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Cohen, M. (1962). Chaucer's Prioress and her Tale—A Study of Anal Character and Anti-Semitism. Psychoanal Q., 31:232-249.

(1962). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 31:232-249

Chaucer's Prioress and her Tale—A Study of Anal Character and Anti-Semitism

Maurice Cohen


The works of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) present a rich mine of psychological observation. An important demonstration of his skill is his study of the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386), a characterization conforming closely to psychoanalytic descriptions of the anal character. The portrayal combines outward description with revelation of inner fantasy through story telling by his characters, a group of representative English men and women making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket.

In his description of the Prioress, Chaucer stresses manifest reactions to oral and anal sadism. He has her choose for her story what is in effect a paradigmatic anal-sadistic—and anti-Semitic—fantasy: A Christian child passing through a ghetto, singing a hymn to the Virgin, is waylaid by a murderer hired by the Jews. The killer cuts the child's throat and throws his body into a latrine. The child's frantic mother seeks him everywhere without success until he is heard, miraculously still singing. The Jews are apprehended, starved, hanged, and their bodies torn apart by horses. The child, his neck cut to the bone, continues to sing until a grain placed on his tongue by the Virgin is removed, whereupon he dies and is buried as a martyr.

Close examination reveals how Chaucer steeped the Prioress and her tale in anal and sadistic symbolism (26), illustrating Freud's formulations on the sadomasochistic, sexually ambiguous characteristics of anal erotism.

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