She was so charitable and so pitous
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 soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte.
With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
” Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve ” ;
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng hem by the lawe.
In last night’s Chaucer class, while trying to illustrate a point about the Manciple’s Tale. I found myself in Cambridge, Trinity College R.3.3, a Canterbury Tales manuscript of c. 1450-1475. This is what grabbed me, above: at 108r, you’ll see the ending of the Prioress’s Tale (here reading “for the reverence of his moder Marie. Amen”), followed not by Thopas, but by the FRANKLIN.
Dividing the Prioress from the Franklin, we have: “Hic incipit prologus de Frankeleyun cum fabula sua de Rokkes de Brytaine” (here begins the Franklin’s prologue with his tale of the Rocks of Briton [or Bretagne]”)
Forgive me if I’m repeating something someone already said: I’m not a manuscripts scholar, my paleography is weak, and various quick, morning searches in various databases for Trinity R.3.3 commentary haven’t been successful, even though I know some of you have written about it: but I love this incipit. I would suspect our students, and most of us too, think of the Franklin’s Tale as mostly about honor, truth, the problem of sovereignty, class conflict in narrative and rhetoric, and the indifference or nonexistence of the gods. But here’s someone who, like Jeffrey (eg here and here), thinks it’s a tale mostly about ROCKS.
(by the way, Jeffrey’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is available here!)
(quick check suggests there are no other such incipit summaries in the mss (the others are just tags like “here begins the Cook’s Tale,” etc, but we do have this this rather self-satisfied, nonmedieval manicule at 38r)
(I don’t suppose anyone knows off hand if any of the other fifteenth-century copies of the Franklin’s Tales are marked this way?)
- “and forth he gooth — no lenger wolde he lette — / unto the west gate of the toun, and fond / a dong carte, as it were to donge lond” (VII.3034-36, Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
- “and whan he hadde pouped in this horn” (IX.90, Manciple’s Prologue)
- “whereas the Poo out of a welle smal” (IV.48, Clerk’s Prologue)
(object 14902 from the Kunera Database of Medieval Badges)
If you teach Chaucer, you’re likely more than familiar with this bit from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale:
Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes counseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
There as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes words, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. (VII.2356-66; Riverside ed)
You may also know the double meaning of the last line, which depends on whether we read “divine” as a verb or as an adjective: “I am not able to guess any sin about woman” (divine as verb) or “I know no sin about divine women [i.e., women devoted to theology, i.e., a nun, like the Prioress]” (divine as adjective). In 1977, Lawrence L. Besserman charted the line’s various possibilities; then in his Variorum edition, Derek Pearsall complained that Besserman, “overreliant on mechanical aids” (in this case, the Middle English Dictionary), generated an ambiguity entirely of his own making; then finally (?), Peter Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer demonstrated, quite keenly, that “Besserman’s systematic taxonomizing is absolutely consonant with a dominant methodology of a typical medieval liberal arts classroom” (63).
I think we can safely keep teaching the line as a pun.
Now, while Besserman took the line as a “veiled critique of the Prioress and her tale” (70; no pun intended?), I think we can take his reading further by understanding it as an instance of medieval respectability politics.
Here’s a succinct paragraph on the theme from Michelle Smith’s “Affect and Respectability Politics,” her contribution to the (sadly still) essential special issue of Theory and Event on Ferguson and “disposable lives”:
The signature of respectability politics is its disavowal of the legitimacy of black rage. By respectability politics, I refer to the first resort of marginalized classes. On the one hand, like all democratic politics, respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or pedestrian (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths). On the other, respectability politics evince a distinct worldview: marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing not because democratic values and law require it but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the “mainstream” or non-marginalized class. So, have you been discriminated against on the job market? Take off that hoodie and pull up your sagging pants! Rejected by the magnet school? “Nigga” is not a friendly greeting! Have the police thrown you against a wall againto search your pockets? Don’t stand on the street looking like you’re up to no good! Propriety breeds respect. Did your unarmed son/daughter/husband/wife/best friend/cousin die after the police applied the chokehold too vigorously? Cooler heads will prevail!
Respectability politics burdens the marginalized with the obligation to make themselves right; they shift the blame from deadly systems to individuals and their habits; they absolve the status quo of its own guilt; the call for respectability erases the many marginalized who themselves are respectable, who are marching peacefully, who are responding to violence with as much calm as they can muster, and still being battered and killed for all that; and finally the call to respectability erases the illegitimacy of the system people are being required to live up to, and the real possibilities for justice that “disrespectable” behavior might manifest. Respectability politics is mostly bullshit.
For the Nun’s Priest to say, among other things, “I know no sin about divine women” is to divide women into two categories (at least): divine women or even godlike women; and all the others, the less respectable women, who fall somewhat short of the low mark of divinity itself. This line, heard in its second sense, allows the Nun’s Priest to maintain his clerical misogyny—“wommenes conseils been ful ofte colde”—while propping up the whole system that clerical misogyny justifies, and that sustains his own privilege. It allows him to gaslight us by denying that he himself holds, acts on, and benefits from the beliefs that are actually his own and those of the patriarchy that owns him.
After all, some of his best friends are women.
For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves (Wife of Bath’s Prologue, III.689-91)
We can imagine, now, some of the respectable women of the Canterbury Tales and what happens to them: Emelye, Custance, Griselda, Virginia. You might have your own list. And we can mark, quite neatly, just how far respectability gets these adherents to appropriate behavior.
And we can see, then, that respectability politics demands – to choose an example not at all at random – that black people be divine: to be better than white people; to be better than people; to be saints; to be gods. Respectability politics loves the crucified respectable saint; and it loves just as much to crucify those who can’t or won’t be saints. Respectability politics is bullshit.
[thanks to Alison Kinney for talking this through with me. Any errors, in politics or anything else, are probably my own]
 Lawrence L. Besserman, “Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun’s Priest and His ‘Womman Divyne.'” The Chaucer Review 12.1 (1977): 68-73
PRIORESS’S TALE in 40 minutes: focusing on cursed folk of Herod “al new”: theme – youth, time, and repetition.
— Karl Steel (@KarlSteel) April 20, 2015
by KARL STEEL
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.)
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).
- 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).
1. Boy can’t grow up; 2. Jews can’t change; 3. Ending – boy sings, boy’s killed, people bound, civic procession: whole narrative in nutshell
— Karl Steel (@KarlSteel) April 20, 2015
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?
I.e., nothing new can happen. I haven’t seen TRUE DETECTIVE and I won’t so DON’T say what you are THINKING
— Karl Steel (@KarlSteel) April 20, 2015
Students — and probably not only students — often praise Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for being “more realistic” than the “Knight’s Tale.” With its love of the so-called lower functions, of “mere lust,” and cynical deception, the Miller’s Tale isn’t loaded down with all the high seriousness and sublimation of the Knight’s: this is what they say, anyway.
But why should bawdy cynicism be more “realistic” than a commitment to duty and honor and a willingness to die for one’s beliefs and desires? Why should selfishness, and the belief that you’re the free agent in a world of silly fools who just don’t know how things really are, man be the truth? This self is just as much as ideological carapace as duty and honor.
In general, the preference for realism strikes me as a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to believe that other people have beliefs (or that you too have your own stupid prejudices). It’s a preference that gives us the Reeve’s Tale, which is, if anything, a “more realistic” version of the Miller’s Tale, and that gives us, ultimately, that godforsaken genre, the “Gritty Reboot,” which, as we all know, is ideology critique, consciousness-raising, and desublimination, all at once, but for total jerks.
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.
- 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? ↩