Wednesday, September 12, 2007

“Free and Open at Eyther Ende,” or Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

(Image from here: Strange but Trewe)

I stumbled across an interpretation Tuesday in the course of teaching the Prioress's Tale. As I said it, it sounded familiar to me, but I've gone through my notes with some fine teeth (mine) and haven't been able to turn up anyone else who's said it. So bear with me, read along, and if what I'm saying sounds familiar, please let me know.

It's well-known that the ritual murder charge is often also one of anthropophagy. The late twelfth-century, and, it should be said, highly ironic chronicler Richard of Devizes records or invents a charge at Winchester in which an immigrant laborer disappears on Good Friday. His friend accuses a Jew of the crime with “isti unicum sodalem meum iugulavit, presumo etiam quod manducavit” (this man has cut the throat of my only friend, and I presume he has eaten him, too!). The chronicle of the monastery of Saint Peter of Gloucester writes that when Harold of Gloucester was murdered, he was (and here I quote at length because I can't readily turn up any translations: so my quick and very dirty translation of this little bit might help scholars looking for a crib, or it might help you help me with that word "acellis," since neither my Lewis and Short nor the online Du Cange want to cooperate: update thank you Nicola Masciandaro):
Nam tandam visum est medium duobus ignibus interpositum miserabiliter latera, tergum, nates, cum genibus, manibus, pedum quoque plantas torruerunt, defixas circa capitis ambitum spinas, et sub utrisque acellis, ardente quoque adipe veluti assatura carnis fieri solet guttatim in tota corporis superficie distillata..." (20-21)

For at last it was seen that he was been placed between two fires, and his flanks, back, buttocks, with his knees, hands, and the heels of his feet wretchedly roasted, and he had thorns wrapped around his head, and under each ACELLIS armpit, and just as if he had become roasted meat, blazing fat had been dripped drop-by-drop all over the surface of his body...
There's also the narrative of the murder of Adam of Bristol, whose full and jaw-droppingly bizarre details I won't go into here, just yet. In it, Samuel, the paternal head of a murderous Jewish family, refers to his victim, Adam, as “porcellum meum” (my little pig [which is strange: check my * below]). Samuel threatens to roast Adam by the fire rotisserie-style like a plump chicken (as Samuel says, "ego regirabo," and adds “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”). Prior to the roasting, Samuel's wife cuts off Adam's nose and lips, using the knife customarily used to cut her bread (“cultello quo solebat incidere panem”). Moreover, the family plans the torments over a feast, so as the murderous family eats, it plans the disposal of the body that will be treated like edible flesh, that is, eventually deposited in a latrine and pissed on by Samuel.

It's usual for the corpse in a ritual murder story to end up in such a place. This is what happens in the Prioress's tale, where the Jews "in a wardrobe ... hym threwe / Where as thise jewes purgen hire entraille,” although, strictly speaking, the Prioress's Tale is not a ritual murder: however much Satan swelled up and reminded the Jews that their law was being scorned, the murder seems to be occasioned by irritation rather than by ritual necessity. And there's no anthropophagy (at this point, imagine an ominous foreshadowing noise here, perhaps with this famous moving image swelling up in your sight).

All of this is a kind of hors d’œuvre for what I promised in my first paragraph, namely, an interpretation of the shape of the Ghetto in the Prioress's tale (see another aside below). Because the ghetto is “free and open at eyther ende,” the little clergeon can make his way through it, singing his Alma redemptoris the whole way until he meets his end. But, as I observed in my (8am!) class on Tuesday, he also meets the Jews' end, because, after all, what else is open at both ends and ends in a latrine?

(if you need a hint, look at the photo above)

I'm sure it's been said before that the Ghetto in the Prioress's Tale functions as a kind of corpus Judaeorum. What does that get us in terms of interpretation? I'm not entirely sure yet. I'll share with you what I told my students, but I don't want to take this any further until I know I'm not just filling someone's else's footprints, compelled unwittingly to follow by the memory of their passage through the critical swamp (and I'll end the metaphor here). We have witnessed anthropophagy, albeit in a disguised form, and indeed we'll witness it (disguised) again, when the boy's body processes through the town to the church in a kind of Corpus Christi parade, and when the Abbot takes the greyn, which, whatever it might be, necessarily recalls the Eucharist. We might, then, if we wanted to push at this reading, see the tale as referencing debates and exempla about the indomitable purity of the Eucharist even when it's threatened with transformation into feces by the ritual of the Eucharist itself. But that's perhaps rather too much. It's much simpler to see the main street of the Jewerye (or Juerie) as an alimentary canal, and the Jewerye as the body of the Jews. As I said to my students, this approach heightens the logic of revenge: a Christian body that functions as the corpus Christianorum has been destroyed, so there's a Jewish body destroyed in turn. The collective punishment is also the punishment of a single urban body. So, where to take this?

* Strange because there's such an emphasis (dare I say slapstick emphasis) placed on Jewish food codes later in the story, after Samuel has murdered his family (who had the gall to apostatize) and fled to his sister's house, both out of guilt and out of fear of the inconvenient angel standing guard over Adam's body, that is, in the latrine. When several credulous Irish priests show up in Bristol, Samuel and his sister offer them lodgings, hoping to trick them into getting the boy's holy corpse out of the latrine away from the angel. Here's the conversation once Samuel's sister offers the priests some food. Pardon my stilted translation:
“Quales carnes vultis habere ad edendum?” Cui sacerdos: “O domina, carnes porcinas.” Et illa: “Carnes porcine non sunt bone nec sane in hac urba, quia plene sunt lepra et commedunt stercora hominum in plateis. Set dabo vobis carnes bovinas, et .3es. gallinas crassas vobis et nobis.”

“What sort of meat do you wish to have to eat?” The priest replied, “O mistress, pork.” She said, “Pork isn't good or healthy in this town, since it is measly/leprous and they [the pigs] eat human excrement in the street. But I will give you beef and three fat chickens for you and your retinue.”

Another Aside: I should say Jewish Ghetto: remember that this story does not take place in a Christian city. One might just as well presume that this unnamed Asian city had a Christian ghetto too, one surrounding the Jewish quarter, but ultimately, one that was itself a quarter: could we take the several prepositions that open the tale this way? "There was in Asye (i.e., not in Europe), in a greet citee (i.e., not in the country or in a little city) / amonges Cristene folk (i.e., a subset of the city, just as the city is a subset of Asia) / a Jewerye" (a subset of the Christian quarter). Perhaps this helps explain why the Jews suffer something that recalls (to me, anyway) the punishment for treason (drawing and hanging). The "lord of that contree" sustains the Jews "for foule usure and lucre of vileynye," but as this is not a Christian city, one wonders for what purposes the lord sustains the Christians? And I wonder, then, if the Jewish crime isn't so much murder as it is an attack on the lord's own person, just as an attack on the Jews in many Western European places could also be an attack on people who "belonged" to the king. This is just a suggestion, and one, I should say, inspired by Joseph Kugelmass's excellent reading (not a Chaucerian deferral of responsibility, but an acknowledgment).

PS. What's the space between ABD and PhD called? Because that's where I am. Defended last Thursday, did the revisions yesterday, and now just need to run the bureaucratic gauntlet. CU confers its degrees only a few magical times during the year, so even if I were to turn this thing in today, I wouldn't have my degree until the middle of October. I cannot help but float now through a liminal space, annoyingly in the middle.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Superimpose some apples and honey on that digestive system and you have the perfect Rosh Hashanah post.

Off the top of my head I can't recall if there is some famous interpretation of the tale from such a gastroenterological point of view. About 15 years ago, when I was in graduate school, a student one year ahead of me named Bill Bennet delivered a conference paper in which he used Freud on filth and lucre and a mapping of the ghetto as a digestive system to read the narrative. But he never entered the academy, and as far as I know never published the piece.

I like the complexity that you give the confused Jewish-Christian space. If it is a digestive tract, it's one that fosters dyspepsia.

On a different topic: CONGRATULATIONS Karl on being done. I owe you a drink. An expensive one.

Karl Steel said...

Bill Bennet on filth and lucre? Funny homonymic connection.

I like the complexity that you give the confused Jewish-Christian space. If it is a digestive tract, it's one that fosters dyspepsia.

Absolutely, and that's the direction I should be taking this.

Re: drink-buying. You could mail me some champagne, so long as you're in the box with it. I suppose we can just making JKW your drink-buying agent: I know he's up to the job.

Karma said...

Congratulations on your defense!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yay! And I think most hiring committees and friends consider you done when the things is signed, accepted, and defended ... ceremonies are non-obligatory!

And I haven't read the post carefully (marking first essays by tomorrow!), but this comes up in Pliny's letter to Trajan LXX or LXXI, I think, kinda, in reference to the Christians.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Congratulations Karl! I know it must be a relief to have the defense and everything done.

Isn't the liminality of those in-between moments of the grad-school thing weird? I'm in one myself -- post-orals, pre-MPhil (ah bureaucracy), and not quite ready to think of myself as ABD. Very strange. Though I'm heartened, somehow, to see that this isn't the last time I'll find myself "in the middle."

Celebration must ensue! :-D I look forward to shaking the hand of a newly minted Doctor of Philosophy, and living proof there's light at the end of the proverbial tunnel here at good old CU.

bwhawk said...

This will sound mostly like an echo, but congratulations, Karl. Glad to see such a landmark finally achieved, and I look forward to seeing where you go from here.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Karl. I hope the academy realizes how lucky it is to have you.


Nicola Masciandaro said...

A couple of thoughts on this rich gastrointestinal gloss.

Though the Jews do not eat or cook the boy they dispose of him as if he had been eaten, suggesting the possibility that his body is symbolically something like undigested, indigestible food, a body that cannot be incorporated within another body.

Which mirrors the ghetto, Jewry as a body within the Christian body. As the geography suggests, the Jewish community is a body within the Christian body, existing within it even in transplanted or exiled form in Asia, which proves an essential, dependent relation, the dialectical contingency of Christianity upon Judaism (as other, Augustine's witness, etc.)

Ghetto as cloaca. Works both with social body models and discourses of urban pollution.

All of which could be taken in the direction of understanding the Prioress along the arc between kitsch as denial of shit and the sacred as encounter with evil.

“Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence” (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

“It is, in fact, because evil is supremely the crucial experience of the sacred that the threat of a dissolution of the bond between man and the sacred makes us most intensely aware of man’s dependence on the powers of the sacred” (Paul Ricoeur, Symbolism of Evil, p. 6)

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I think "acellis" means armpits. See Du Cange, s.v. ascella.

Eileen Joy said...

KARL: another CONGRATULATIONS! A bit belated, so forgive me. Champagne all around. No, martinis. No, limoncellatinis. Yes, that's it, with an alligator tooth on the rim. No, you wouldn't like that. Evian cocktails! That's it! With a sidecar of absinthe. Now we're set.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm waaaaayyyy behind on blogs, so I just wanted to pop in here and say congratulations, Karl! And also: *fantastic* reading of this tale!

Anonymous said...


I just noticed an interesting verbal echo:

Prioress' tale

For it was free and open at eyther ende

Pardoner's tale

O wombe! O bely! O stinkinge cod,
Fulfilled of donge and of corrupcioun!
At either ende of thee foul is the soun.

"Either" way, perhaps you got this one already since it's been months since this post, but I thought I'd throw it in just to make sure. I'm currently prepping my own Prioress class.

Yours in recent Phdness,


Karl Steel said...

BLB: oh, that's good. Thanks a lot, and thanks for remembering the post, and I hope the earthquake doesn't shake you up.