Chaucer Story Book - E. M. Tappan

The Prioress's Tale

[Illustration] from The Chaucer Story Book by E. M. Tappan

All were well pleased with the story told by the man of law. There was some merry jesting about who should tell another tale, but the landlord put an end to it by saying to the prioress with all knightly courtesy, "My lady prioress, if I were sure that it would not give you the least annoyance, I would decree that you should tell the next story. Would you kindly vouchsafe so to do, my dear lady?"

"Gladly," the prioress replied, and without delay began the tale of

Little Hugh of Lincoln

There was once in a great city of Asia a quarter in which the Jews were allowed to live. At the farther end of the street was a school where children were taught to read and to sing. Among these children was a little boy seven years of age, a widow's son, whose name was Hugh. He was so young that he had small book knowledge, but his loving mother had gently taught him whenever he saw the image of the Blessed Mother of Our Lord to kneel before her and say his Ave Maria  with deepest reverence. So it was that his heart became full of tenderest worship for Our Lady, and as he sat in school with his primer, he listened to the older children singing O Alma Redemptoris, and almost without knowing what he did, he crept nearer and nearer and listened to the words and the music until he knew the first verse and could sing it. Of course he did not know the meaning of the Latin words because he was so young; but he begged an older boy to tell him, and even knelt before him on his little bare knees, so eager was he to know the meaning of the hymn.

At last the older boy said, "Little Hugh, we have been taught that this hymn was written to Our Blessed Lady, and that as we sing it, we are praying her to be our help and comfort when we die. I cannot tell you any more about it, for I am learning singing, not grammar."

"Then if this song was made in honor of Christ's dear Mother," thought the child, "I will surely learn it before Christmas. I will do all I can to show her reverence. Even though I am chidden or even beaten three times in an hour for not studying my primer, I will learn the hymn."

Every day, as they walked home together, the older boy taught little Hugh the hymn, till he knew both words and notes; and then he sang it boldly, loud and clear, both on his way to school and also on his return. O Alma Redemptoris, his sweet voice rang out; for his heart was so filled with the love of Christ's dear Mother that he could not cease his singing.

Satan, the evil one, would not endure this song of praise; and he said to the Jews of the quarter, "Will you allow such a thing? Will you permit that boy to go about among you and scoff at you and your laws?"

Thereupon the Jews agreed to do away with the child. There was a wicked murderer who lived in an alley in a dark and secret place, and they hired him to seize the singing child as he passed by and cut his tiny throat and cast his little body down into a pit.

This was why the poor widow waited all night long for her boy to come from school; and when the first ray of light was seen, she started out, her face pale with anxiety and fear, to search for him. She asked at the school and wherever else he was wont to go, calling constantly on Christ's Mother to come to her aid. Finally, she heard that he was last seen going down the street that led through the Jews' quarter, and of every Jew she met she begged piteously, "Can you not tell me anything of my little son?" They answered no, and went their way, not caring for her grief. Still she searched, and the good God put it into her troubled heart to call the name of her lost child near the pit wherein he had been thrown. Here a great miracle was manifested, for down in the deep darkness of the pit the little boy lay; and though his throat was cut by the murderous knife, still he sang loud and clear his O Alma Redemptoris  till all the place rang with the music.

Many Christian folk were passing through the street, and as the sound of the sweet song came to their ears from that corner of the Jewish quarter, they came pouring in, amazed at such a thing. When they saw the child with his wounded throat, they quickly sent for the provost. He made no delay, but came at once, and after he had given praise to Christ and to his holy Mother, Mary, he bound the Jews with many a bond both strong and firm. He inflicted grievous torture upon them. "Evil to him who deserves evil," he declared; and every guilty man was dragged by wild horses and then hanged upon the gallows tree until his death.

The little martyr child was tenderly lifted up in the midst of piteous weeping and lamentation, and, followed by a long procession of those who wished to do him honor, he was carried to the abbey and laid before the altar. Beside the bier his mother lay swooning with grief; and all this while the sweet voice sang the hymn of praise.

When the mass was done, the abbot cast holy water upon the child to make him ready for his burial, but little Hugh still sang in a sweet, strong voice, O Alma Redemptoris. Then said the abbot tenderly, "Dear child, tell me why it is that, though your throat is wounded by the cruel knife, you still sing, O Alma Redemptoris Mater?

The child replied, "By nature's way I should have died many hours ago, but Jesus Christ for his own glory and for the worship of his dear Mother has bidden me sing O Alma  loud and clear. I always loved the Blessed Mother as far as a little child might do, and when I was about to die, she came to me and bade me sing this holy hymn; and then she laid a grain upon my tongue and said to me, 'My little child, when the grain is taken from your tongue, you will call to me no more, for I shall come to carry you away to be with me. Fear not, little one, for I will never forsake you.'"

The holy abbot took away the grain from the child's tongue, and with a little sigh the boy was dead. The abbot and all his monks fell down upon the ground, weeping and wondering and crying praise to Blessed Mary; and then they raised the little martyr from his bier and laid his fair young body in a temple of pure white marble. God grant that we may some day meet him in God's heaven.