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When reading transcriptions of medieval poetry, it’s easy to forget that they were often heard performed not only in verse, but also in song with musical accompaniment. One wonders which familiar melodies drove the meters of some of Marie de France’s lays or the Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Marie de Champagne had Chrétien collect, collate, preserve, and embellish the Arthurian “chansons.” We cannot say for sure what prompted this commission. Were the stories naturally becoming popular again? Did Marie de Champagne have issue with the older versions of the tales? Was there need of translation from Latin and local languages? Was the arts culture going through – as ours is now – a reboot and remake period?

The subject of most of these tales was courtly love – they were written not only with the court woman in mind, but possibly even for the court woman. Was this a medieval form of real marriage counseling? What advice, suggestions, warnings were meant for the men to hear? What was meant for the women to hear? Was there an attempt to dispel or possibly even confirm relationship stereotypes? To what extent was the need or want for gender discussion part of this literary movement – or are we just assuming there was a deliberate social agenda at all? Was the court leading or directing the literary culture of its day, trying to keep up with it, or both? Was there an underlying social agenda behind the resurgence and popularizing of these tales? Was this a sort of a medieval MeToo (#MedievalToo) movement or just entertainment?

brittanyspears

(wish I could claim credit for this, but alas, I cannot. Go internet!)

So the next time I read Guigemar, or, let’s be honest – just about anything from the Lays of Marie de France [(c.1160-1215) – not to be confused with Marie de Champagne (1145-1198)] concerning a cloistered woman or a man and woman trying to work things out in their relationship I’ll wonder if there was a movement happening in England (where Marie de France was writing – Henry II’s court) and France (where Chrétien was writing) that is anything like what we are seeing today.

drapeaubretagne

My son Morgan was flying a little Breton flag around the house recently

 

marco polo

So you know Marco Polo the Venetian? The story goes Marco Polo told this French guy all about his travels while he was in prison in Genoa. The first manuscript of The Travels of Marco Polo is 13th century and was written in Old French. Anyway, one of the little stories[1] he heard was from his brothers Nicolas and Maffeo when they were in Jordan. They heard about these Christians who had a flame in their temple that was so popular people came from miles around to light their lamps with it because it was Holy light, etc. – sort of like a relic. When the Magi (or, the Three Kings) went to visit baby Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were to test the prophet. If the prophet chose the gold he was only an earthly king and if he chose the myrrh he was a physician – but if he chose the frankincense he was truly a prophet. Well, it turns out the baby Jesus accepted all three gifts and gave them a little box in return.

On their way home the Magi opened the little box to see what was inside. It was a little stone – meant to symbolize their faith in Christ – steadfast, like a rock, etc. Well, that symbolic meaning went straight over their heads and they thought it was a stupid gift so they threw the stone in a well. At that moment, a huge blast of fire came from the heavens, hitting the stone, and setting it alight. It has been burning ever since. So that’s why people come to visit the temple.

Now, I can’t tell whether this temple was a major pilgrimage spot in 13th century Jordan or if some rural village was just enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame while Nicolas and Maffeo Polo were passing through. It is interesting though, that in the Medieval World stories were written to embellish Biblical sources. A couple of interesting ones are the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament and The Three Kings of Cologne. The latter is kind of like a “Further Adventures and exploits of the Three Kings.” It’s a text with a strong Christian message told in the style of a medieval travel narrative. The Three Kings’ characters are fleshed out in this text. We know their names, where they’re from, and what they do after visiting the baby Jesus besides not returning to King Herod and going home by another route – but more importantly, the text gives you an idea of how the author thought various Temples and newly formed sects responded to the news of the Christ’s birth.

Though the little box and fiery stone gift from baby Jesus is not mentioned in the The Three Kings of Cologne, the text mentions that their gifts were meant to test the baby Jesus.[2] The text does mention, however, another “relic” collected from the nativity, adding that cringe-worthy touch of anti-Jewish sentiment found in most Medieval Christian texts written for a popular audience.

After the Kings traveled around, relating their tale of having seen the Christ, Mary grew frightened that the Jews would come and get her, so she went underground (literally) into a dark cave and waited there until things calmed down a little:

“þer bygan to wex a grete fame of oure lady and of her childe and of þes .iij. kyngis alle aboute. wherfore oure lady for drede of þe Iwes fledde oute of þat litil hows þat crist was bore in, and went in to an oþir derke Cave vndir erþe: and þere sche abode with her childe til þe tyme of her Purificacioun.”[3]

madona de la late

Madonna Suckling the Child, in Venetian vernacular known as the Madona de la late, panel, 13th-14th century. Venice, Museo di S. Marco. Image: Venice: Art & Architecture, Könemann.

While Mary was in that cave she sat on a stone and nursed the baby Jesus. Some of her breast milk sprayed on that stone. Sometime later, the cave was turned into a chapel and became a pilgrimage spot. It still had that stone and it still had milk too. If the stone was scraped with a knife, it would spray some of Mary’s breast milk. Just imagine going to a pilgrimage spot and hearing the guide say, “And Behold the everlasting milk still flows! For a small donation you can take a few drops!” That’s not the only mention of stones and the baby Jesus in Three Kings. More detail is given about the star they saw that signified the Christ was born. Its edges resembled that of a cornerstone.

So, according to The Three Kings of Cologne, after they described the star to people, it was pretty fashionable to put it on all the temples that had decided to follow Jesus. So I guess they did get the metaphor after all – you know, Jesus being like a stone at a strong building’s foundation.

[1] My telling of this tale is loosely adapted from Yule-Cordier’s edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

[2] Makes me think of the Dalai Lama choosing his glasses!

[3] John of Hildeshesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne: an early English translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”, ed. C. Horstmann. available online

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.

Image

“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).

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