Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn.
And afterward thus seyde she to me,
`My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,
Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake;
Be nat agast, I wol thee nat forsake.'"
This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I,
His tonge out-caughte, and took awey the greyn,
And he yaf up the goost ful softely;
And whan this Abbot hadde this wonder seyn,
His salte teeris trikled doun as reyn,
And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,
And stille he lay, as he had been ybounde.
The covent eek lay on the pavement,
Wepynge, and heryen Cristes mooder deere.
And after that they ryse, and forth been went,
And tooken awey this martir from his beere,
And in a tombe of marbul stones cleere
Enclosen they his litel body sweete.
Ther he is now, God leve us for to meete!
O yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it nis but a litel while ago,
Preye eek for us, we synful folk unstable,
That of his mercy God so merciable
On us his grete mercy multiplie,
For reverence of his mooder Marie. Amen.
|Some Christian folk there were in Asia whose
Misfortune was: a avenue of Jews
Amongst them lived, employed by some great lord
For dealing in deceit, and usury,
Hateful to Christ and those who Him adored,
And through this street men walking oft we see,
For both ends were of gates or guards quite free.
A little school of Christian folk stood down
At that end that was furthest from the town
A bunch of children, all of Christian kind,
There were who in that school each year did learn
The customary things, for there we find
They're taught to sing, and right from wrong discern,
And from their childhood cheating ways to spurn.
Among these children was a widow's son.
At seven he his schooling had begun;
To go to school each day was his routine,
And also, when he saw the image of
Christ's mother, he would kneel as he had seen
His mother do, and say with heartfelt love
Ave Maria's to his Queen above.
This widow thus had taught her little boy
Christ's mother dear, our Lady, font of joy,
To worship ever; and this happy youth
Forgot it not for studying all day.
Whenever I remember this, in truth,
I think of young Saint Nicholas's way,
Who in his innocence to Christ did pray.
This little child, his little book in hand,
As in the school he sought to understand
His little primer, heard the children sing
The Alma Redmptoris antiphon;
Closer he drew to hear the music ring,
For to the notes and lyrics he was drawn;
The first verse he did memorize anon.
The meaning of the Latin words he sung,
He knew not for he was still very young,
But one day of his playmates he enquired
And ask them in his language to explain
This song; to know its meaning he desired;
That he this understanding might obtain,
Upon his knees he prayed they'd make it plain.
So with an older student he conferred,
Who answerd thus, "This song, as I have heard,
Was for our blessed Lady kind composed,
To hail her, and to pray that she might be
For us our succor when life's book is closed.
That's all the help, I fear, you'll get from me;
My Latin grammer's not so good, you see.
"And do we as we sing this song revere,"
Said this young innocent, "Christ's mother dear?
Now I most certainly will do my best
To learn it all, ere Christmastime is o'er;
Though in my primer I have not progressed
And shall be beaten thrice each hour or more,
I'll know it, and our lady I'll adore."
At home his buddy taught him secretly
Until he knew it all by memory;
And then with confidence he sang each note,
By which each holy word, was heav'nward sent.
Twice every day this tune passed through his throat,
Going to school, and as he homeward went;
On honoring Christ's mother he was bent.
Now as I've said, as he came passing through
The street where lived the cruel and cursÚd Jew,
Full merrily there does he cry, and sings
"O Alma redemptoris" without end.
The sweetness of Christ's mother on the strings
Of his heart pulled; he could not cease to send
His songs to her, which from his lips ascend.
Our foe, the Devil, from the very start,
Who in his wasp's nest has the Jewish heart,
On fire arose, "Alas, my Hebrew flock,"
He said, "Is this to you a seemly thing,
That such a boy around at will shall walk
In your contempt, and such a doctrine sing,
Which to our laws much mockery will bring?"
From thence forth all of this conniving race
Conspired this little innocent to chase
From this world, an assassin they procured
Who laid in wait where it was all unlit;
And as the child passed where he was obscured,
This wicked Jew, his little throat to slit,
Did grab him, and then threw him in a pit.
In a latrine this little one they flung,
Where Jews purge mercy from their bowels with dung.
O Herod's vipers of our day accursed,
What profiteth your foul intent? Indeed,
Soon will your murders' wages be disbursed,
God's justice shall against your poison plead,
For blood cries out at your black evil deed.
O martyr, with virginity conjoined,
Sing, thou whose purity is unpurloined,
Behind the white celestial lamb - said she -
Of which the great evangelist, that Saint,
Wrote on the Isle of Patmos, whose decree
Was that of women's flesh those bear no taint
Who this lamb with a novel song acquaint.
So this poor widow waited all that night
For her small child, but when she saw the light
Of day, she panicked, for still he came not.
Her face all pale from worried thought and fear,
At school and other places she him sought,
Till that he was last seen, so she did hear,
Into that den of Jews to disappear.
A mother's grief within her bosom bound
She, half out of her mind, went all around
To every place where she thought it would be
Most likely that she'd find her little son;
And ever unto Christ's dear mother she
Did cry, until at last there was but one
Place left: those Jews accursed whom Christians shun.
Searching around, she piteously prays
To every Jew who in that alley stays,
"Here has, perchance, my little boy gone by?"
They all said "no"; But Jesus through his grace
Caused her to know, to damn that false reply,
Precisely where the pit was in that place,
Embracing her son's body at its base.
O glorious God, who seeds thy love to flower
Within the mouths of babes, lo, see thy power!
This gem of chastity, this emerald green,
The ruby of all, to be martyrs, doomed,
There laying upward, throat incised, is seen,
Whose antiphon, from where he was entombed,
So loudly grew, the place with praises bloomed.
The Christian folk who through that street did go
And at this wonder were astounded so,
Sent for the magistrate without delay,
Who quickly came, and hearing these refrains
Did first toChrist in heaven his homage pay,
And to his mother; then he took great pains
The Jews to apprehend and bind in chains.
With piteous lamentation they this boy
Uplifted, singing still his song of joy,
And to a nearby monastery they
With honor bore him in parade austere;
There swooning by his bier his mother lay.
Where all the folks that came could not, I fear,
Pry this new Rachel, crying, from his bier.
With torture and with shameful death each Jew
This magistrate would cause to die, who knew
About this heinous murder; he that serves
The Prince of Hell he would not tolerate.
"Evil shall have what evil well deserves";
Thus to be drawn and quartered was their fate,
And through the gallows go, on to Hell's gate.
Upon his bier this innocent reclined;
While mass was being said he was behind
The highest altar. Then when they were done,
All with the widow as the bells did clang,
Did hasten to the gravesite with her son,
Who, when they sprinkled holy water, sang
And Alma redemptoris mater rang!
This abbot was a holy man of God,
No phony monk behind a false facade.
He started to adjure this little boy,
And said, "O dearest child I plead with thee,
To tell me why you sing with such great joy,
By virtue of the holy Trinity;
For is your throat not cut, as I can see?"
"My throat indeed is cut clear to the bone,
And yes, you'd think my spirit should have flown,"
This little youngster said, "back unto God
A while ago, But Christ whom we revere,
Would have me praise Him with my sweet ballade,
And for the worship of his mother dear,
Yet may I sing O Alma loud and clear.
"This well of mercy, mother of our Lord
I always loved because that did accord
With what I'd learned; And when my death drew near,
She came to one who was to die so young,
And bade me sing this anthem that you hear,
In my demise, and when it I had sung,
I thought she laid a seed upon my tongue.
Wherefore with confidence I'll sing my song
To that kind maid who did my life prolong,
Until that grain be from my tongue removed.
And afterwards to me thus said this maid,
'Thee I will fetch when, little child approved,
That grain is gone that on thy tongue I laid;
I will not thee forsake. Be not afraid.'"
This abbot, in a gesture most humane,
Pulled out his tongue and took away the grain;
His soul departed sans apparent pain;
This wonder did this abbot so astound,
His salty tear drops trickled down like rain,
And he fell flat, face down, upon the ground,
And laid there still, as though he had been bound.
On the ground the whole monastery lays,
Weeping, and giving Christ's dear mother praise.
And after that they rise, and from his bier
Carry this little martyr through the street
And in a tomb made of white marble clear
They did enclose his little body sweet.
There lies he now, until again we meet!
O little Hugh of Lincoln, also slain
By cursÚd Jews, of Christ's fair flock the bane,
Who lately went to thy reward above,
Pray for us sinful folk that God thereby,
Because of his compassion and his love,
On us may his great mercy multiply
For Mary his dear mother, from on high. Amen