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meddlesome01

Former FBI Director James Comey giving testimony at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing 6/8/2017

During James Comey’s Testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Senator Angus King asked Comey if he took the language the President used in the Oval office urging him to hold back or stop investigating Michael Flynn to be a directive. Comey answered illustrating the mood of the scene with a quote that all medievalists find familiar:

“Yes. Yes. It rings in my ears of kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

meddlesome02

Senator Angus King questioning James Comey at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing 6/8/2017

King, thinking along similar lines and amused, replied enthusiastically,

“I was just going to quote that! In 1170 December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then the next day he was killed. Thomas à Becket – that’s exactly the same situation. We’re thinking along the same lines.”

It was a short exchange and ended there. Who can say whether it was serendipity, something rehearsed, or simply a reference we’ve all thought in some way or another applies to these “unPresidented” times.

The original Henry II quote varies by source. Some use “meddlesome priest” while others use “turbulent priest.” The actual word was probably troublesome, but if we are using the quote in the context of our current President – we may want to choose a different adjective…

14th century thomas a becket pilgrimage badge

14th century Thomas à Becket pilgrimage badge. Chaucer’s pilgrims may have found one like this in Canterbury. (image: British Museum)

I often have Thomas à Becket in the back of my mind this time of year. Early summer is the best time to read through Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s story collection is framed by a tale of a group of pilgrims representing a sort of cross section of 14th century England making their way on pilgrimage together in early summer to Canterbury to give honor to “the hooly blissful martir” Thomas à Becket and telling tales along the way to pass the time.

I’m a bad Chaucer student this year though. While I was reading Knight’s Tale not too long ago, I haven’t started my annual pass through the full tales – I’ll have to get started “withouten any lenger taryynge.”

Anyway, it was nice to think, “ooh medieval reference” today during yet another reminder of the insanity that is all too commonplace in our country these days.

I’ve had the French children’s song “Dans sa maison un grand cerf” stuck in my head for about a week now.

It’s a song about a stag who, while looking out the window of his house, sees a rabbit coming. The rabbit knocks on the door:

Dans sa maison un grand cerf
Regardait par la fenêtre
Un lapin venir à lui (some say the line is actually l’hui – an old-fashioned word for door)
Et frapper ainsi

The rabbit is being chased by a hunter. He begs the stag to let him in so he won’t be killed:

Cerf, cerf, ouvre-moi
Ou le chasseur me tuera

To which the stag replies, “Rabbit, come inside. Take my hand”:

Lapin, lapin, entre et viens
Me serrer la main

The stag is kind of a king of the forest or noble protector in Western European folklore. The white hart is a symbol of English royalty. In French and English medieval poetry the hunt for the stag (or hart) almost always becomes a spiritual hunt. It changes you forever. Each hunt begins like an ordinary one, but destiny always calls and turns it into a quest.

deer

The Arthurian Romance Erec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes begins with a hart hunt. King Arthur wishes to revive an old custom of hunting le blanc cerf. Not long into the hunt, Erec encounters a knight, a surly dwarf, and a maiden and before he knows it, he’s on a quest. 

In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the Dreamer is pulled from his hart hunt by a ‘whelp’ to the Black Knight – thus begins his quest. 

In Marie de France’s Breton Lay Guigemar, a knight fatally wounds a white deer but the arrow ricochets to pierce his own thigh. The deer tells Guigemar that the only thing that will save him from his wound is the love of a woman. 

The examples go on and on…

Is this children’s song about a deer forced to make the split-second decision to let a rabbit in who is running away from a hunter soaked in medieval symbolism? Probably not. But it doesn’t need to be.

Children who sing this song understand on some level why the deer lets the rabbit in. They might not tell us, but they probably understand some of the risk the deer takes too. Do they see the hunter as just the rabbit’s problem? What if the deer just watched from his home and didn’t answer the door or told the rabbit to go away?

Dealing with refugees is not a simple matter – especially on a global scale – and I don’t mean to over-simplify the issue but there is irony in my having this song stuck in my head lately and I’m sure you see it by now.

Anyway, here’s a version of this chanson d’enfance by the Patapons, maybe it will get stuck in your head too:

 

 

Things are going to slide

Slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing

Nothing you can measure anymore

elstree-1976

I saw Elstree 1976 with a friend at the film space PhilaMOCA on Friday night. They only had two showings and the very low attendance surprised me – could have been lack of promotion but Star Wars fans can usually find out about these kinds of things…

In any case, it was a pleasure to have a private screening of a very interesting film. The film gets its title from a film studio in London called Elstree where many interior scenes from Star Wars (and some from Empire) were shot. In 1976 London, casting agencies were filling bit parts and extras for “another sci-fi film” that became what we know today as Star Wars.

Elstree 1976 provides brief but very fascinating oral histories of a half dozen actors who thought they were doing just another week’s work for the casting office only later to realize that the project became Star Wars.

Some of the people who appeared in the film just wandered into a casting call by following flyers in Soho while others were career actors.

The film explores how the experience affected and continues to affect their lives – for better or worse. It also affords us a glimpse into a very different time in filmmaking and prompts us to wonder why and how Star Wars changed every aspect of not only the sci-fi genre, but movie-making in general.

In all honesty I could watch an 8-part series of one hour episodes of this kind of stuff the way director John Spira put it together.

The film uses very few copyrighted images and footage of the film shown is a handful of frames looped together like cinema quality moving gifs.

There are also very short interludes of slightly moving stills of recreated hallway shots of bored Stormtroopers but they do not seem like “dramatizations” – they simply keep the color palette consistent for the film and seem to convey the “no big deal” attitude that perhaps contributed significantly to Star Wars masterfully achieving its “lived-in” look.

The attention to detail will surprise even those who have memorized Star Wars – for example, we get to know some lady in the Cantina who looks like she wandered off the set of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We learn that the guy who stumbled into the role of the “you don’t need to see any identification” Sandtrooper also found himself in John & Yoko’s Bed-in in the Amsterdam Hilton. The guy who played Greedo thought George Lucas was a grip or an assistant and asked him bring him a coffee when he came to audition.

gold leader

And, of course, there’s a part about a Y-wing fighter reading his lines that will forever change the way you watch that scene.

Elstree 1976 breaks Star Wars down to what it is – storytelling.

I watched the film with the hopes of being a fly on the wall in Elstree studios in 1976 – and the production stories are all very interesting don’t get me wrong about that – but after the film, my friend and I ended up talking more about the actors’ lives after Star Wars than Star Wars itself.

 

Everyone who grew up on Star Wars should watch this documentary at some point. It would be something very nice to watch on a Sunday afternoon.

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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