The Middle English Disputation between a Christian and a Jew: Materiality, or not.

Eric Corriel at Lumen 2014

Cross posted to In the Middle, where you can comment; or find us on Facebook.

Because the field’s so crowded, I’m reluctant to call the “Disputisoun bytwene a cristenmon and a jew” [Disputation between a Christian and a Jew, hereafter DCJ] one of the stranger Middle English poems; but it is a particularly weird one. Here’s a recent summary:

[DCJ tells] how an English and a Jewish theologian disputed in vain at Paris. The Christian argues the Virgin Birth and the redemption through Christ’s crucifixion and the Jew favors a God who has no son. In order to convince the Christian the Jew suggests he will prove the power of his religion by showing the Christian a vision of Christ on the cross. They travel to the Otherworld where the Christian proves the vision of the crucifixion to be a false one by confronting it with a consecrated host. The Jew admits the errors of his ways and converts to Christianity. At this point the Christian is identified as Sir Walter of Berwick, who was made a penitentiary by the pope.

Among these otherworld encounters are Arthur and his Round Table (!), a dinner with nuns, squires, and the recital of romances, and, finally, what turns out to be a fake crucifixion (a crucifiction?). [For another summary, see my comment to this 2008 blog post]

Luuk Houwen, whose summary I quote above, offers us one of the only articles on the DCJ, and, so far as I know, the only one published this century. I’m convinced by his argument, which is essentially an identification of its genre: the poem’s not a romance, but a religious vision, developed from one of the many exempla designed to prove the sanctity of the Eucharistic Host.

Houwen, however, doesn’t do much with the Jewishness of the disputant, and probably for good reason: Thomas of Cantimpré’s exemplum, a likely source, features a contest between a heretic and a Christian; in another analog, from a Life of St Wolfram, it’s pagans and a not-quite-yet Christian. The DCJ adds Arthur, the Nuns, and the other elements of what we might call a specifically British otherworld. But, apart from calling its figure of unbelief a Jew, it doesn’t explicitly add anything to the tradition that’s clearly about the Christian engagement with Judaism.

Still,some other differences from the analogs demand our attention. There’s the Jew’s similarity to Chaucer’s Clerk of Orleans, in the Franklin’s Tale, who similarly conjures up a chivalric entertainments:

he shewed hym, er he wente to sopeer,
Forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer;
Ther saugh he hertes with hir hornes hye,
The gretteste that evere were seyn with ye.
He saugh of hem an hondred slayn with houndes,
And somme with arwes blede of bittre woundes.
He saugh, whan voyded were thise wilde deer,
Thise fauconers upon a fair ryver,
That with hir haukes han the heron slayn.
tho saugh he knyghtes justyng in a playn;
And after this he dide hym swich plesaunce
That he hym shewed his lady on a daunce,
On which hymself he daunced, as hym thoughte.
And whan this maister that this magyk wroughte
Saugh it was tyme, he clapte his handes two,
And farewel! al oure revel was ago,
And yet remoeved they nevere out of the hous.

That’s certainly a connection worth developing, perhaps having to do with the relationship between preachers, sorcerers, and storytellers; here, though, I’ll just suggest that we put the poem in conversation with the medieval relationship between Jews and materiality, specifically, the way that medieval Christianity tended to insult Jews by associating them with materiality. For Christians, Jews were excessively literal, concerned only with brute facts and not with spiritual truths, stone-hearted, driven by instinct rather than choice, with bodies that were excessively corporeal: stinky, prone to bloody fluxes and–in the Siege of Jerusalem among others–dismemberment (see Steven Kruger’s The Spectral Jew and Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East).One of the goals of the new materialisms is, or should be, to drain the material insult of its force by, at once, recognizing the presumptively human/Christian/whatever as material too and the material as more agential or, at least, less foundational (“the ground of our discussion is” etc). More wobbly on the material side, less free on the human/etc side, with a serious reassessment of what we mean when we use the word “agency.” Things like that.

That’s important, but it’s harder to implement in this case. What’s strange in the DCJ is that the Jew isn’t obviously associated with materiality, but with illusion; it’s the Christian who wields the material object, the consecrated Host, that — like the clap of the Orleans’ Clerk–bursts the illusion apart, returning us to the world of dark, solid matter:

Whon he was schewed to the siht,
He barst þe Buyldynge so briht.
Bote was derk as the niht,
Heore sonne and heore mone.

If we just take the Jew as being made to stand in for the general unbeliever, that’s not a problem, except, of course, for the general fact of its prejudice. But if we take the Jew seriously as a Jew in a Christian poem then we need to work harder.

Host desecration stories with Jewish desecrators, like the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which Houwen cites, or several exempla in British Library, Royal 18.B.23, feature a kind of profane belief in the material sanctity of the Host. The Jews obtain a Host, by theft or purchase or deception, and then mistreat it until the Host reveals its truth. A sample, since BL Royal 18.B.23 isn’t online. A Jew bets a Christian 20 pounds that his dog would eat a consecrated Host. The Christian accepts the bet, and then, by pretending to be sick, tricks a priest into slipping him the goods. When he extracts the uneaten Host from under his tongue and delivers it to the Jew, here’s what happens:

Þan [the Jew] toke þe Hoste, þat was in þe purs, and cast it a-fore þe dogge. And a-noon þe dogge fled and wold haue renne owte of þe hous. Þan þe Iewe cached hym a3eyn and chereshed hym, and euermore he drewe a-bake. Þan þe Iewe saw þat he wold not for no cherishynge take itt, þan he bette hym. And anone þe dogge fell downe on all iiij knees and did as he couthe reuerence to þe Sacramente. Þan þe Iewe was wode wrouthe and toke a staffe and bette þe dogge, and toke þe dogge in is armes and put hym þer-to. And þe dogge felte þat he wold haue mad hym to haue eten itt. And sothely he stirte vp to is þrote and voried hym.

Þan anoon þe Cristen man ranne to þe preeste þe wiche þat houseled hym, and told hym how it was and of þe dogge, suche an vnresonable beeste, how þat he did is dewe reuerence to Goddes bodie in þe forme of brede.

So be þis meracle þou may be stered to beleue þer-on in þat, þat an vnresonable beeste do dud, þat neuer had techynge of holychurche. (130)

This isn’t at all what happens in DCJ. Its Jew doesn’t have any particular belief either way in the Host. He doesn’t want to do things to it to prove that it’s mere material. He’s even, before its reveal, indifferent to it. Rather — and this proposal is probably where I’ll open discussion the next time I teach it — the Jew in the DCJ champions visible immateriality, and the Christian invisible materiality. The DCJ isn’t so much a dispute between materiality and its other (whether this is spirit, choice, free interpretation, immortal stability, &c) as it is between the falseness of visible things and the true materiality of invisible things. On the other side of (false) vision, we haven’t arrived exactly at the realm of spirit, but at the one, true materiality of the Real Presence.

The trick, which I’ll leave to my students, and to you, is to make this frankly rather dull reading more interesting.

[for more on/in the Vernon Manuscript, see here; and for a full TOC, here]