This painting, by Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), re-creates with paint a story that was told by the English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400). Burne-Jones’s inspiration came from a poem included in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately, the poetic tale in question—The Prioress’s Tale—is the most antisemitic poem in Chaucer’s collection. This bias might have arisen simply because Chaucer was assuming the viewpoint of his character, the prioress, when he wrote the poem. Then again, Chaucer lived in 14th-century Europe, a time when prejudice was high and tolerance was, regrettably, in low supply. Whatever the case, the contents of the poem can be offensive, and therefore we will only touch lightly upon the plot in this brief article.
The Prioress’s Tale tells the tragic story of a seven-year-old boy who had a fondness for singing hymns while walking to and from school. This ill-fated child, depicted in the gray clothing within the painting, was eventually martyred because of his singing, left to die in an alley with his throat slashed. As the story goes, the Virgin Mary—whose praises the boy had been singing before the attack—took pity on the dying child and miraculously kept him conscious. She told him to continue singing, and it was the sound of these holy hymns that allowed the boy’s friends and family to find him in the alleyway. When asked how he was still conscious despite his fatal wound, the child explained his encounter with the Virgin Mary:
“…when my song was sung
She seemed to lay a grain upon my tongue.
‘And so I sing as I must sing again
For love of her, the blissful and free,
Till from my tongue you take away the grain.
For after that, the Virgin said to me,
‘My little child, behold I come for thee
When from thy tongue this grain of seed is taken.
And have no fear; thou shalt not be forsaken’”
(Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, The Prioress’s Tale)
This scene of Mary keeping the child conscious with a piece of grain is what Edward Burne-Jones re-creates in the painting above. Unfortunately, it was not a permanent healing. According to the tale, an abbot took out the piece of grain after the boy told his story, and immediately the child succumbed to his wounds and was conscious no more.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated to modern English by Nevill Coghill. New York: Penguin Classics, 1977.