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? 

Whale Not Watching

IMG_8335Cross-posted to ITM.

I’m in Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference. Today’s papers concluded with a whale watch, expressly framed by the excursion group as a strike against Iceland’s commercial whaling. Currently only 4 other countries commercially whale: Iceland, Norway, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. As we heard, whaling is not some ancient Icelandic tradition, but rather dates only to the introduction of the harpoon gun, by a Norwegian, and the expansion of Norwegian and English whalers into Icelandic waters. After a ban in the early 20th century, whaling resumes in earnest shortly after WWII, and now, only some 3% of Icelanders eat whale regularly; the whale meat of Iceland, rather, serves Japan and tourists, who eat it, thinking that they’re participating in heritage, like others, dripping with blood. We were encouraged to seek out restaurants displaying a BLUE WHALE STICKER, as these are explicitly whale friendly. I extend the same encouragement to you.

As the tour company itself reports, the whale watch wasn’t a straightforward success. We saw a number of animals. From their list: Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Storm Petrel, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Manx Shearwater., Arctic skua, Great skua [terrible birds that live by theft!], and a couple pods of White-Beaked Dolphins. No cetaceans bigger than a dolphin, though: no Minke Whales and certainly no Orcas.

But, again, as the tour company explained, we were watching whales do what whales do, which sometimes  means not showing up for us at all. We knew the whales were out there; and we knew they were whales, for themselves, and not whales for us, when they didn’t show themselves for us. This, then, was a whale watch better than most, because it forced us to a better, truer engagement with whales than the bay-as-menagerie or reservation.

Attendees at the ecomaterialism session earlier in the day agonized a bit over the withdrawn object of some strains of speculative materialism. Well, here’s one model of the withdrawn object, present to us only in its absence, antipathy, or avoidance, but not removed from our ethical concern for all that. Because we should know that the whales are out there, even if not simply available to us, and, if we’re doing things right, we should defend their right to keep themselves hidden from us, who are, so often, especially in Iceland, their destroyers.

(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)


In response to yet another pitch for a paper on ‘medieval oppression of women in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue’

Remember the Middle Ages covers a LOT of ground. We’re talking about Europe, but not only Europe, from roughly the fall of the Roman Empire to roughly the appearance of Protestantism or the invention of the Printing Press or Columbus landing in America or whatever you like, but it’s about 1000 years of stuff over a VERY wide geographic range. The status of women in that whole place is going to be vary a lot.

Furthermore, where the status of women is bad, there’s often not much that particularly medieval about it. Why? Because, say, in England, women had a lot of trouble inheriting property until the 19th or even early 20th centuries; women were barred from most professions until the 20th century, and really, in practice, until the later part of the previous century; women were barred from most government positions, military roles, and you name it, until very recently. The sad condition of women is not particularly medieval but rather, it seems, the norm, and our own era, here in America for example, may be the actual divergence. We didn’t naturally escape the era of gender oppression just by getting out of the Middle Ages: not even close. Knowing how rare women’s rights have been historically, and how recent they are, means that anyone who believes in women’s rights has to fight hard to defend them.

Also, women in fourteenth-century England were better off than they were, say, in fourteenth-century Italy. See Richard Firth Green, “Griselda in Siena,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33.1 (2011): 3-38 for one example of how this works. The condition of women in England in fact worsened significantly in the 16th century, about 200 years after Chaucer, though some women—say, the Queens Mary and Elizabeth – did quite well for themselves. So, again, you’ll want to pay attention to what’s PARTICULAR to women in fourteenth-century ENGLAND.

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.


When is the when of the Physician’s Tale?

Still more Richard Serra at Gagogian
Yet more Serra at, of course, the Gagosian. When is the when of a piece that corrodes?


In re: grading, just wrote this comment in response to one of several paper proposals on the Physician’s Tale and what it says about gender relations in Chaucer’s time:

The question here is which time : after all, Chaucer is writing historical fiction, as were his sources. Livy, who wrote the original story in the 1st century, himself set it in Republican Rome, centuries before he lived. Then some 1300 years later, the Romance of the Rose translated the story into French verse, and then 150 or so years still later, Chaucer used that story to write his tale, while citing Livy, who had lived roughly 1400 years before him.

So when is the when of the Physician’s Tale? What era is this story talking about?

A Rabbit Post for Rebels

Image from the Morgan Library.


Here’s one for Fumblr, the Academic Failblog:

Some years ago, while chatting with my students about hunting, I told them that medieval badgers were ferreted out of their holes and then bashed, as they emerged, with clubs. “Like Whack-a-Mole?,” they asked. “Yes. Precisely.”

And the next day I had to confess I’d made it all up, and not even deliberately.

Nets, not clubs: nets are the thing if you want to hunt a badger.

And then last night: I realized we’d slogged through nearly an entire semester of The Canterbury Tales without once mentioning the risings of 1381. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (“Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meinee” &c, VII.3394 ff.) gave me my entrance, and the animal theme led me to my grand finale: the story of the St Alban’s rebels, who, to show their contempt for the poaching laws, crucified a rabbit.

My students immediately understood the significance. “Is that where the Easter Bunny comes from?”

“I’m…I’m not sure.” I offered what I knew: “The French, they have an Easter bell. Instead of a rabbit.”

“Yes, but they crucified a rabbit. Maybe that’s why we have an Easter Bunny.”

“I’ll ask my friends.”

My friend, in this case, is Thomas Walsingham. And forgive my Latin, because neglect. Feel encouraged to correct me.

Ceperunt quemdam cuniculum vivum, inter eos in plano campi per multitudinem populi vi captum, et in quadam hasta coram se ferri statuerunt, et super collistrigium in villa Sancti Albani, in signum libertatis et warrenae sic adeptae, difixerunt (303)

They seized a certain living hare, taken by force by them in the open field by a great crowd of people, and had it carried among them on a spear and fastened it upon a “collistrigium” (a pillory) as a sign of the liberty and warren thus obtained.

Something quite other than a crucifix.

Still, while searching for collistrigium, I found this odd bit of, I hope, forgotten child-rearing practice:

From here.


Hearing Kneeling – snapshot from tonight’s Friar’s Tale Teaching

From the Friar’s Tale, Jill Mann ed.

“Thow lixt! quod she, ‘By my savacioun,

Ne was I nevere er now, widwe ne wif,

Somoned unto youre court in al my lif,

Ne nevere I nas but of my body trewe.

Unto the devel blak and rough of hewe

Yeve I thy body, and my panne also!’

And when the devl herde hire cursen so

Upon her knees, he seide in this manere: &c.

When the devil HEARD her curse UPON HER KNEES. He heard her on her knees. Really?

I told my students to close their eyes, and I got down on my knees behind my desk and menaced them with a whispered, “Damn you all to hell!”

“So, was I on my knees or not?”

They pretended not to be sure.

How do we know if the old widow’s sincere? I mean, apart from the whole medieval culture of gesture, what kind of synaesthesia does certainty require, when the voice has to be supplemented with gesture in order to be believed? And is this tale, so much about intention vs. words, resolved with action, neo-Donatist or not?

That was tonight’s class. The secret kneeling: highly recommended. The move into demonic synaesthesia: even more recommended.