Archives for the month of: October, 2012

One thing that always makes me cringe is reading a medieval English poem with anti-Jewish[1] sentiment. I sink into my chair, hoping that no one can tell that I’m reading it. Anti-Jewish sentiment is uncomfortably common in medieval literature and it’s something you’ll encounter more often than you’d like if you read a lot of it and “to exclude these references would be desirable but… it would be unhistorical: for medieval Christian writers, Synagogue was the blindfold girl with the broken staff, prominently sculpted on their cathedrals.”[2]

We know that we should try to read medieval literature in as close as we can get to its historical and cultural context, but let’s be serious: If I organized a reading of medieval poetry at a local library or café and recited a tale of a little innocent boy, who, while whistling a tune of praise to the Virgin Mary through a Jewish neighborhood had his throat slit by Jews and dropped in a latrine to die – I’d feel compelled to explain the reasoning behind my selection unless I had the sweet and obnoxious naivety of Borat Sagdiyev.

Image

Borat Sagdiyev demonstrates the “Jew Claw” in his guide to “American Hobbies” from Da Ali G Show Season 2: Episode 9 “Politics” (Original airdate: March 7, 2003). Copyright 2003 Talkback, Freemantle Media, HBO, Channel 4.(image: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_GOmXt-DKg)

Depending on how politically correct the audience was, I might even feel obligated to offer some sort of apology for the reading. But let’s get back to how I cringe when I see anti-Jewish material in medieval poetry. I read a lot of Chaucer. 

Most of the cringing I get from Chaucer comes from his corny jokes, but sadly, his works are not without its own anti-Jewish material – though to be fair this material says more about the charaters being portrayed and parodied in his work than his own personal views.

In his Canterbury Tales we have “The Prioress’s tale” which is about an innocent little boy being viciously murdered and cast into a latrine by some evil Jews. It could easily be interpreted on the surface level to both a 14th century audience and a modern one as nothing but a tirade against Jews.

So here we go. If you’ve read this far, you probably won’t be offended – and if you are, well, it’s your own damn fault.

Drama builds as the little boy doesn’t return home from school. His mother asks if anyone has seen her darling little boy. To her horror, she discovers that he was last seen in the Jewish ghetto. 

A searching party is gathered and the mangled, bloody body of the boy is found.

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

But wait! Something miraculous happens.

Though the boy’s throat is cut, he’s singing a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. When he’s asked by a priest how this could be, the boy tells him that the Virgin Mary herself came to him and put a grain under his tongue which brought him back to life. The priest removes the grain from the boy’s mouth, the boy’s body stops singing and his soul ascends to heaven. 

What a miraculous sight! 

The Jews are rounded up and executed without a trial. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Why would Chaucer write something like this? Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, but within the tales themselves, he is only the narrator and a quiet narrator at that. 

We should approach each pilgrim’s story as verbatim quotes from the pilgrims themselves into a reporter’s microphone. 

Since Chaucer is mostly a silent observer anyway, he’s more like a quiet documentary filmmaker than an eye-witness news reporter. 

Of course, there is the occasional aside, and the audience sees its fair share of boom mics, but with the exception of his commentary in the General Prologue, he resigns himself to the role of a quiet cameraman documenting the goings ons of an English pilgrimage to Canterbury. 

Actually, he’s more akin to a producer of a reality show. Well, not really… but let’s consider it. If the prioress character hates Jews, it doesn’t mean that Chaucer shares this sentiment. I mean, of course he kept the camera rolling and put it in the show – but people like trash TV. They seem to have watched it as much in the 14th century as we do today. 

So, if a character on Chaucer’s reality show spews anti-Jewish rhetoric, it’s their voice – not his. Right?

The Prioress tells us this tale of the Virgin Mary’s youngest holy martyr going against the big bad wolves of Jerusalem. The clouds part, the community comes together, kills the evil doers and praises their holy Mother. Problem is, the story isn’t very nice for today’s audience because its bloodthirsty villains are Jewish people.

A modern educated audience understands that these villains are distorted caricatures of Jewish people, but adding all of those disclaimers interferes with the flow of the narrative.

The Prioress starts her tale by describing the boy. He’s an adorable “litel book lernynge,” studying his “prymer” in school minding his own business when, suddenly, he hears a beautiful song. It’s not just any song, it is Alma Redemptoris.

 He absolutely loves it. It’s in Latin and he doesn’t know what it’s about, but he knows that it is something special so he tries to learn to sing it himself even though it’s a song intended for the older boys.

One day, he asks an older boy what the words mean and if he’d help him learn it.

The older boy tells him that it is about the glory of the Virgin Mary. He teaches him how to sing it in secret with the little boy knowing full well that if he studies the big boys’ “antiphoner” he may punished for falling behind in his own “prymer” studies.

Once the boy learns this beautiful song, he finds that it brings him such joy that he just can’t stop singing it!

This litel child, as he cam to and fro,

Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie

O Al redemptoris everemo.

The swetnesse hath his herte perced so

Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye,

He kan nat stynte of snyging by the weye. (1742-47)

The Prioress’s description of the joy in the boy’s heart is full of saccharine. Imagine this boy skipping for joy – or better yet, in the backseat of a car singing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt for five hours straight. We can see how this could be a little irritating for people, but to the prioress this precious little boy could do no wrong. 

He wanders into a Jewish ghetto and the Jews who live there sure are evil. In fact, they are the limbs of Satan. Don’t believe me? The Prioress clearly considers the Jews in the story to be limbs of Satan because she has Satan himself appear in the story. It’s like saying that the Jews fail to consider Jesus Christ God not because they worship the God of the Old Testament or disagree that Jesus is the new prophet or Messiah, but because they worship Satan instead.

Well, as you probably guess, Satan appears and orders the Jews (Hebrayk peple) to kill the boy and they follow his orders.

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“for medieval Christian writers, Synagogue was the blindfold girl with the broken staff, prominently sculpted on their cathedrals” Synagogue (Old Law) 20th century copy on Strasbourg Cathedral. photo: Aidan McRae Thomson (detail) http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4996417314/in/photostream/ see also (New Law) http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4996417778/in/photostream/ and the originals in Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesia_and_Synagoga

How can they find it in their hearts to kill a boy walking through their ghetto? Don’t be silly! Everyone, including the Prioress, knows that Jews have Satan’s wasp nest for a heart! 

As shocking as these anti-Jewish statements seem to us today, there is such hyperbole and ridiculousness to them that, knowing Chaucer’s wit and appreciation for secular classics, this passage should be read as satire of anti-Jewish sentiments held by the many so-called Christians of his day:

Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,

That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest,

Up swal, and seide, “O Hebrayk peple,

allas!

Is this to yow a thing that is honest,

That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest

In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,

Which is again youre laws of reverence?”

Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired

This innocent out of this world to chace,

An homicide thereto han they hyred,

That in an aleye hadde a privee place;

And as the child gan forby for to pace,

This crused Jew hym hente, and heeld hym

faste,

And kitte his throte, and in a pit hym caste. (1748-1761)

Another thing, how did the boy get into this situation? Did he really just wander into the Jewish ghetto? Of course not! He went there. During the middle ages, the Jewish ghetto wasn’t just “the bad side of town” that a little Christian boy crossed through each day on his way to school. 

During the middle ages, the Jews of Western Europe lived in walled ghettos with strict curfews that required them to be locked-in during the night and on Sundays.[3] This little boy walking through the Jewish ghetto is like Jesus marching into the Temple of Jerusalem and knocking over the money changing tables and pigeon coops:

And Jhesus entride in to the temple of God, and castide out of the temple alle that bouƺten and solden; and he turned vpsedoun the bordis of chaungeris, and the chayeris of men that solden culueris. And he seith to hem, It is writun, myn hous schal be clepid an hous of preier; but ƺe han maad it a denne of theues. (Matthew 21:12-13)[4]

It’s a different sort of boldness. It’s a bold innocence. It’s an action that is difficult for people to criticize.

How can you hold a little boy responsible for his actions – especially when he’s singing praise for his Heavenly, matchless maiden mother? 

The boy confronts medieval Christian society’s perceived enemies of Christ with innocent sweetness. Well, isn’t that cute!

Either the boy doesn’t know what he’s doing because he’s just beaming with the joy of the Virgin Mary or he knows exactly what he’s doing: marching bravely into the Valley of Death as Christ’s newest and youngest soldier. 

Whichever one you choose, it’s still blind faith. 

So this leads us to Chaucer’s question: Well, if the Jew represents the blind girl with the broken staff, and this boy is blindly walking into a Jewish ghetto spreading his own recently acquired blind faith, well then, what is blind faith?

Don’t know how to respond? That’s ok, the audience in Canterbury Tales doesn’t know how to respond either. There’s a sobering silence over the entire party.

 


[1] This article follows Esther Zago’s example of using the term “anti-Jewish” instead of “anti-Semetic” to describe the attitudes toward Jews in “The Prioress’ Tale” because anti-Semetic is a “19th century term which shifted the focus of the entire Jewish question from religion to race.” A more detailed explanation of her purpose in using the term “anti-Jewish” and her succinct placement of the Jews in 14th century Britain into historical perspective can be found in her “Reflections on Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’s Tale’” http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1661&context=mff

[2] Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse (Middlesex, 1964), 35.

[3] George Robinson, Essential Judaism (New York, 2000), 468.

[4] Wyclif, John. Matthew 21:12-13 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

Apollo XI and the Saturn V moon rocket (image: Bruce Weaver)

I was reading a particularly amusing post from Christopher Knowles today about why he Hates Saturn and this part especially reminded me once again that we still describe things in similar terms as medieval storytellers:

Either way, when Saturn was transiting through Cancer it was kind of like living with a physically-abusive alcoholic; you never knew what kind of nightmare was going to pop up next. I ended up in the hospital quite a few times and things just generally went to hell. This recent Saturn in Libra thing was more like walking around with fifty pound sacks of wet sand on my back. Everything just ground down, like driving a car with four flat tires. Of course, the daily burden of managing a severe chronic pain condition doesn’t make any of this any easier.[1]

Referencing Saturn’s position (or influence) among the planets is a cliché that medieval storytellers use to explain things going amiss.

Whenever a medieval storyteller needs to say that something went wrong, he can simply point to Saturn’s involvement in the situation. It often serves a comic purpose too (think narrator in an Ed wood movie: “all was pleasant until Saturn appeared …”).

It’s a little more complex than that of course, and life and death situations for man on earth mirror petty
disputes among the gods and vice versa.

A good example of Saturn being used this way in 14th century English literature is in part One of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale [Saturn is mentioned several times in this story following and affecting the action, but first when Palamoun is consoling his friend Arcite while he curses his imprisonment just after he casts his eyes on the beautiful Emelye who will become the cause of a great dispute with his friend which will tragically end in death]:

Cosyn myn, what eyleth thee

That art so pale and deedly on to see?

Why cridestow? Who hath thee doon offense?

For Goddes love, taak al in pacience

Oure prisoun, for it may noon oother be.

Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.

Som wikke aspect or disposicioun

Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun,

Hath yeven us this, although we hadde it sworn:

So stood the hevene whan that we were born.

We moste endure it; this is the short and playn. (1081-91) [2]

 

Did you read your horoscope today?

 


[1] Christopher Knowles, The Secret Sun: Why I Hate Saturn http://www.secretsun.blogspot.com/2012/10/why-i-hate-saturn.html

[2] The Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

Nothing quite gets the blood flowing, nay, gushing and splattering, like a medieval storyteller describing life (and especially death) on the battlefield. The best of them, so beautifully vivid and precise are always garnished with the right touch of hyperbole – were they wading in a river of blood up to their ankles or was it up to their knees?

Wink Barnes (played by Ned Eisenberg) is delighted by the gruesome traffic safety film “Blood Flows Red on the Highway” in the 1985 movie Moving Violations (image: copyright 1985 20th Century Fox / SLM Production Group)

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from Burton Raffel’s translation/rendering of the Middle High German 13th century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied.

Sifried (or Sigurd from the Völsung Legends) left the Netherlands for Burgundy to court princess Krimhild. He hung around King Gunter’s hall for a while, spinning his wheels, when, sure enough, some excitement finally came along. The Danish king Ludegast, and the Saxon lord Ludiger joined forces and threatened to destroy the Burgundians unless they agreed to pay them an obscene amount of money. With everyone in the hall shaking in their boots, Sifried smiled at the chance to show his host (and his prospective bride-to-be – via accounts from messengers) his favorite hobby – hacking and slashing!

 

This passage describes Sifried meeting King Ludegast on the battlefield:

 

Sifried struck so hard     against his shining armor

that iron was broken through,      a blow that only brass

-if that-might have blocked,        and blood spattered the grass

and Ludegast was lost,     suffering sharp, deadly harm.[1]

 

This next one shows us exactly what frame of mind Sifried was in when he spotted the Saxon lord Ludiger:

 

None of the Rhineland men    were ever seen behind him.

rivers of red ran             from his blade in a bloody line,

for where his sword came down      helmets cracked with the blow.

And then he saw Ludiger,      marshaling men, row after row.[2]

 

And finally, here is a nice wide angle shot of Sifried convincing King Ludiger to surrender:

 

The two princes battled       on. Gashes sprung

on helmets everywhere,            shields showed gouges long

and wide, still held in heroes’          hands. And all along

the blood of many men’s bodies             came raining down on the thirsty ground.[3]

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 188, p.28

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 205, p.31

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 212, p.32

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