JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING
OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2019 JULIA BOLTON
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THE PRIORESS' TALE
The Prioress's Tale poses a very confusing and uncomfortable set of problems for critics and for readers. The tale depicts Christian violence against the Jews in fictive, literary images that are tied to an actual history of oppression that is well documented and not in doubt. This history of religious violence has thus been the focus of much study of the tale, for critics have tried for years to determine the exact relationship between the tale and the history of Christian-Jewish relations that presage the Holocaust. Central to this issue is the question of agency. Someone, that is, must be to blame for the hatred depicted in the tale-Chaucer, the Prioress, the Christian culture that produced them both-diverse critics say diverse things as they attempt to determine the causes of that violence and to unravel the complex web of religious and racial ideology woven (so uncomfortably) into Chaucer's art.' There is no more politically charged issue in Chaucer studies.
This essay examines the critical language recent scholars use to study the tale and explores the professional and institutional implications of a politically driven medieval literary criticism. To meet the complex challenge of the Prioress's Tale, some recent scholars approach it through a type of criticism that displays a commitment to "ethics" that seems to take part in a larger critical quest for what Louise Fradenburg has called "reparation," a complicated term that implies that the critic in some way must address literature's and also criticism's ideological participation in the injustices of the past. 2 Reading and teaching the Prioress's Tale, therefore, have become not only literary exercises-comparing analogues, studying character, tracing patterns of imagery, and so forth-but also a moral exercise in how we negotiate the past, heal its wounds, and prepare our own culture's future. Recent interest in otherness, subalternaity, and minority culture help animate such an approach to the tale, for it is clear that a politically conscious criticism currently dominates our field. 3 Assessing this aspect of contemporary medievalism, David Lawton, in his introduction to New Medieval Literatures, praises a criticism that links past and present and displays an awareness of ethics:
The scholars I know who do such work and whose work I read are united in a belief that it is ethical, and may, if we are effective in communicating its results, be political, as a positive response to cultural difference in a world where the fear of it licenses repression and violence. (Lawton 261)
Lawton here argues that the end of medieval cultural studies is political in that, if it is well done, it responds to the contemporary social problems of difference and violence.
We see what Lawton means in the work of a number of scholars addressing issues of gender, race, and the medieval past. Concerning medieval and modern sexualities, for example, Karma Lochrie implies that our critical studies can reveal patterns of power and knowledge that still inform contemporary society: "the medieval closet-what it kept secret and structured its regimes of knowledge and ignorance around-has much in common with contemporary secrecies." "The uses of secrecy," thus "help us to understand our own personal and public constraints" (11), and "from the secrets and conversions of the Middle Ages, the present is challenged to address and possibly even to reframe its own understanding of its mysteries and its marvels, its power technologies and its oppressions" (4). Similarly, Kathleen Biddick hopes to "refigure politically the borders of the discipline," making it "not [one] based on expulsion and abjection and bound in rigid alterity, but one permeable to the risk of futurity" (16). She does this through a history of the politics of nineteenthcentury medievalism, a politics she sees fraught with various forms of "trauma," "melancholy," and "mourning," revealed in a study of "those excluded on the exterior of medieval studies in the 19' century" (3), a history at times wrapped up in the hegemonies of colonialism and class.4 To enable futurity, the medievalist must discern and mourn the persistent presence of the historical traumas of alienation and oppression, especially when these traumas have in some way enabled the very history of academic medievalism.
For others, ethical concerns spark not mourning but anger against those who do not see the historical dangers of critical complacency. Peter Haidu questions critics who are not sufficiently sensitive to the ideologies of violence and the "religious absolutism" behind the Chanson de Roland and who take refuge, rather, in "cultural relativism":
There is something profoundly repugnant not only about the cultural and political ethos displayed by the text ... but also about the acceptance of an ethos which was historically so grossly destructive. Such an embrace by our contemporaries who are-in principle-capable of conceptually distancing themselves from the position of the text they are studying is not without serious ramifications in the twentiethcentury world.... Unfortunately, the same kind of simple "ethical" binarism that we find in the Chanson de Roland continues to operate in contemporary scholarship and in modern political discourse. That dyadism was a necessary prerequisite for the programmed extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust, and it was equally present in the discourse that cast the Soviet Union into the role of the "evil empire." (37)
As Monika Otter notices, Haidu "barely stops short of accusing all those who practice [historical relativism] of personal responsibility for the Holocaust" (Otter, 114). For all these critics, then, discovery of the Middle Ages has repercussions for contemporary society because an understanding of the past will allow us, as Eric Eliason and I once wrote, perhaps finally to "initiate our own critical reformations" (Calabrese and Eliason, 275).5
The cultural politicization of medieval studies is clear from these examples and from the status of such titles as The Other Middle Ages, The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and Sex, Dissidents, and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages.6 That is, our collective project is not only to reveal the meaning and complex beauty of our literature but also to study the systems of power, difference, and violence that animate the world that produced and consumed texts throughout history, a world full of the neglected and the marginalized. Contemporary medieval studies, to use Michael Goodich's description of his own work, seek "to provide a voice to those persons or groups in medieval society who have often been ignored" (1). Medieval studies focus not only on the royal and empowered but also, as Lawton says, on "groups or activities not privileged by official record-the poor, the world of work, criminals" (Lawton, 248). Medievalists now draw the margins to the center, displaying that any group's power or authority-men, the orthodox, heterosexuals, a class of privileged critics, and scholars-comes at another group's expense, for power and privilege demand exclusion and silencing. The impulse to address and redress this history is strong; as John Arnold writes, "there is little more seductive in social history than the promise of access to the 'voices' of those normally absent from the historical record" (380). Medievalists now want to hear the voices of those excluded, to remember and, if needed, to mourn for them.
The overall instructional effect of critical work that studies the marginalized, demonized, and oppressed has been vast and deeply beneficial. Muslim Crusade narratives and female mystics are in the cannon; we have exposed the construction and performance of medieval gender. Chaucer studies have turned with renewed interest to the Eastern tales and to the ongoing study of women, homosexuality, and, recently, masculinity. In the new millennium "getting medieval" means engaging politically with medieval texts and culture. We now see how vast and demanding are the peoples, histories, and cultures of this imaginary space, christened "the Middle Ages" centuries after its end. In this context, then, I do not mean to turn back the clock and undo this critical, pedagogical expansion. Nor do I intend to conduct a blanket attack on the study of critical ethics in medieval or in literary studies at large. To do so would be to disregard a vast body of theory, beginning with Plato's Republic. I want, rather, to examine critical work that tends particularly to invoke a strident emotional vocabulary in the pursuit of its ethical positions and to explore the implications of both the rhetoric and the politics of this work.
For as scholars and teachers we cannot proceed uncritically in the pursuit of ethics as an attendant aspect of our studies of the medieval. The new directions in our criticism have re-defined the role of the literary critic in dangerous ways; dangerous in that if critics are to become ethicists and social theorists, then our scholarly subject will become undone, and English and other humanities departments will become subordinated, ironically, to the corporate university whose goal is to maintain the very systems of power and authority that we have sought, with our political criticism, to undermine. The issue is of such magnitude that it cannot be rehearsed fully here in one short essay nor by one lone critic. But I hope that by examining the rhetoric used to study one poem, the Prioress's Tale, we can explore issues that reflect a larger problem in Chaucer studies and in medieval literary studies in general, a problem we have to address collectively, as a community.
The problem is this: though a politicized criticism carries the weight and authority of an ethical commitment and the confidence of ethical certainty, all such criticism that foregrounds the history of violence and difference in an attempt to practice critical ethics risks reducing the text under study to a type of historical hate crime. Such literary criticism is, further, very difficult to critique because it shields itself in ethical surety, in the language of tolerance and social justice. When a critic performs ethics, who would dare oppose? Because our historical judgments about ethics tend to be more absolute and unanimous-the Holocaust was evil-a criticism that employs moral outrage as a strategy to prove its critical thesis is potentially totalizing, prejudicial, and absolute. And in questioning such criticism one risks being accused of taking an inexcusably apolitical position or, worse, of being insensitive to the history of violence and difference, as is made clear by Haidu's attack on cultural relativists who fail to confront the repugnant ideologies of Roland.
It has become a chestnut that all readings are political and that we cannot escape some sort of historical filters that will inform our literary analysis. Therefore, I do not intend to "do an apolitical reading" of the Prioress's Tale or to claim that I can or that anyone should de-historicize themselves and read out of time by focusing only on art instead of the politics of religious violence. Nor do I claim any ethical superiority for my comments here, for it is not more ethical to eschew critical ethics rather than to assert them. My claim, rather, is that foregrounding ethics at all is dangerous because criticism does not meet the basic criterion for ethics.
Literary criticism does not solve political problems. My intention is therefore hortatory. I advise that we closely watch the effects of a political criticism that may satisfy an urge to righteousness but that may also fundamentally and dangerously re-define our profession at one of the most crucial times in its history. For though the ethical imperative appears to create a socially engaged and thus socially responsible criticism, we must be aware of how such a critical disposition, though seemingly radical, may be all too comfortably commodified and assimilated into institutional academic culture of the twenty-first century, which moves ever closer to corporate models of utility cloaked in sensitivity, tolerance, and new general education diversity requirements. We may find ourselves, then, only "performing" ethics, satisfying career and institutional imperatives but thus conducting a far less radical critical movement than we had thought.
This assimilation has been noted before. Bill Readings observes how, oddly, "the success of a left-wing criticism .... is turning out to fit so well with institutional protocols, be it in the classroom or in the career profile" (13). Readings seeks to "question... from a sympathetic point of view, the unqualified acceptance both of interdisciplinary activity and of Cultural Studies that has been fairly common among academic radicals" (39). The tendencies visible in the following credo from my own university's new catalogue copy bespeak a national problem:
Students will be required to complete two courses certified as diversity courses... It is the intent of the diversity requirement to promote understanding of diversity and encourage tolerance and acceptance of others. Therefore, students should be encouraged ... to take courses reflecting the life experiences of people with whom they are less familiar... diversity courses should deal with both theoretical and practical issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class... provid[ing] for a consideration of special needs, sexual orientation, language, religion, and age when appropriate. [As an outcome] students will be provided with the tools to explore their own culturally based beliefs and develop tools to change those beliefs which lend themselves to prejudice. (12)7
This requirement puts much pressure on Chaucer, on the Song of Roland, and on all of our poems and those who study and teach them. The project is one of social engineering through sensitivity training. Literary and intellectual concerns per se are irrelevant, for the courses are "expect[ed] to have a primary focus on diversity," "go[ing] beyond the normal inclusion or perspectives from different groups that is a basic part or responsible scholarship and sound pedagogy in almost all courses" (3). Corporate workplace management overrides academics. It is frightening to think but easy to see how an ethically driven medievalism might fit into the curriculum mandated by this document, itself a mixture of corporatese and edu-speak. Masao Miyoshi, in an article critical of "gesture[s] of pedagogic expediency," points to the potential ironies arising from scholars' participation in this kind of curricular politics: "to the extent that cultural studies and multiculturalism provide students and scholars with an alibi for their complicity in the TNC [transnational corporation] version of neocolonialism, they are serving, once again, just as one more device to conceal liberal self-deception" (cited in Readings, 203 n.3).8 "Self deception" describes a worst case scenario, but this much is clear: In this complex, volatile context of edu-business, medievalists must monitor their ethical projects in relation to the evolving curricular imperatives that are redefining the university's relationship to twenty-first-century culture.9 As we negotiate this relationship we should consider, ultimately, an Arnoldian disinterestedness from contemporary issues of race, class, and gender for fear that if we too closely link the medieval and the modern in relation to these politics, we will be packaging our profession for the architects of the corporate university who will have figured out, finally, what it is that "we do" and will blithely assimilate it to the university of excellence, an institution interested in producing students just politically sensitive enough to facilitate the smooth operation of global capitalism as it forges its "solutions for a small planet.""
The Prioress's Tale is an important locus in which to consider these issues because the critical tendencies I trace above are evident in recent work done on the tale. But how could we possibly take a "disinterested" approach to such a poem, especially in post-Holocaust culture? One potential way to de-center violence and racial politics may be to recognize that the doctrines held by the characters in the Prioress's Tale-so absolute and evil-are not interchangeable with the tale. That is, we should not confuse history and poetry. There is no evidence that the tale participated in or incited anti-Judaic attitudes or actions in Chaucer's England." In fact, Mary Godfrey has compiled evidence about the early manuscript history of the tale indicating that in terms of racial politics it was a rather impotent document, appearing mainly in religious anthologies, often with its "pathos and anti-Semitism ... altered, excised or otherwise ignored" (94). Manuscript Harley 2251, adds Godfrey, even omits the invocation of Hugh of Lincoln, having the "immediate narrative effect" of "diminish[ing] the accusation of Jews as murderers of Christian children" (101). And even though the tale "enjoyed a remarkable degree of popularity throughout the fifteenth century," the lack of interest in the Jews in the tale suggests, as Godfrey sees it, "that anti-Semitism no longer represented, at least for this small group of readers and owners, a viable reality" (108). However we react to this last statement, it is probably fair to say that the Prioress's Tale is not Piers Plowman. No one was ever found with inflammatory verses from Madame Eglantine on his person while committing an act of racial violence, as a rebel, about to be hanged, concealed a letter of John Ball, laced with images from Langland's great poem.12
Thus, though we can generalize that the Prioress's Tale is part of a body of what we now know of as anti-Judaic literature, it is not an event in the history of hatred and violence any more than it is an event in the history of Mary's miracles; it is a representation of these things." Chaucer's composition of the tale is indeed an historical action-but not an event of the same kind as documented violence against the medieval Jews. Chaucer, unlike Matthew Paris or the authors of the Burton and Waverley annals, which relate the story of Hugh of Lincoln, does not chronicle historical incidents but makes a poem by creating a character who, in turn, creates characters who play out an almost allegorical drama of religious combat. 14 In this context, the Jews of the Prioress's Tale are not much different from the Muslims of the Man of Law's Tale, or, for that matter, the Athenians of the Knight's Tale, for each represents a certain non-Christian limitation or error. These depictions and the multivocality behind them are the historical events, rather than the violence itself. What this event, the tale, means is never as clear as the actual instances of religious violence throughout the Middle Ages. Poetry cannot be reduced to social history.
Put another way, Chaucer says nothing about the Jews in the Prioress's Tale. Unlike a chronicle, papal bull, sermon, or scholastic dialogue, the tale contains no information. The new historicist and the ethicist, propelled by the belief that literature does not have its own properties but "those of discourse itself," are too tempted to see art as a symptom of history and to substitute historical and ethical concerns for literary-critical ones."
The conflict between poetry and history is not new. Sidney, in his famous Defense, tells us that the poet never lies because he never "affirms." The poet consciously invents, aware that we will not believe in the veracity of his representation but in the truth of human experience captured by the fancy of his erected wit. We should, therefore, neither compel the poet to affirm nor be so eager to indict the poetry as complicit in historical ideologies that we now find abhorrent.16
To demonize art shifts the critic's project from literary to ethical while raising ethics to a high status, as if it were the fulfillment, the final evolution in critical history, the foundation upon which we build Biddick's "futurity" and ensure against the repetition of the "dyadism" and "religious absolutism" that, as Haidu sees it, allowed the Holocaust. One might notice that ethics now holds the status theology had among the seven medieval liberal arts, just as all other disciplines served theology, so now philology, close reading, historicism, and interdisciplinary studies must serve ethics. Another analogue for such a system is Augustine's principle of caritas, expounded in the De Doctrina, which governs the justness of every act of Biblical interpretation. In this sense then, ethics may be becoming our own mark of a valid, just, and even moral reading.
I argue therefore that instead of continuing to read the Prioress's Tale until we produce a flood of readings that support an ethical understanding of the history of violence and difference, we should de-center such history and re-contextualize the Prioress, in both teaching and scholarship, into the literary world of the Canterbury Tales, back into the sea of ambiguity and irony, focusing not only on racial history but also on character study, imagery, sources and analogues, the visual tradition, and female voicing. This may seem self-evident and part of any worthwhile study of any tale, but what is most important is that as a critical community we allow that these pursuits are not necessarily tied to political engagement with the tale and allow that we can pursue them without feeling that we are neglecting a higher responsibility to ethics.
I do not, however, advocate de-historicizing the tale and ignoring the issue of religious violence. Doubtlessly the Prioress's story of affective piety and of violence as religion, no less than her fetishization of manners over substance, her emotional delicacy, and her superciliousness, have a prominent place in our critical understanding of Chaucer's art. The Prioress cannot mean; she can only feel, and she feels all the wrong things. Chaucer satirizes a life, a vocation, and a narratology based on the affective and the affected "conscience," set in the empty, "tendre herte." But to enact a study of this very artificial Prioress, we first must subordinate the issues of blame and reparation and must resist the temptation to use history and ethics to craft our political, critical performances. For when we do not resist, we risk conducting, ironically, an affective criticism that employs the same, potentially sterile, emotionalism that we indict in the Prioress herself.
Prioress studies often focus on the issue of anti-Judaism, for the "little clergeoun's" murder, though studied thematically and imagistically, is not itself a political issue because it depicts an imagined crime - the legend that the Jews killed young Hugh of Lincoln is roundly discredited - while the killing of the Jews has analogues in real history. A number of general theories and variations guide, in one way or another, almost all the inquiries: Chaucer is anti-Semitic and we have to live with it; Chaucer's culture is anti-Semitic and thus he is too by inclusion; Chaucer's culture was not wholly anti-Semitic, and Chaucer satirizes those who were by creating insipid anti-Semites; the Prioress, not her maker, therefore is anti-Semitic, and Chaucer was a sensitive, tolerant man, ahead of his time and thus welcomed in our own."
Often not only the focus and framework of the arguments but also the rhetoric of Prioress studies are informed by political imperatives, encouraging a strong emotional reaction rather than thoughtful review from their readers. Critics introduce their arguments by describing the Prioress's "unmistakable hatred of Jews" (Koretsky, 10), and they warn against this "dangerously effective anti-Semitic tale" (litter, 282), arguing that the tale "may fairly be described as anti-Semitic tract," perhaps the "best anti-Semitic tract ever written" (Alexander, 119-20). Contemporary terms like "Holocaust" (Alexander, 109), "persecution literature" (Despres, 415), "anti-Semitism" (Alexander, 109; Archer, 46; Koretsky, 10), and even "Auschwitz" (Holsinger, 158) appear repeatedly." If critics invoke this vocabulary and demand that the Prioress's Tale be interpreted and taught with an "explicitly moral approach" (litter, 282), then a critic who neglects this issue might well be accused of a lack of ethical integrity. As Alexander puts it, for critics to examine the tale and to ignore the question of anti-Semitism would "strike most educated people as displaying a detachment from life bordering on the irresponsible, if not on the perverse" (109). Scholars feel the pressure, and a passing denunciation of the tale's "intolerance, bigotry ... hatred," and "enduring cultural stereotypes" may not be enough.19
These formulations concerning the meaning and the teaching of the tale share one goal: to get us closer to the hate in the heart of an imaginary character, a hate all the more pernicious coming from a falsely pious cleric, a "seemingly gentle nun preaching hatred" (Koretsky, 23) who is, further, "not developed morally" (Zitter, 279). This language tends to isolate the hatred of the Prioress as an end in itself, but an end linked to an ethical, critical project. "The modern critic must have the right," as Koretsky explains, "to consider the moral meaning of the Prioress's apparent relish in recounting the Jews' 'shameful deeth"' (Koretsky, 22). The critic's relationship to morality is unclear in this statement, but Koretsky clarifies what he means. The fault must lie somewhere and "exculpation of the Prioress's anti-Semitism on the grounds of literary convention is unacceptable" (Koretsky, 18). Nor, according to Koretsky, is her innocence about the dangers of inherited stereotypes any grounds for exoneration. He goes on the explain the dangers of simply attributing the hatred to innocence or to the conventional:
To some this might well be an adequate explanation and exculpation of the Prioress's anti-Semitism: it is not to be taken seriously because Jews are not "real" to her. But there is another interpretation. The trouble with the Prioress's conception of the Jews ... is precisely that it ignores historical reality. As long as wicked Jews live exclusively in a childish imagination, and there is no actual contact with real Jews, the practical harm may be minimal, whatever the injury to truth, whatever the moral culpability. But when carriers of such childish distortions meet real Jews (or Blacks, or professors, or business tycoons, or any other stereotypes) for the first time in the flesh, how do they react? (23)
Though Koretsky rejects any reading of the tale that would "forfeit the intriguing ambiguity in the personality of the teller" (22) and argues that the tale "must be seen in its dramatic context" (21), his vocabulary betrays a fixation on the extra-literary issues of racial hatred, moral responsibility, and personal culpability, which he doggedly pursues: "though antiSemitism may be a common element in the miracle of the Virgin, it is hardly a necessary one. The presence of anti-Judaism in the Prioress's Tale, it follows, represents a choice, if not on the Prioress's part, then on Chaucer's" (19). His final questions, further, about hypothetical responses to ahistorical situations of stereotyping yield no helpful answers.
Just as some critics explore the Prioress's guilt, others explore Chaucer's own. Many explain that Chaucer was a product of his time and exhibited the prejudices of fourteenth-century English society. As Alexander contends, he must be held "responsible for his creatures," and he "cannot be allowed carte blanche to publicize any point of view purely and simply on the grounds that there are people who say such things" (Alexander, 117). Chaucer, we are told, should realize that "diatribes against the Jews (or against anybody) make for bad art" (Archer, 46). As a maker of "bad art," Chaucer thus must be a bad artist, a poet guilty of glorifying the brutal destruction of the historically persecuted Jews.
What sparks this vocabulary is the urge to conflate the Holocaust with medieval treatment of the Jews, based in part on a perceived continuity from the Hugh of Lincoln affair to the twentieth century. In a broad coda the most learned history of the fourteenth-century ecclesiastical politics that inspired the cult of Hugh of Lincoln sees the story, sparked by the instigation and investigation of John de Lexinton, as a "strand in English Literature and a support for irrational beliefs about Jews from 1255 to Auschwitz" (Langmuir, 1972, p. 482).20 Such a perspective fails to distinguish between historical and emotional detail, and when we apply this statement to the Prioress's Tale, we tie to Chaucer the heavy stone of Nazism, summarily ending all reflection and debate. But ethical criticism is not afraid to link the historical and the emotional and, further, to tie them both to morality. We see this in Haidu's defense of Lee Patterson's reference to Primo Levi in Chaucer and the Subject of History. Haidu here underlines the importance of the Holocaust to medieval studies:
The reference to the Holocaust and its issues is a necessary one for any thoughtful medievalism. It can inscribe the historicity of the medieval text and that of the monstrous critic, and a critical imperative which is, if anything, moral. It is the negative imperative of avoiding even symbolic repetitions of the Holocaust. It prohibits, for instance, the sympathetic representation of medieval prefigurations of the Holocaust, such as the imperialistic and colonizing adventurism of the Crusades, with their frequent degenerations into genocidal rampages against Muslims, Jews, and even merely foreign Christians. (Haidu, 1995, p. 59)
The Holocaust, then, prevents critics from re-committing, albeit symbolically, the Holocaust itself by failing to condemn the agents of its prefigurations. The scholar is licensed to conflate past and present in order to monitor the morality both of his subject and of his analysis. "Any thoughtful medievalism," for Haidu must establish and police this complex nexus of history, emotion, criticism, and morality. The Holocaust thus not only haunts any reading of the Prioress's Tale but also establishes the emotional and moral framework in which it is to be understood.
Oddly, the Prioress herself displays a similar urge to conflate history and spark feeling in a reference she makes at the end of her tale, establishing for the hearer the exact relationship, as she sees it, among history, emotion, morality, and poetry:
O yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it is but a litel while ago,
Preye eek for us, we synful folk unstable,
On us his grete mercy multiplie,
For reverence of his mooder Marie. Amen. (VII 684-90)
The Prioress controls history by turning 150 years into "a litel while ago," sacrificing temporality for an emotional effect by bringing the horror closer." The murder becomes a timeless event that both reinforces our feelings of sorrow and hatred, and provides the hope of our own miraculous salvation. The emotional and moral implications here are clear: anyone who cannot make this leap and who fails to feel the immediacy of Hugh's death symbolically recreates and participates in his murder, becoming one of the cursed, criminal Jews who merit no mercy; mercy will, however, be "multiplied" by the intercession of the dead boy himself for those "sinful folk" who can feel the power of the Prioress's affective artistry and just as affective historiography. Poetry, as the Prioress employs it, serves both emotional and moral ends: we hear, we feel, we mourn, and we reform.
When critics view the Prioress, her tale, and Chaucer solely in terms of an anti-Semitism, "both frightening and repugnant" (Zitter, 282), they tinge their rhetoric with the very emotionalism that charms but also affronts us in the Prioress herself. For critics have often rightly noted her overwhelming feeling, describing the "tenderness of the opening lines of the Prologue, and the careful building up of pathos and emotion" (277). Chaucer has prepared us for her style by depicting her pure but perverse feelings in her portrait:
But for to speken of hire conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitons
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But score wepte she if con of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte. (I 142-50)
This "conscience" and "tendre herte" produces a merciless pathos, at the center of which is the unrelenting image of an anxious widow, "with face pale of drede" (VII 589), searching for a child whom we know is slaughtered:
This poure wydwe awaiteth al that nyght
After hir litel child, but he cam noght; ...
With moodres pitee in hir brest enclosed,
She Booth, as she were half out of hir mynde,
To every place where she hath supposed
By liklihede hir litel child to fynde;
And evere on Cristes mooder meeke and kynde
She cride, and atte laste thus she wroghte:
Among the cursed Jues she hym soghte ...
She frayneth and she preyeth pitously
To every Jew that dwelte in thilke place,
To telle hire if hir child wente oght forby.
(VII 586-87, 593-602)
Such pathos produces a tale that silences and stuns her compagnie: "Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man / As sobre was that wonder was to se" (VII 691-92). When critics perform an affective and moral analysis, we too are struck mute: no response is needed or even possible. We are afraid to disagree.
An alternate but related tendency is displayed by critics who do not reduce the poem to discourse or to history in order to conduct a moral analysis but who reveal the poetry itself as complicit in the ideology of hatred and difference. These critics do not separate aesthetics from morality but rather inspect and demystify the poesis. In a dramatically bracing article that has essentially enabled contemporary study of the tale and its complex cultural politics, Louise Fradenburg argues that, "few aspects of the Prioress's Tale have been so consistently mishandled... as its artistry" (96), an artistry that she finds powerful but ultimately to be nothing but "empty formality... which actually-if one reads carefully and is not mesmerized-says very little" (1989, pp. 97, 95).11 Such deceptive emptiness powerfully embodies the tale's themes of exclusion and persecution, because for Fradenburg the Prioress's poetic of stillness, muteness, childhood, transcendence, and changelessness is an anti-narrative, anticreative force, ultimately the enemy of "difference," which is represented by the Jew, the abject entity that Christianity needs in order to sustain its own purity and immutability. Fradenburg uses the tale as an allegory of its own critical history. Thus critics, who like the pilgrim audience, display a silent gravity in response to the tale, that is, who remain silent on its ideologies and fail to unmake its poetics, tacitly participate in its poetics of difference, reflecting our culture's "fears of its own capacity for vulnerability to change and creativity" (108). The Prioress, in her attempt to preserve the changeless, seems to represent in this scenario a Chaucerian critical establishment resistant to "the emergence of new modes of critical practice" (72). In opposition comes "'criticism' or the movements of difference-generational, gendered, ethnic" which "must displace the silent sobriety of the pilgrims' response to the Prioress's Tale" because it allows us to recover for ourselves the "power to imagine and make new" (108). A theoretical criticism thus defeats the enemy, the immutability that fosters exclusion and violence. Indeed, Fradenburg ends her essay with Horkheimer and Adorno's axiom that "true madness" lies in immutability (1989, p. 108). However, Lawrence Besserman posits the anachronism of the claim: "Horkheimer and Adorno may have felt that `True madness lies ... in immutability,' but it's doubtful that Chaucer did." The anachronism can be taken further, for to indict changelessness and immutability is to deny the poem's culture its poetics of hope, reducing it merely to a vehicle for the ideologies of racial hatred and, finally, to an allegory for a criticism that fears the radical politics of the movements of difference.
One final aspect of Fradenburg's argument points to the problems at hand. She implies that we cannot understand the tale unless we "lend an ear" (78 and 82) to a Jewish medieval text that depicts the sufferings and lamentations felt by a family surviving the dislocation and slaughter, the twelfth-century Book of Remembrance of Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn. She then studies this text for its fine feeling and beauty of expression of sadness and loss. It is an interesting analogue to Chaucer's text; comparing its voice to the Prioress's enables Fradenburg, as Sheila Delany writes, "to make an eloquent point about the Jews own voicing of loss and pain." "But," Delany continues, the comparison to the twelfth-century text "is of little help in contextualizing a late fourteenth-century English representation" (201). 1 want to problematize the comparison further. Explaining the nature of her inquiry into the past, Fradenburg argues, through Elaine Scarry, that it is the critic's particular responsibility to "restore the voice" and bestow "visibility" on pain and suffering so as to "help the sufferer once again to become available to others through verbal and material artifacts." This act has important political implications:
Let us not be confused about the nature of this responsibility: when, as critics, we attempt the compassion of "putting sentience into speech," we are not therefore sacrificing truth to our values or our political commitments. We are, instead, refusing an untruth-that untruth which derealizes, which unmakes the voice, which both brings about and conceals the breaking down of language by pain. It is crucial, then, that we understand that too much scholarship on the Prioress's Tale has participated in the unmaking of the voice of the Jew. (1989, p. 82).
In a gentler version of Peter Haidu's claims, Fradenburg here links critics who neglect the racial politics of the tale to a compassionless crime against a people: such a critic "has participated in the unmaking of the voice of the Jew." Thus, ironically, when it seems that "movements of difference" are waking us from the silent sobriety that the Prioress casts upon us, that same movement strikes us mute once again, convinced that prior studies of the tale take part, however unintentionally, in a reactionary racial politics. Thus, though we are promised freedom from "totalization" of the Middle Ages which errs, as Fradenburg elsewhere argues, in "preserving the past for the few who know how properly to revere it" by excluding other interpretive communities (see Fradenburg, 1990, 172 ff.), we are nonetheless in danger of a new totalization, preserving the past for the those who can "construct a medievalism that is politically compassionate" (Fradenburg, 1990, p. 193). Again we see the primacy of the affective, while we wonder who will oversee this new construction and what new exclusions it might bring.
What seems apparent from this survey of critical politics and rhetoric, then, is that critics have been struggling to distill the perfect statement of indignation over the tale's anti-Judaic violence. Part of the motivation behind this critical competition is, as we have seen, a sense that this tale, more than any other piece in our medieval canon, is directly linked to the Holocaust. The history of medieval Christian-Jewish relations is by no means a simple history, and thus to evoke the emotional power of the Holocaust and use terms like "Auschwitz" is affective and emotional, terminating all discussion. Andrew Gow warns against such conflations, observing that in modern anti-Semitism, "Christians still believed that Jews were hostile to them and their religion, but the reasons imagined and cited for the hostility would change radically before hatred gave way to horror" (Gow, 720).24 David Nirenberg's work is central here. Arguing that we should focus on "local contexts" for violence rather than "according to a teleology leading, more or less explicitly, to the Holocaust" (4-5), he exhorts us to be "more critical than we have previously been about attempts to link medieval and modern mentalities, medieval ritual murder accusations and modern genocide" (7).25Further, as Spector shows in relation to Chaucer, tracing the Prioress's ideology does not necessarily get us closer to an historical understanding of Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages, for "the historical position and experience of the Jews were far more complex than the simple assumptions of the Prioress's Tale and its literary and theological matrix suggest" (Spector, 228).
Developing this caution, Elisa Narin van Court notes the "resistance among literary scholars to acknowledge that medieval Christian response to Jews and Judaism transcends the convenient rubric of a univocal and monolithic anti-Judaism" (293). She cautions against reducing a "variable set of attitudes... to a phrase-anti-Judaism-which in turn is accepted as unfortunate but inevitable, and therefore, not particularly interesting" (298). Narin van Court reports that she has been warned that in taking her position she is "walking down the path of Holocaust revisionism" (298 n.13)-an accusation that actually proves her point about the appeal of a knowable and monolithic racial politics, a politics that it is tempting to police. Oddly, we see proof of what Narin van Court studies even in the very story of the murder of young Hugh of Lincoln, a kind of ground zero for the anti-Judaism of the Prioress. As he describes the seizure of the accused, the Burton Chronicler makes a point of distinguishing between cursed and Scriptural Jews:
Nam cum ex decreto regio ballivis et aliis exeuntibus ut Judaeos ca
perent, scelus sceleri accumulantes, (non a Juda Jacob filio, nec Juda
Macabaeo Matathiae filio, sed a Juda proditore perfido perditionis
filio, affectu et opere trahentes nomina). (Luard, 344) 26
The Jews get their name not from Judas the ancestor of Christ himself and not from the great Biblical warrior who defeated God's enemies, but from the foul traitor who betrayed Christ. Even in the very nest of anti-Judaism, the English author preserves the integrity of historical, Scriptural Jews that his audience would admire and revere for their role in Christian sacred history. Like Narin van Court, Sylvia Tomasch draws attention away from "the almost exclusive critical attention paid to the Prioress's Tale" in Chaucer studies to other English works that "foster the creation of virtuality and the paradox of Jewish absent presence" after the expulsion (see 243-45), for, though absent, the Jew was central "to the construction of Englishness itself" (244).27 In relation to study of the Prioress, then, this very recent work on Jews in Chaucer's age indicates that when we fix upon and police an overt or monolithic racial politics, we risk turning the tale into a deceptive synecdoche of medieval Christendom's relation to the Jews, which is never without its ambivalences.28
A politically engaged criticism, such as the kind we have been analyzing concerning Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, has to understand the cultural implications of its work and to be wary of unintended effects. To study hatreds, violences, and injustices with the announced purpose of creating a "positive response" to a world that licenses "repression and violence" is to conduct a politics of affect, dangerous not so much in its utopianism as in its re-definition of literary studies, a redefinition that the corporate university of the twenty-first century, operating like a state-run HMO, will happily assimilate into its own economic and social ends. A humanities that displays civic utility is, as Plato remarked long ago, good for the state. Yet where many critics today see Plato to be a utopian and even (as Bertrand Russell saw him) a fascist, these same critics do not see the dangers to academic freedom that political criticism can spawn.
One useful way of de-centering hatred and politics is to consider the Prioress more fully in the context of the poem from which she comes. Perhaps in this way we can restore to our literary criticism the sense of "particularities" that Nirenberg calls for in historical study.29 The Canterbury Tales is in part about ways of imagining the power of God and his agency in human lives. The Knight explores the concentric circles of human and divine power, searching for the truth of control and destiny in the "Firste Moevere." The Miller parodically re-imagines divine guidance, enlisted in the service of a lusty clerk. The Man of Law gives us a rough and ready god of romance, steady at the tiller of his allegorical heroine's wandering bark. The list could continue. The Prioress, for her part, continues the attempts to capture God's agency, depicting Him through Mary in battle with Satan. It is yet another genre, another voice that purports to locate God and explain his mystery and mercy. But like all Chaucerian narratives, it is compromised by the affect and affectation of the teller. As Langland does, so Chaucer offers a series of speakers who seem to have answers but really do little more than try our patience until the next witness appears. All authorities are compromised, leaving Will stupefied or wandering like an idiot-or just plain tired.
So too is the Prioress a compromised authority, and thus Chaucer in the Prioress's Tale satirizes a narratology, an ideology, and a doctrine of social reformation based solely on the affective. Fradenburg (who is most effective in this context) and Despres, both working from Mary Douglas's model, tellingly connect the Prioress's sense of spiritual perfection with a society's need to purge and cleanse itself, particularly with reference to the Lateran Council's institution of yearly penance as preparation for receiving communion. Despres writes that the Jews, "despite their expulsion from England, remained essential to symbolic patterns which defined the very essence of community for medieval Christians" (Despres, 417).30 The Canterbury Tales is obviously about renewal and purgation, for pilgrimage and penance frame the work, however invisible or distorted they may become in between: in Melibee, we witness how the sentence of Prudence heals us; oddly so can the twisted preaching of the Pardoner, the social competition that produces gentilesse in the Franklin, the magically induced reformation of man in the Wife of Bath's Tale, and the Parson's grinding, last-ditch attempt at cold doctrine. The Prioress too calls for renewal, for the shutting out of the abject, the Jew, through pure emotion. That is why Chaucer perfects the genre of the Marian miracle (a perusal of Beverly Boyd's collection reveals how dreadful the fruits of the genre can be), conjoining it to the legends of Hugh of Lincoln, pulling out all the stops, experimenting with voice, exploring what affect can do at its best in a deluxe version of the popular genre, bolstered with the emotion of grizzly local legend.
The best literary criticism is one that can acknowledge these fictive contexts in proportion to the historical and cultural, not apoliticizing the tale but at least depoliticizing the "critical move," lest ethics and compassion become the new transcendental telos of our work.31 Perhaps to expect escape from it is chimerical. But what we can do is to continue the evolving process of introspection that Howard Bloch recognized medievalism performing ten years ago: "becoming conscious of its own critical moves" and studying the "implication of the self in the critical act" (Bloch, 205). Such awareness is ever more important, and just as we inspect historical discourses, we must continually inspect the discourse of our own power and authority, wary of its increasingly corporate academic implications. We need to forge an academic culture that is more open, where dialogue and dissent are permitted and not foreclosed by the very choice of topics such as rape, trauma, genocide, and racism. When these highly emotional topics are raised in the context of a critic's ethics, rational discourse becomes impossible. Only when we are free to talk openly about them, without fear of exclusion, and are free to conduct a metacriticism, regardless of topic and in spite of emotionalism, are we ever likely to advance a critical dialogue in medieval literary studies. Doing this in part answers Bloch's call for "an external history of the discipline of medieval studies, one that would contextualize the many hidden elements and motivations of the endeavor in which we are engaged" (218-19).
Bloch continues that some of these elements "are either ignored or, according to the strictures of our interpretive community, are the subject of taboo" (219). In this context, then, I hope that the current essay will bring about further debate and critique and continue the process of understanding the intended politics and also the political uses of our critical performances. The danger is that these two politics may not be the same, for the former may be assimilated into the latter by an institutional industry with its own agenda, which may include its own commodified version of the "compassionate politics" that Fradenburg calls for and the "politically radical Chaucer" that a new generation of critics is unafraid to imagine (see Fradenburg, 1990, p. 193; 1989, pp. 74, 108). Ultimately we may not be able to control such assimilation, as deans, provosts, presidents, and chancellors continue to oversee the drafting of diversity requirements and mission statements about tolerance and multiculturalism. But since we have been sensitized to beware of "powerful elites" (see Fradenburg, 1989, p. 75) who control discourses of power, if we are to monitor our role in the academy, we must study the processes by which we too become powerful, ever vigilant of the role that that power has at higher institutional registers, where it can become a commodity and thus spite us. Biddick asserts that her "immediate concern" in studying nineteenth-century foundations of medievalism is to establish "what kind of academic behavior gets rewarded" and to "show how academic prestige is produced and consumed" (8). If it is worthwhile to conduct this analysis of academic power in the past, it is certainly worthwhile to try to conduct it in the present as well.
Such an attempt involves ongoing analysis of not only the discourse that critics and teachers produce but also the relations of that discourse to power and authority in the academy. Therefore, I hope that my argument will help students of the Prioress`s Tale to reach, or at least to imagine, a safe distance from both the Prioress's affective poetics and also from our own. Without doing so, we cannot criticize either text or criticism but rather only "feel" each along an eternal continuum of hatred, violence, and sorrow, as we compete with the Prioress herself to see who can be the most "charitable" and "pitous" and who can best display both "conscience and tendre herte."
The author would like to thank Teresa Canosa for her help with the initial research and conception of this essay.
1. For the critical heritage on the issues of blame and agency, see Friedman's very useful survey and see Rex, esp. chapters 1 and 4. Both Friedman and Rex discuss the important work of Richard J. Shoeck and of Florence Ridley. Shoeck and Rex defend Chaucer as a satirist of the Prioress's anti-Semitism; Ridley wrote, famously, however, that "we have no real reason for believing that those attitudes were condemned rather than shared by Chaucer himself" (qt. in Rex, 14). See later critics discussed below, and see, most recently, Delany, 212-13 for a sharp two-page summary of two main critical directions she conveniently terms the "rigorist" and the liberal approach.
2. Fradenburg uses the term in discussing the exclusion of women that arises when we totalize the Middle Ages as "other." While encouraging feminist analysis of "the construction of authority in the practice and theory of historical knowledge," she laments that such work will not "encourage the hope of a full reparation of our relation to the past" (1990, p. 192). Lawton quotes the passage and later states, "Like Fradenburg, we are all committed to history, and so to reparation" (261).
3. The most concise and insightful study of the
role of "ideology" in contemporary Chaucer studies, with
particular focus on the Prioress's Tale itself, is Lawrence
Besserman's. Studying how Chaucer studies have "grown more
markedly and self-consciously ideological," he argues that "an
ideological solidarity that may be good for the social practice of
contemporary Chaucer critics may nevertheless be bad for their
criticism." Besserman warns that critical practices might turn one
into an "ideologue, rather than a scholar-critic seeking to
contribute to the advancement of knowledge." I thank Professor
Besserman for sharing the draft of his work in progress.
4. One of the essays, for example, studies a "melancholy for work" in Victorian intellectual culture: "During the Gothic revival in the nineteenth century, the hands of industrialized and colonial laborers severed from production by power machinery came to be spoken of in terms of a discourse of Gothic peasants and Gothic handicraft" (12).
5. We made this comment in the context of discussing the depiction of heterosexuality in Cleanness.
6. The list of works linking the medieval to
the modern is highly selective but representative of the
tendencies I want to note; see also Dinshaw, who links the
medieval to the modern in her study of medieval dissident groups
relating to Lollardy: "how do communities, then and now," asks
Dinshaw, "form themselves in relation to sex?" (1). Patterson's
Chaucer and the Subject of History is one of the founding texts in
this critical tradition. See also the works surveyed by Lawton,
237-69. 7. For a critique of this kind of curricular reform in
secondary and in higher education, see Bromwich, who notes that
"since the 1960s the place of advocacy in teaching and research
has become so prominent as almost to constitute in itself a
separate description of what scholarship in the humanities is"
(220). He further is "concerned with the genealogy and the motives
of a new academic understanding of scholarship as social action"
(223), relating it to issues of "Diversity," which he describes as
"the preferred American euphemism for the collective labor of
cheering and elevating the self-esteem of a group," and
affirmative action, which he says has fostered "a perpetual
residence for the controlled performance of sentiment" (235).
7. For a critique of this kind of curricular
reform in secondary and in higher education, see Bromwich, who
notes that "since the 1960s the place of advocacy in teaching and
research has become so prominent as almost to constitute in itself
a separate description of what scholarship in the humanities is"
(220). He further is "concerned with the genealogy and the motives
of a new academic understanding of scholarship as social action"
(223), relating it to issues of "Diversity," which he describes as
"the preferred American euphemism for the collective labor of
cheering and elevating the self-esteem of a group," and
affirmative action, which he says has fostered "a perpetual
residence for the controlled performance of sentiment" (235)
8. See the entire essay, esp. 742ff. "The
current academic preoccupation with 'postcoloniality' and
'multiculturalism'," argues Miyoshi, "looks suspiciously like
another alibi to conceal the actuality of global politics....
colonialism is even more active now in the form of transnational
corporatism" (728). "It is impossible," he continues, "not to
study cultures of others; the American agenda must include 'alien'
histories. But that is merely a beginning. In the recent rise in
cultural studies and multiculturalism among cultural traders and
academic administrators, inquiry stops as soon as it begins. What
we need is a rigorous political and economic scrutiny rather than
a gesture of pedagogic expediency." The danger is that we wind up
"fully collaborating with the hegemonic ideology which looks, as
usual, as if it were no ideology at all" (751).
9. For an editorial on campus sensitivity politics and pedagogy, see Calabrese (2000).
10. The dangers of corporatization for
medievalists in particular were the subject of a session at the
351 International Congress on Medieval Studies, "Medieval Studies
and the Corporate Agenda in Higher Education: What's Been
Happening, What Can Be Done," organized by Gail Ivy Berlin and
chaired by Susan Yeager. The decline of the nation state as the
locus of culture and the relations between the corporate
university and global capitalism have been studied by Bill
11. I use the term anti-Judaic here to refer to
specifically medieval attitudes, for the term anti-Semitic no
longer conveys this historical specificity. But some of the
scholarship discussed was written before that distinction was
made; in discussing this scholarship and the potentially
anachronistic projection of modern attitudes back into time, I use
12. See Dean, who prints the documents and discusses the historical context.
13. For example, to prepare the ground for a
study of the Prioress's morality Allen Koretsky has to level
poetry and history: "despite the anti-referential tendency of some
modem literary theory, the fact remains that the words in a story
refer to real things and circumstances outside the literary world.
When speaking about the Jews, the Prioress... is referring to a
real historical people who, in her own times, suffered tragic
14. But see Delany, who argues against the allegorical reading, affirming the realities of the Jews living in Muslim "asia."
15. The phrase is from Patrick Brantlinger's Crusoe's Footprints, (cited by Fish, 78).
16. For example, Bruce Holsinger exposes
Chaucer's art itself, in all its beauty of form, as complicit in
the Prioress's Tale's doctrines of difference and violence.
Studying the relations between music and violence in medieval
culture, he speaks of the need to "corrode the gem-like elegance
and poetic precision [of the tale's] rhyme royal stanza by
excavating the violent musical representations that the 'natural
music' of Chaucerian poesis works to obscure" (192). By
connecting song to various dimensions of pedagogical and religious
violence, Holsinger argues that Christian music is a music not
only of harmony for its own people but of division and exclusion
of the Jews. For a fuller review of Holsinger's impressive
argument see Calabrese (1999).
17. See note 1 above.
18. Those critics who mention the Holocaust
directly include Alexander, Fradenburg, Friedman, Holsinger,
Spector, and Zitter. Calabrese and Eliason, in another context,
also contend that we "recognize the presence of the seeds of the
Holocaust in the Prioress's Tale" (273).
19. In the midst of an essay devoted to Kristeva's idea of "maternal space" and the Prioress's Tale, Corey Marvin momentarily suspends the argument to make this avowal (46, note 15). This break allows Marvin to move forward, protected from any possible attack to his own sense of ethics. But nonetheless Marvin is still taken to task by Holsinger and accused of operating under the false assumption that "musical sonority... resists political imbrication," leading him to neglect music's role in the tale's violence. As Holsinger sees it, such an assertion of the "apolitical" and a neglect of "materialist analysis" mars an "otherwise brilliant" essay (see Holsinger, 166 and note 26).
20. Quoted for support by Fradenburg (1989,
77). But particularly fascinating is Langmuir's discovery that
"there is no evidence of any action by secular authorities" nor
even of any popular attacks "until Henry III arrived" (1972, 468).
Langmuir reveals how one man, John, whose actual beliefs about the
truth of the accusations is unknown, manipulated the boy's death
dramatically, leading to incrimination and execution, until,
importantly, "cooler heads" prevailed, belief in a Jewish
conspiracy was dispelled and the "remaining seventy-one [Jews]
were liberated" (479).
21. Zitter also conflates time when she demands
that critics and teachers "examine in detail the libels and
misinformation underlying the piece, studying as well those
falsehoods and misconceptions still alive today" (282).
22. I wish to express my deep debt to Fradenburg's essay while attempting to reconsider its critical poetics over ten years later in academic, political contexts that the author could not have anticipated.
23. Besserman asks the telling question: "If
Chaucer writes repeatedly about the intersection of the human and
the divine .... and if we always either deplore or ignore this
aspect of his poetry because it serves an ideology we consider
noxious, or if for this same reason, we always naturalize
Chaucer's imaginative engagements with religious concerns by
translating them into correlative social or political concerns,
how are we to justify our critical practice?"
24. In reviewing Robert Chazan's Medieval
Stereotypes and Modern Anti-Semitism, Gow notes that "the
most unconvincing part of [the book] concerns the gap between the
thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries," continuing that the book
does not make the needed links to prove its implied thesis, "that
medieval stereotypes and modern anti-Semitism led up to and in
some sense produced the Shoah." For a modern study of the
evolution and power of the Holocaust, see also Peter Novick's
provocative study of the magnitude the Holocaust has in American
life as the definitive "emblematic Jewish experience" (10). Novick
wonders throughout the book whether such identification, for which
he provides a genealogy, "is ... good for the Jews" (11). Novick
also questions the efficacy and wisdom of "the idea of 'lessons of
the Holocaust,"' which he "finds dubious on several grounds": "One
might be called pedagogic. If there are, in fact, lessons to be
drawn from history, the Holocaust would seem an unlikely source,
not because of its alleged uniqueness, but because of its
extremity." He then questions the notion that experiencing a
Holocaust film or museum would be "morally therapeutic" (13).
Novick's study thus provides a context for considering the use of
the term in the modern criticism under study.
25. "The refutation of the widespread notion
that we can best understand intolerance by stressing the
fundamental continuity between collective systems of thought
across historical time," writes Nirenberg, "is an overarching
goal" of his book (5). Space does not permit here a full summary
or treatment of Nirenberg's groundbreaking book, but it is hoped
that the current argument about the literary criticism of the
Prioress's Tale will complement Nirenburg's attempt as a historian
to "disrupt a now almost orthodox view of the steady march of
European intolerance across the centuries" (7).
26. See Mat 1:2-3; 1 Macc. 2.
27. Tomasch, in fact, cites Sophia Menache's analysis of the Burton Annals passage just quoted; see page 245 and note 12. 1 noticed Tomasch's helpful citation only after discovering the passage myself.
28. See also Friedman's argument that "those
many critics who follow Wordsworth in professing to be repelled by
the 'fierce bigotry,"brutality,' and horror of the Prioress's
Tale, even as they admire its artistry strike me as having
panicked in reaction to the poem's incidental anti-Semitism."
Friedman concludes, then, however, that "it is a measure of the
moral progress of humanity that modern sensibilities cannot resist
reading extrinsic tragic overtones into the Prioress's simple tale
of pathos" (127).
29. Nirenberg's analysis of teleological narratives in the history of violence is important: "The more we restore to those outbreaks of violence their own particularities, the less easy it is to assimilate them to our own concerns." He argues against those who have "drawn a line of mounting intolerance from the Rhineland massacres of the First Crusade ... to Kristallnacht and the concentration camps" (7).
30. Despres studies the tale as an instance of
what Rene Girard called "persecution literature" and seems to blur
history and poetry when she asserts that the "Prioress's Tale is a
fictional account `of real violence,"' (Despres, 415 and note 9).
She then helpfully explores the significance of the tale's central
image ("a small boy, lifted up to the alter, who is transformed"
[see 415]) to what she calls the Prioress's "vision of an ideal
theocracy," one that to maintain purity demands a component of
anti-Judaism. She treats the poem in the context of two Corpus
Christi sermon exempla that feature eucharistic imagery, about
which she reports that "it would be historically misguided to
distinguish rigidly between such exempla and what passed for
reality" (421). Fradenburg (1989, 85ff.) explores the Christian
culture's need to define and mark the abject and disruptive,
embodied in the Jew, in order to affirm its own unity, purity, and
continuity. See also Langmuir's lucid chapter, "From Anti-Judaism
to Anti-Semitism" in Langmuir, 1990, 275-305. He asserts,
concerning the origins of medieval anti-Judaism: "[The Jews']
existence and disbelief reinforced any doubts that were lurking
consciously or subconsciously in the minds of Christians... Jews
were therefore a real threat to any Christians who were sensitive
to threats to their identity" (290-91).
31. One example from many is Osberg's study of the Prioress's voice as a version of the female voice crafted by male authors of devotional texts. He further links the imagery of revulsion associated with the Jews to such imagery in the analogue devotional texts (see esp. 47 ff.).
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Archer, John. "The Structure of Anti-Semitism in the Prioress's Tale." The Chaucer Review 19:1 (1985): 46-54.
Arnold, John H. "The Historian as Inquisitor: The Ethics of Interrogating Subaltern Voices." Rethinking History 2:3 (1998): 379-86.
Besserman, Lawrence. "Ideology, Anti-Semitism and Chaucer's Prioress's Tale." Unpublished manuscript.
Biddick, Kathleen. The Shock of Medievalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
Bloch, Howard R. "Critical Communities and the Shape of the Medievalist's Desire: A Response to Judith Ferster and Louise Fradenburg." Exemplaria 2 (1990): 203-20.
Borroff, Marie. "'Loves Hete' in the Prioress's Prologue and Tale." The Old Daunce: Love, Friendship, Sex, and Marriage in the Medieval World. Ed. Robert R. Edwards and Stephen Spector. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.
Boyd, Beverly. The Middle English Miracles of the Virgin. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1964.
Bromwich, David. 1997. "Scholarship as social action." In What's Happened to the Humanities?, edited by Alvin Kernan (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Calabrese, Michael A. "How to Be an Efficient, Compliant Educator." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 May 2000: BS-9.
____. Rev. of New Medieval Literatures. The Medieval Review (1997) 99.03.16.
Calabrese, Michael, and Eric Eliason. "The Rhetorics of Sexual Pleasure and Intolerance in the Middle Ages." Modern Language Quarterly 56 (1995): 247-75.
____. California State University, Los Angeles.
Academic Notes: The Newsletter of the Academic Senate (Fall
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Third Edition. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. The Postcolonial Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Dane, Joseph A. "The Prioress and Her Romanzen." Chaucer Review 24 (1990): 219-22.
Dean, James M. Medieval English Political Writings. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1996.
Delany, Shelia. "Chaucer's Prioress, The Jews, and The Muslims." Medieval Encounters 5 (1999): 198-213.
Delbanco, Andrew. "The Decline and Fall of Literature." The New York Review of Books 66:17 (1999): 32-38.
Despres, Denise L. "Cultic Anti-Judaism and Chaucer's Litel Clergeon." Modern Philology 91 (1994): 413-27.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Ellis, John M. Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Ferris, Summer. "Venus and the Virgin: The Proem to Book III of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde as a Model for the Prologue to the Prioress's Tale." Chaucer Review 27 (1993): 252-59.
Ferster, Judith. "'Your Praise is Performed By Men and Children': Language and Gender in the Prioress's Prologue and Tale." Exemplaria 2 (1990): 149-68.
Fish, Stanley. Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Fradenburg, Louise 0. "Criticism, Anti-Semitism, and the Prioress's Tale." Exemplaria 1 (1989): 69-115.
-. -Voice Memorial': Loss and Reparation in Chaucer's Poetry." Exemplaria 2:1 (1990): 169-202.
Frank, Hardy Long. "Seeing the Prioress Whole." Chaucer Review 25 (1991): 229-37.
Friedman, Albert B. "The Prioress's Tale and
Chaucer's Anti-Semitism." The Chaucer Review 9:2 (1975):
Godfrey, Mary F. "The Fifteenth-Century Prioress's Tale and the Problem of AntiSemitism." Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602. Ed. Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000.
Goodich, Michael. The Other Middle Ages: Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Gow, Andrew Colin. Book Review of Robert Chazan, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Speculum 74:3 (1999): 718-20.
Haidu, Peter. "Althusser Anonymous in the Middle Ages." Exemplaria 7:1 (1995): 55-74.
The Subject of Violence: The Song of Roland and the Birth of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Holsinger, Bruce. "Pedagogy, Violence, and the Subject of Music: Chaucer's Prioress's Tale and the Ideologies of `Song."' New Medieval Literatures 1 (1997).
Hsia, R. Po-Chia. The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
Kernan, Alvin. What's Happened to the Humanities? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Koretsky, Allen C. "Dangerous Innocence: Chaucer's Prioress and Her Tale." Jewish Presences in English Literature. Ed. Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.
Kruger, Steven F. "The Bodies of Jews in the Late Middle Ages." In The Idea of Medieval Literature, ed. James M. Dean and Christian K. Zacher. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.
Langmuir, Gavin I. History, Religion, and Antisemitism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
____. "The Knight's Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln." Speculum 47 (1972): 459-82.
Lawton, David. "Analytical Survey I: Literary History and Cultural Study." In New Medieval Literatures, ed. Wendy Scase, Rita Copeland, and David Lawton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Lochrie, Karma. Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
Luard, H. R. Annales Monastici. Rolls Series. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864-69.
Marvin, Corey J. "'I Will The Not Forsake': The Kristevan Maternal Space in Chaucer's Prioress's Tale and John of Garland's Stella Maris." Exemplaria 8:1 (Spring 1996): 35-58.
Miyoshi, Masao. "A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State." Critical Inquiry 19:4 (Summer 1993): 732.
Narin van Court, Elisa. "The Seige of Jerusalem and Augustinian Historians: Writing About Jews in Fourteenth-Century England." Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 227-48.
____. "Socially Marginal, Culturally Central: Representing Jews in Late Medieval English Literature." Exemplaria 12:2 (2000): 293-326.
Newton, K. M. Twentieth-Century Literary Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Nirenberg, David. Communities of Violence: The Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Oliver, Kathleen M. "Singing Bread, Manna, and the Clergeon's'Greyn."' Chaucer Review 31:4 (1997): 357-64.
Osberg, Richard H. "A Voice for the Prioress: The Context of English Devotional Prose." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 25-54.
Otter, Monica. Review of The Subject of Violence: The Song of Roland and the Birth of the State, by Peter Haidu. CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, Philosophy 25 (1995): 110-14.
Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Rex, Richard. "The Sins of Madame
Eglentyne" and Other Essays on Chaucer. Newark: University
of Delaware Press, 1995.
Richards, Jeffrey. Sex, Dissidents, and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1990.
Ridley, Florence. The Prioress and the Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press,1965.
Scase, Wendy, Rita Copeland and David Lawton, eds. New Medieval Literatures. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Schoeck, R. J. "Chaucer's Prioress: Mercy and Tender Heart." The Bridge, A Yearbook of Judeao-Christian Studies II. New York: Pantheon, 1956.
Spector, Stephen. "Empathy and Enmity in the Prioress's Tale." In The Old Daunce: Love, Friendship, Sex, and Marriage in the Medieval World, ed. Robert R. Edwards and Stephen Spector. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991. 211-28.
Tomasch, Sylvia. "Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew." In The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Zitter, Emmy Stark. "Anti-Semitism in Chaucer's
Prioress's Tale." Chaucer Review 25:4 (1991): 277-84.
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