Fractal Prioress

by KARL STEEL

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))

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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?”

“Chaucer.”

“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?