Antisemitism in chaucer
The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer, was written during the Middle Ages – an unstable period in Western European history. The crises of the Late Middle Ages – the Great Famine, the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Peasants’ Revolt (Goldsmith 417) – led to drastic societal change and social mobility. Chaucer creates controversial religious fgures such as the Summoner, Pardoner, Friar, Monk and Prioress as a commentary on, and means to demonstrate, the change and conflicts in English life, and specifically in the Church at that time.
One of the most interesting portions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the “Prioress’s Tale”. The hypocrisy of this character and the blatant anti-Semitism apparent throughout her Tale are used by Chaucer to demonstrate his views on England’s social upheaval. However, although Chaucer was certainly influenced by the political events of this era, the anti-Semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” appears to be a tool that he uses to highlight the incongruity of the Prioress’s behavior, and thereby provide a lesson to the readers, rather than a reflection of his personal view owards the Jews.
The Prioress tells a tale of a seven-year-old Christian boy returning home from school through a Jewish ghetto in an Asian town. The child’s journey through the ghetto is perceptibly troublesome as the Medieval stance towards Jews is oppressive. As the boy walks home singing Alma Redemptoris Mater, a Marian hymn, Satan says: “O Hebraik peple, allas!
Is this to yow a thing that is honest, that swich a boy shal walken as him lest in you despyt, and singe of swich sentence, which is agayn your laws reverence? ” (Chaucer line 73-77). Satan convinces the Jews to hunt this innocent out of this world” (79) and the Jews of the ghetto hire a murderer to brutally “kitte his throte, and in a pit him caste” (84). However, as the child’s mother searches for her son in the ghetto, the Jews deny knowledge of the child’s location and are ultimately hanged.
The anti-Semitism evident in the Tale stems from what Lawrence Besserman refers to as the “popularly held Christian belief” (67) of the blood libels or blood accusations – “the allegation that Jews murder non-Jews, especially Christians, in order to obtain blood for the Passover or other ituals” – which date back to the second century (“Blood Libel” 1120). Chaucer uses the Tale to reflect upon the blood libels that were ubiquitous during the Middle Ages, beginning with the first medieval blood libel of 1144.
The obvious and abrasive relationship to the blood libel stories leads Besserman to deem the “Prioress’s Tale” “one of the most controversial pieces of religious fiction ever written” (57). Albert B. Friedman argues, however, that the Tale is not actually a representation of the blood libels, for the Christian boy is not crucified ceremonially nor is he killed to provide lood for Passover bread, as the libels suggest. Rather, Friedman states, he is killed merely “because the devil puts it into certain Jews’ hearts to resent the praise of the Virgin which he sings as he passes through the Jews’ street going to and from school” (118).
While Friedman states a valid point, the Tale still reads as a representation of a blood libel because at the end of the Tale, the Prioress links her martyr witn “yonge Hugh ot Lincoln, slayn also witn cursed Jewes” (Chaucer 197-198) – an English boy whom Gillian Bennett recognizes as the subject of a medieval blood libel in 1255 (263-4). Although the phrase “anti-Semitism” was only coined in 1879, a phrase that “came into general use as a term denoting all forms of hostility manifested toward the Jews throughout history’ (“anti-Semitism” 99), the concept and this form of prejudice has evidently been around for centuries.
Jews appeared in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian Era; until the Middle Ages “no sign of singular animosity toward them was discernable” (“anti- Semitism” 101). Prior to their expulsion from England, the Jews were granted religious freedom under the rule of Henry I and the chief Rabbi of London, Rabbi Joseph. However, shortly after Henry’s reign, the Jews were faced with a time of insecurity and brutality. To demonstrate the blatant anti-Semitism during this period, Friedman states, “for every religious who protected a Jew there were hundreds who directed the swords and fanned the fires of destruction” (122).
Friedman portrays the image of the medieval Church as “sheltered [in] an extremely strong tradition of anti- Semitism” for “anti-Semitism was written into the Church’s services” (122), consequently instilling the value of anti-Semitism in almost every Christian during his time. The First Crusade in 1096 triggered a stream of heavy violence against the Jews. The attacks on Jewish communities in France and Germany were so severe that Jewish women often opted to kill their own children rather than watch them get forced into conversion or brutally murdered.
Furthermore, to make the Jews conspicuous, the Fourth Lateran Council required Jews to wear a distinguishing mark – either a hat or a patch – to halt any possible intimate relationships between Christians and Jews. This illiberal proscription eventually led to the widespread, anti- Semitic notion that Jews were physically different from all other humans, the belief that Jews had tails and horns – obvious attributes of the devil (“anti-Semitism” 102).
As anti-Semitism increased with the reign of Edward l, the Jews were expelled in 1290 (Zitter 278) under the Edict of Expulsion, under which all Jews were evicted from England until their return almost four hundred years later. Besserman accurately recognizes that “there were no, or hardly any, Jews in England at the time Chaucer was writing” The Canterbury Tales in the late 1380’s (66). It therefore seems unlikely hat he would be openly anti-Semitic for any reason other than tradition.
However, Friedman points out that one need not meet a Jew to be anti-Semitic. Both Emmy Stark Zitter and Besserman also acknowledge the hostile attitude towards the Jews in England. Zitter claims that not only were “readers in the Middle Ages steeped… in literary and religious tradition of anti-Semitism,” but “anti-Semitism was accepted as a given of the culture in which Chaucer lived” as well (277). Therefore, Besserman adds, anti-Semitism must have been “something which Chaucer as a man of his culture would have accepted without question” (57).
Friedman concludes that “it is foolish to expect Chaucer in 1390 to show egregious charity toward the Jews when such broadmindedness was even impossible for Pascal 250 years later” (120). The relevance of the anti-Semitism mentioned throughout the Tale must, therefore, be considered a product of its time; Chaucer writes of the anti-Semitism not to be outwardly anti-Semitic, but in part because it was simply the norm and unproblematic for him to do so. Furthermore, it may be argued that Chaucer’s anti- Semitic tone is meant to be innocuous to demonstrate the hypocrisy and irony ot the
Prioress, and that by no means is it intended as an attack on the Jews of the Middle Ages. Zitter explains that the Jews were used solely as “conventional figures” (278); as anti-Semitism was accepted during this time, it allowed for Chaucer to use the Jews and the accompanying anti-Semitism simply as tools to enable the focus to be placed on the Prioress to highlight her mendacity. Friedman quotes E. T. Donaldson, who states, Chaucer, “an intelligent man and great poet, is in no way limited,” but rather it is the “narrowly limited Prioress who can find no better way of expressing her eligion than this” (120).
Friedman then elaborates on this point by explaining “if one is bent on removing the stain of anti-Semitism from Chaucer, the obvious strategy is to displace it onto the Prioress. The dramatic principle on which The Canterbury Tales is constructed conveniently sanctions this move, for since the poem is a dramatic action, the attitudes of the dramatis personae and the multiple auctorial personae cannot be automatically construed as Chaucer’s own” (120).
The reader should not assume that the anti-Semitism is Chaucer’s own belief. Rather, it is the orruption of the Church and the disorder of society at that time – an underlying theme throughout The Canterbury Tales – that allow for Chaucer to use an anti- Semitic lens to delineate the Prioress’s hypocrisy. The Prioress, an ordained influential and seemingly pious Christian figure, strays from her traditional role as a nun. The “General Prologue” describes the various things the Prioress does to seem admirable and proper.
Although she is said to be charitable, attractive, and have proper etiquette – all positive attributes – the Prioress is specifically described by uperficial displays of knowledge. In addition to recognizing her ability to speak French, Chaucer describes how the Prioress “leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe”, acknowledging her pleasant table manners (“General Prologue” 127-8) – irrelevant to her status as a nun.
Additionally, she feeds her dog meat, uses foul language, and wears a brooch that reads “Love Conquers All” – most likely referring to courtly love, a love of which a nun should not know. She is portrayed by her surfaced knowledge, rather than by her knowledge and activity of religious duties. As a devout Christian, the Prioress does honor Mary, a Jewish Israelite woman, yet she also participates in the medieval condemnation and hatred of the Jews. For this reason, Chaucer uses the Prioress as one example to demonstrate the corrupt Church during the Medieval Era.
In contrast to all that was previously stated, several critics believe Chaucer’s controversial nature and use of anti-Semitism in his work was by all means intentional. Besserman suggests, “our disparate ideological prejudices influence our critical practice once we have acknowledged that ideological commitments of one sort or another are always to ome extent part of the baggage we bring to our readings of works of literature, we can then decide to choose our ideological commitments, make them explicit, and perhaps even share them with an expanding community of like-minded readers” (48).
In essence, according to this line of thought, Chaucer made a decision to overtly bring in anti-Semitism, whether it was a cultural norm or not, and in doing so, he “participated in the unmaking of the voice of the Jew” (Besserman 58). Regardless of Chaucer’s intentions, whatever they may be, Besserman seems to suggest that the resence of the Tale’s anti-Semitism contributed to the detestation of the Jews and this may place Chaucer among the medieval anti-Semites.
Another argument made by Besserman is that “the Old Testament is full of loathing and many medieval Jewish writings openly express abomination for the foreigner and militancy against the enemy” (61). Besserman expresses that Judaic culture has not been one free from violence, and therefore, it is not wholly unjust to assume that the Tale is accurate. However, in terms of “The Prioress’s Tale,” this notion is negated, as Louise
Fradenburg explains, by the fact that “there is no evidence to suggest that Jews are engaged, in the Middle Ages in the kinds of ritual or secret violence attributed to them by stories ilk “The Prioress’s Tale”” (110-11). Additionally, Merrall Llewelyn Price argues that the Prioress serves as “a framing device that has allowed some of Chaucer’s defenders to find enough authorial irony to clear him of charges of anti- Semitism” (197). Price finds it almost coincidental that Chaucer is able to project his personal view of anti-Semitism on the Prioress.
In conjunction with Price’s ideology, erhaps Chaucer created religious figures that deviate from what was traditionally expected in order to demonstrate such bold opinions. According to Price, Chaucer is, in a sense, playing “with ideas of narratorial responsibility” and “effectively disclaiming responsibility for [the Prioress’s] entire narrative” by shifting the responsibility onto the Prioress herself (205). Because the “Jews were inevitably cast as the most insidious enemies” of Christianity, Friedman believes, “the Tale could not help but keep alive the hatred of Jews” (127).
Zitter begs the question: if Chaucer was nly “drawing upon the popular medieval conception of Jews in his tale”, is the reader meant to see the Prioress as an ideal nun or is the Prioress a rather “imperfect nun telling a perfectly acceptable tale (278)”? Zitter ultimately responds to this complexity by stating that the “Prioress’s treatment of the Jews” still adjudges her to be “undoubtedly guilty as seen through medieval eyes – and on her “unchristian” demand for adherence to the law” (278).
Whether anti-Semitism was a cultural norm and accepted during the Medieval Era or not, a nun is meant to be pious and loving. Therefore, Besserman concludes, “Chaucer was out to problematize an affirmative reading of the Prioress’s piety” (66). The anti-Semitism emphasizes the Prioress’s hypocrisy. What is most complicated about this Tale is that the modern reader will view it through a post-Holocaust lens, automatically grasping and recognizing a harsh anti-Semitic tone.
The Tale is certainly, as Friedman states, “what seems to modern eyes a terrible prejudice” as we are now fully aware and conscious of its anti-Semitism (119). However, a reader in the time of Chaucer or even pre- Holocaust and pre-“anti-semitism” days would be most likely to believe that the egative sentiment towards the Jews was simply of medieval nature and was not necessarily intended as a form of prejudice.