Thursday, August 10, 2006

Quote of the day: Lee Patterson

For a project I've been working on for, well, forever that examines the representation of little boys as not-quite-human, I've been re-reading Lee Patterson's essay "'The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption': Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer's Prioress's Tale" (JMEMS 31 [2001] 507-60). It's an extraordinary piece of work, excavating the densely sedimented "temporal strata" that form one of Chaucer's most challenging tales.

The essay returns repeatedly to the mutual influence that medieval Christians and Jews exerted upon each other's identities, with both groups altered by coexistence. As has been well argued, the Expulsion of 1290 didn't put an end to Christian-Jewish relations in a now Jew-free England (see especially the work of Sylvia Tomasch and Steven Kruger). Patterson extends this line of thinking to the story of the "litel clergeon" by detailing that strange little boy's Jewish ancestry (or, more precisely, the Jewish history that clings to his imperiled body despite an ardent attempt by the Prioress to render him unstained by the temporal).

Patterson is attentive to how Jewish voices might emerge within Christian texts. Some verses given to an angry Jew in the Fleury Playbook drama of St Nicholas become an "attempt by a Christian composer to imitate the Hebrew hymn [the Aleynu] sung by the burning Jews" incinerated by Theobald of Blois in 1171. Unlike every other version of this story, the Jew in the Fleury version of the drama is never called upon to convert, but coexists happily with a St Nicholas who aids him and demands no identity change. Patterson observes:
What we have ... is an almost utopian moment of religious harmony between the old religion and its new offspring. The new represents the future, to be sure, but a future that - at least here, and at least for a moment - is careful to preserve rather than annihilate its past (534).

He then goes on to detail how the Jewish kiddush ha-Shem (used here to mean the sanctification of the name of God through a suicide or child sacrifice that prevents forced conversion) echoes in the Prioress's Tale and its analogues. Patterson concludes:
The Jews of the Prioress's Tale have no voice at all: they are simply creatures possessed by Satan whose bodies perform certain actions and have other actions performed upon them. Yet not the least irony of the tale is that the Prioress herself also has no voice: she surrenders it--or so she thinks--to an institutional authority that guarantees its transcendence of the merely human and the merely historical. Yet within her mimicry, unbeknownst to her, there lurk the very voices she has sought to silence. In handing herself over to the Marian miracle and the liturgical drama she has also handed herself over to the history from which those genres sprang and to which they continue to bear witness. For these apparently most Christian of forms can never shed the Jewishness from which they emerged. Try as she might, a pure Christendom is unavailable to her: alone among the 33 versions of the tale, hers is set in an eastern country where both Christians and Jews are subordinated to a foreign, presumably Islamic sovereignty. And this inability even to imagine a pure Christianity, purged of the taint of the foreign, is Chaucer's comment on the futility of trying to escape from history. Whether the Prioress likes it or not, Christianity and Judaism are linked together not just in the past but in the present and--as we ought by now to have learned --in the future as well.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

And it isn't just that, after 1290, England wasn't really "Jew-free" [whatever that might mean], but even long before the Conquest that the figure of the Jew [Biblical, spectral, and otherwise] played an important role in the English cultural imagination. The most important book on this point, and one that, to my dismay, I don't see cited as often as Kruger, is:


This book is amazing and attends to a long-neglected subject in Old English studies: early English anti-Semitism, as well as the positive role that Judaism played in early English Christianity [viz. its construction of its "ancestral" history"]. This book also demonstrates the importance of understanding how certain "racial" and other types of prejudice often begin with imaginary tropes and bodies, but move, inexorably, toward real bodies. This is often misunderstood.

When I attended a NEH Institute on "Anglo-Saxon England" in Cambridge, UK [summer of 2004], some of us wanted to talk about the anti-Semitism of Aelfric's sermons, saints' lives, etc. We [well, there were just two of us, actually, out of twenty-five] were told that anti-Semitism was the wrong "phrase" for it, because there were no Jews in Anglo-Saxon England. End of discussion. And it was.

First, how do we know there were never ever never *any* Jews in A-S England? Second, even if the only Jews who came to England only did so after the Conquest, why do we think anti-Semitism cannot exist except in the presence of "real" Jews? In any case, Scheil's book, thankfully, puts that kind of resistance to the discussion to rest.