Chaucer, Twice: the Prioress and Criseyde

I’ve just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress’s Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: “As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is one of them. It’s antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there’s no way around it: it’s awful.”

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like “I think this story is antisemitic,” “it seems unfair to Jews,” “it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil,” “it tells us that antisemitism is really old,” or, the variant, “the antisemitism in the Prioress’s Tale is still around today.”

I warned them, but they’re still shocked. I’m befuddled but I’m also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I’ve tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale’s antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says “this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic,” I, of course, say “the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they’re confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific”; but when a student just condemns the tale’s antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:

  • What’s the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy’s 10 years old; here he’s 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the ‘holy abbot’ in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that ‘simplicity’ and ‘goodness’ tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress’s intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I’ll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I’d argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story…
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews’ hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don’t murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress’s Tale isn’t a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who — as a sign of his pureness — sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They’re both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?

In the next class, I’m also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students’ presentations on the Prioress’s Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I’ve recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what’s most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they’d gone to ArtStor, they’d find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down….).

I’m going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I’ll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale’s hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I’ll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother — the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 — as the tale’s actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy’s innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

For more on the painting, see Eileen A. Joy in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:

all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of “disappear” in or move into the background of our “readings” of various texts.


Here’s another bit of recent Chaucer grumbling:

I’m thinking of a recent conversation with a very senior colleague, someone who’s been at my institution for a lifetime, mine, specifically. He was on his way out of the class; I was on my way in. As best I remember, here’s how it went:

“What are you teaching?”


“Matthew Arnold said that Chaucer lacked ‘high seriousness.'”

“Certainly not true for Troilus & Criseyde.”

“”Slydynge of corage’. I like that. Always on her way to the next man.”

“What choice did she have?”

He repeats: “‘Slydynge of corage.'”

“What else could she have done?”

A nasty nutshell. It’s a prefeminist, prepolitical way to teach the poem, preserved in amber, and no doubt preserved even in some of our younger teachers.

  1. The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don’t they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn’t want to enter the Symbolic or doesn’t want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It’s basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah? 

Withdrawing the Grain


When I teach the Prioress’s Tale, as I did twice last semester, I have typically liked asking the students “who kills the Little Clergeon?” Most give the obvious answer, what we might as well call the correct one: “the Jews,” or “a Jewish professional murderer,” while others, when sufficiently prodded, blame the monk who plucks the grain from under the little boy’s tongue.

Who’s the murderer, then? And who makes a martyr? The boy miraculously keeps singing, despite being nearly decapitated, but only until he tells the monk where to find the kill switch. Having killed, the monk goes catatonic, falling as if bound to the floor. And now we in the classroom have something else to talk about. We can keep on about the Antisemitism of the Prioress, or Chaucer, or medieval Christian Culture. But now we can also talk about how stories of martyrs demand a victim, and how the love of sacrifice needs its deaths. And so on.

Now, though, I’m newly sympathetic to the monk. As a reminder, here’s the conversation, beginning with the undead boy (a translation into Modern English here if you need it):

“Wherefore [because of that grain] I synge, and synge moot certeyn,

In honour of that blisful Mayden free

Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;

And after that thus seyde she to me:

‘My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,

Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.

Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'”

This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I

His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,

And he yaf up the goost ful softely.

And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,

His salte teeries trikled doun as reyn,

And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,

And stille he lay as he had been ybounde.

The monk’s newly captured my sympathy, now, because I’ve made a similar decision, twice, with both of my parents. I was close to my mother (died in 2001) and not so close to my father (died early November, this year), but in both cases I was given and took the monk’s choice.

That’s far from unique. Most Americans die in hospitals now, many of them only through some decision to let them be allowed to die. In both cases, my parents were unconscious when they finally died: my mother in a coma, my father on morphine. Any decision was made with what was, at best, their literally tacit approval. But it was a decision, made by us more than by them. They did not die on their own.

My father consulted with his children when we decided to withdraw care for my mother (meanwhile, in a cruelty more than a little reminiscent of the Prioress’s Tale, I was told that we were “tying God’s hands” by letting my mother die). My father’s own father suffered a terrible stroke a year before he finally died, but was dragged back into life, not happily. Sometime in his last year, he told my father, “you should have let me die.” Probably with that in mind, but also all too aware of his own suffering, my father made it clear enough that he would be willing to be allowed to go when things got bad enough. We knew how to end things, and we suspected, at least, that they wanted things to end. But we could have kept it all going if we wanted to keep it going. The decision finally had to be ours, not theirs.

It’s odd and maybe stupid to find my own experience in Chaucer’s ugliest tale. It’s not as though either of my parents died as a martyr to Antisemitism. But having twice been a parricide, of a sort, like so many others, as so many of us are likely to be, I can’t help but feel with the monk, suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also  “ybounde” to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain.


Kerfuffle Wading: On Liberal Fascism’s sadly missing chapter

I probably shouldn’t wade into the kerfuffle with Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (well treated at Sadly No, here and here. EDIT More seriously, see here), but here I go with a medievalist intervention, deferring responsibility for doing what I should not do by saying, with Dietrich, that I can’t help it.

I quote the following from a recent interview between Goldberg and Theodore Beale

Beale: You know, Guerri says the reason the Fascist regime was less dramatic than the German and Soviet regimes was because Italians were weak Catholics. So when they replaced their religion with the secular religion, they became weak Fascists as well.

Goldberg: I think that’s right. Michael Ledeen has many detractors when it comes to contemporary politics, but he was a very serious scholar of Italian Fascism in his previous career. One of the things that first got me interested in this topic was over ten years ago when Ledeen gave a talk at AEI. It was very interesting and at the end, a buddy of mine turned to me and said: “I think what he is saying is that Nazism was really bad because they had the Black Forest and terrible weather, and Italian Fascism wasn’t that bad because the Italians are a bunch of nice people.” That’s a really grotesque way to put it, and yet there’s a certain truth there. These sorts of isms are going to bring out the character of a people. No idea so sets fire to the minds of men that it erases their culture, their background, or their fundamental psychological understanding of the world. Certainly not on a mass scale.

Beale: It’s very Eddie Izzard: “We are all Fascists now…. ciao!”

Goldberg: There’s a story that Ledeen tells about a restaurant. One of the things that Mussolini did in this very Jamesian way was to declare all of these domestic policy wars, these moral equivalents of war. There was the Battle of the Grains and the Battle of the Births, and one of them was the Battle of the Flies, because there was so much disease going around Italy back then. Anyhow, this guy goes into a restaurant and sees there’s flies all over the place, so he asks what’s going on with the war against them. The waiter says “well, the flies won.” That’s a very Italian perspective. One of the things I learned while writing the book is that there’s this glib association of fascism with anti-semitism, and while one can’t say that the Italians were completely blameless in that regard, at the end of the day, anti-semitism was just completely contrary to Italian history and culture. Italy was polyglot, multi-ethnic and Catholic, so whatever anti-semitism was there was theological, not biological; the Catholic Church’s position was that Jews could be saved, not that they should be eradicated like vermin. I wanted to do an entire chapter on this but it was just too far afield. The heroism and decency of thousands upon thousands of Italians when it came to the Jews is one of the incredibly untold stories of that era. Anti-semitism and Italian Fascism are just not kindred phenomena.

There’s too much to deal with here. For instance: Italy, being a Catholic country (or people? I suppose in this case one means the other, except for the “multi-ethnic” part), did not practice a virulently antisemitic fascism because of Catholicism’s policy on Jews (rooted in Augustine’s commentary on Psalms 58:12); Italians did not become serious fascists because they were weak Catholics. So, did Catholicism guide them in its strength or its weakness? Or both?

As for polyglot, multi-ethnic, Catholic countries and their tolerance towards Jews…well, there’s medieval London, which would fit the criteria, were it not for the pogrom during Richard I’s coronation, and/or twentieth-century France, except for its complicity in the Holocaust. Even with his conceptual mistakes, Goldberg can still wonder why antisemitism didn’t take root as intensely in Italy as it did in Northern Europe. He might have started his wondering by reading Gavin Langmuir’s “L’absence d’accusation de meurtre ritual à l’ouest du Rhône” (in Juifs et judaisme de Languedoc. Cahiers de Fanjeaux 12. Toulouse, 1977, 235-49) and perhaps he would wondered whether to be convinced by the several possibilities Langmuir offers (perhaps, to cite my notes, the earlier development of credit and commerce in Southern Europe made Jews less distinct, or religious belief played a different role in these societies that were more Romanized, or there’s some kind an inverse relationship between clerical activity and popular hostility, or perhaps heretics were the real bogeymen in S. Europe).

I do wish, however, that Goldberg had written the chapter he claims was “too far afield.” Perhaps he would have ran across some information of use on medieval Italian Jews and how they helped form the Italian national character (more on that below). He could have started with Ariel Toaff’s Love, Work, and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996). He might have discovered the racism used against Pope Anacletus II (discussed in Mary Stroll’s The Jewish Pope: Ideology and Politics in the Papal Schism of 1130, 1987), and perhaps have found something similar to his own racist noise against Obama.

Had he done his research (not really his habit), he would have discovered in any number of sources that in fact it generally was better to be Jewish in Rome than in Cologne, Rouen, London, or York, that is, so long as one wasn’t being compelled to race during Carnival and be stoned by Christians (see Stallybrass and White, Politics and Poetry 53). Or so long as one wasn’t an old man rolled down a hill in a spiked barrel (I found reference to this tradition in Claudine Fabre-Vassas The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig, Carol Volk trans., Columbia UP, 162, and, in my effort to confirm it just now, in the online Medici Archive Project:

The “palio degli ebrei” or “race of the Jews” in the Corso had a long and peculiar history of its own predating the Counter Reformation by several centuries. At one point, Christian “jockeys” in the race rode Jews instead of horses. Another festive “game” of the season was to roll a Jew in a nailed barrel down the Testaccio Hill. By the mid-sixteenth century, there are accounts of the Pope personally watching “races of barbarians, buffaloes, donkeys and Jews,” from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia (where four centuries later Mussolini made his most famous public appearances.) By the 1580s, the Jews are known to have run the race naked; later, they evidently began to assume elaborate costumes, thereby reversing the originally humiliating intention of the event. In 1668, Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi abolished the “palio degli ebrei”, substituting an annual tax of 300 scudi for the festive decoration of the street and a stylized ceremony of homage to the Pope on the Capitoline Hill.

(for the transmutation of the old Jew to pig, see here)). Goldberg might also have run across information on the expulsion of Jews from various parts of Italy in the Middle Ages and afterwards: Sicily (depending on my notes) in either 1492 or 1493 and Naples in 1541, and the forced conversions in Southern Italy in 1290. Perhaps he would have found something on the Jewish ghetto of Venice (and how Napoleon ended it). This is all pretty lugubrious stuff (especially when one needs a murderous tyrant to break down the gates), but all to the point on the so-called national character of Italians.

Or “Italians.” I put the nation in the quotation marks in hope of responses to my invitation. Let my readers and co-bloggers, if they have anything handy, provide something less woeful about Italian Jews, something that might point us towards a discovering of intermingling, interdependent Jewish and Christian culture in Italy, medieval or otherwise, perhaps something like this, perhaps something less hostile even. And perhaps if we can come up with some thought on that we can help, at least in our fantasies, to lead Goldberg away from the poisonous invocation of “biology.”

“Free and Open at Eyther Ende,” or Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

gusbig(Image from here: Strange but Trewe)

I stumbled across an interpretation Tuesday in the course of teaching the Prioress’s Tale. As I said it, it sounded familiar to me, but I’ve gone through my notes with some fine teeth (mine) and haven’t been able to turn up anyone else who’s said it. So bear with me, read along, and if what I’m saying sounds familiar, please let me know.

It’s well-known that the ritual murder charge is often also one of anthropophagy. The late twelfth-century, and, it should be said, highly ironic chronicler Richard of Devizes records or invents a charge at Winchester in which an immigrant laborer disappears on Good Friday. His friend accuses a Jew of the crime with “isti unicum sodalem meum iugulavit, presumo etiam quod manducavit” (this man has cut the throat of my only friend, and I presume he has eaten him, too!). The chronicle of the monastery of Saint Peter of Gloucester writes that when Harold of Gloucester was murdered, he was (and here I quote at length because I can’t readily turn up any translations: so my quick and very dirty translation of this little bit might help scholars looking for a crib, or it might help you help me with that word “acellis,” since neither my Lewis and Short nor the online Du Cange want to cooperate: update thank you Nicola Masciandaro):

Nam tandam visum est medium duobus ignibus interpositum miserabiliter latera, tergum, nates, cum genibus, manibus, pedum quoque plantas torruerunt, defixas circa capitis ambitum spinas, et sub utrisque acellis, ardente quoque adipe veluti assatura carnis fieri solet guttatim in tota corporis superficie distillata…” (20-21)

For at last it was seen that he was been placed between two fires, and his flanks, back, buttocks, with his knees, hands, and the heels of his feet wretchedly roasted, and he had thorns wrapped around his head, and under each ACELLIS armpit, and just as if he had become roasted meat, blazing fat had been dripped drop-by-drop all over the surface of his body…

There’s also the narrative of the murder of Adam of Bristol, whose full and jaw-droppingly bizarre details I won’t go into here, just yet. In it, Samuel, the paternal head of a murderous Jewish family, refers to his victim, Adam, as “porcellum meum” (my little pig [which is strange: check my * below]). Samuel threatens to roast Adam by the fire rotisserie-style like a plump chicken (as Samuel says, “ego regirabo,” and adds “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”). Prior to the roasting, Samuel’s wife cuts off Adam’s nose and lips, using the knife customarily used to cut her bread (“cultello quo solebat incidere panem”). Moreover, the family plans the torments over a feast, so as the murderous family eats, it plans the disposal of the body that will be treated like edible flesh, that is, eventually deposited in a latrine and pissed on by Samuel.

It’s usual for the corpse in a ritual murder story to end up in such a place. This is what happens in the Prioress’s tale, where the Jews “in a wardrobe … hym threwe / Where as thise jewes purgen hire entraille,” although, strictly speaking, the Prioress’s Tale is not a ritual murder: however much Satan swelled up and reminded the Jews that their law was being scorned, the murder seems to be occasioned by irritation rather than by ritual necessity. And there’s no anthropophagy (at this point, imagine an ominous foreshadowing noise here, perhaps with this famous moving image swelling up in your sight).

All of this is a kind of hors d’œuvre for what I promised in my first paragraph, namely, an interpretation of the shape of the Ghetto in the Prioress’s tale (see another aside below). Because the ghetto is “free and open at eyther ende,” the little clergeon can make his way through it, singing his Alma redemptoris the whole way until he meets his end. But, as I observed in my (8am!) class on Tuesday, he also meets the Jews’ end, because, after all, what else is open at both ends and ends in a latrine?

(if you need a hint, look at the photo above)

I’m sure it’s been said before that the Ghetto in the Prioress’s Tale functions as a kind of corpus Judaeorum. What does that get us in terms of interpretation? I’m not entirely sure yet. I’ll share with you what I told my students, but I don’t want to take this any further until I know I’m not just filling someone’s else’s footprints, compelled unwittingly to follow by the memory of their passage through the critical swamp (and I’ll end the metaphor here). We have witnessed anthropophagy, albeit in a disguised form, and indeed we’ll witness it (disguised) again, when the boy’s body processes through the town to the church in a kind of Corpus Christi parade, and when the Abbot takes the greyn, which, whatever it might be, necessarily recalls the Eucharist. We might, then, if we wanted to push at this reading, see the tale as referencing debates and exempla about the indomitable purity of the Eucharist even when it’s threatened with transformation into feces by the ritual of the Eucharist itself. But that’s perhaps rather too much. It’s much simpler to see the main street of the Jewerye (or Juerie) as an alimentary canal, and the Jewerye as the body of the Jews. As I said to my students, this approach heightens the logic of revenge: a Christian body that functions as the corpus Christianorum has been destroyed, so there’s a Jewish body destroyed in turn. The collective punishment is also the punishment of a single urban body. So, where to take this?

* Strange because there’s such an emphasis (dare I say slapstick emphasis) placed on Jewish food codes later in the story, after Samuel has murdered his family (who had the gall to apostatize) and fled to his sister’s house, both out of guilt and out of fear of the inconvenient angel standing guard over Adam’s body, that is, in the latrine. When several credulous Irish priests show up in Bristol, Samuel and his sister offer them lodgings, hoping to trick them into getting the boy’s holy corpse

out of the latrineaway from the angel. Here’s the conversation once Samuel’s sister offers the priests some food. Pardon my stilted translation:

“Quales carnes vultis habere ad edendum?” Cui sacerdos: “O domina, carnes porcinas.” Et illa: “Carnes porcine non sunt bone nec sane in hac urba, quia plene sunt lepra et commedunt stercora hominum in plateis. Set dabo vobis carnes bovinas, et .3es. gallinas crassas vobis et nobis.”

“What sort of meat do you wish to have to eat?” The priest replied, “O mistress, pork.” She said, “Pork isn’t good or healthy in this town, since it is measly/leprous and they [the pigs] eat human excrement in the street. But I will give you beef and three fat chickens for you and your retinue.”