Fractal Prioress


It’s a disappointment if any given semester of teaching the Canterbury Tales again doesn’t help me develop what feels like a new interpretation. Some samples from past years: Walter talks like a philosopher, but Griselda acts like one, and suffers like one too (borrowed from its development by one of my former students, Rachel Merenda); Dorigen weaponizes the concept of honor to effect her own salvation, thus avoiding the fate of the less imaginative Virginia (note how she humiliates Aurelius in the busiest street!); the horse in the Friar’s Tale is the very image of the irresolvability of the problem of intention, responsibility, and agency; and so on (?).
Here’s today’s idea.

I seye, that in a wardrobe they him threwe,
Wheras thise Jewes purgen hir entraille.
O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,
What youre ivel entente yow availle?
Mordre wol out, certein, it wol nat faille,
And namely ther th’onour of God shal sprede;
The blood out cryeth on youre cursed dede. (Prioress’s Tale VII.571-78, Mann ed.)

I was struck today by the al newe: here’s the past event, done again, so that it’s never past. The Jews do what they do because they have to, and they always have; the Christians, likewise ever young or old in their youth, also do what they do because they have to, as they always have; this is always the first murder (“the voice of thy brother’ s blood crieth to me from the earth”), which never stops being committed. As my student presenter observed today, and as you have no doubt observed too, the widow is an analog of the Virgin Mary, the boy an analog of Christ, and the Jews, well, the Jews: the crucifixion is happening all over again.
But there’s a couple other repetitions. There’s the final stanza of course, which begins like so:

O yonge Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it is but a litel while ago (VII.684-86).

As we know, Little Hugh of Lincoln died in 1255, some 130-140 years prior to Chaucer writing this tale. It’s not a “litel while ago,” unless, that is, everything is always new, always fresh, always circling around with no point of escape.
There’s yet another repetition, however, one that I think may have escaped notice by the poem’s commentators to date. Maybe not! Here’s what I’m noticing:
  • Boy sings or refers to the Alma Redemptoris, 641 and 655
  • Boy is killed, again, when the grain is taken out of his mouth
  • Abbot and community falls on the ground “and still he lay, as he had been ybounde” (676), which we all know recalls the earlier binding of the Jews (“and after that the Jewes leet he binde” (620) [edit: see Adrienne W. Boyarin here for more!]
  • And then there’s a procession (“and after that they rise, and forth been went, / And toke awey this martyr from his beere” (679-80), which might recall the earlier procession on the hunt for the singing corpseboy (“The Cristen folk that thurgh the strete wente / In coomen for to wondre upon this thing” (614-15).
 Singing, killing, binding, procession, and at the heart of it a “sely” boy wise beyond his years but young as well. Somewhere in this, we might even put the boy’s double burial, in a latrine, and then “in a tombe of marbilstones cleere” (680).

Now, in a Christian exegetical context, these echoes might just be understood as anagogic repetition: the supersession of the cursed Jews by the blessed Christians. But in the context of a circle of violence, suffering, and ongoing newness, we can understand VII.641-680 as a miniaturized version of the tale as a whole, a miniature that’s repeated again in shorter former in the final stanza on Hugh of Lincoln. This fractal repetition recalls the Mass itself, which repeats everywhere and always the incarnation and crucifixion; and it also anticipates the structure of Thopas, whose structure of diminishing returns (18 stanzas, 9 stanzas, 4 ½ stanzas) might itself be understood as a kind of fractal repetition.

In the Prioress’s Tale, ever young, but also ever old, stuck in the same loop, we have a picture of the liturgy and the liturgical year (maybe?), and also, especially, a picture of a cycle of violence that can’t end until the Prioress and her community give up on the memory of sacrifice, suffering, and redemption.

How’s that? Who else has done this?

(for earlier Chaucer blog posts by me: here (Prioress), here (Physician), here (Nun’s Priest), here (Friar), here (Man of Law), here (Wife of Bath’s Tale), here (manuscripts), and here (Prioress))