Brenda Schildgen

title.none: Delany, ed., Chaucer and the Jews (Brenda Schildgen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.004 04.12.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brenda Schildgen, UC Davis,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Delany, Sheila, ed. Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings. Series: The Multicultural Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xi, 258. $90.00 0-415-93882-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.04

Delany, Sheila, ed. Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings. Series: The Multicultural Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xi, 258. $90.00 0-415-93882-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Brenda Schildgen
UC Davis

In the late Middle Ages, the official record bears painful witness to the decided turn against Jews. Papal bulls speak of the situation of the Jews and the responsibilities of Christians in relationship to Jews with the evidence of increasing hostility through the thirteenth century (Solomon Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century). Indeed, beginning with the 1179 Lateran Council that re-instated anti-Jewish laws from the early Church, Christians could neither work for Jews nor live near them. By the end of the twelfth century, synagogues began to be confiscated, and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) introduced the ignominious law that Jews had to wear badges to distinguish themselves. Matthew Paris records Christian attacks on Jews in Norwich, Stamford, Bury St. Edmonds and York (1190)(Chronica Maiora). In the early fourteenth century, the popes were sanctioning the conversion of synagogues into churches. At the same time, inquisitions supported by pope, religious orders, and "pious" kings like Louis IX led to the burning of the Talmud and other persecutions of Jews. In the thirteenth century in France and England, certainly, Jews progressively lost all legal rights. These persecutions had begun with the crusades when military and political actions sponsored by popes, kings, and the nobility, or just mob violence, resulted in massacres, expulsions, and pogroms. William of Tyre's twelfth century Chronicon, describing one of these attacks as the crusading army moved across Germany, writes, "They cruelly massacred the Jewish people in the cities and towns through which they passed, for the latter, having no reason to fear anything of the kind, took no precautions" (chapter 29). In England, in York in the twelfth century the Jewish community had been murdered in what has been called the worst case in the history of medieval English Jewish history. All the French kings in the thirteenth century maintained an anti-Jewish policy leading finally to Philip the Fair's expulsion and confiscation of their possessions in 1305.

Despite this history of ecclesiastical repression, mob violence, and expulsions, Jewish culture also flourished in the Middle Ages, one of its richest periods for literature, philosophy, science, and medicine, not to mention Bible studies that were both philological and theological. One thinks immediately of major figures like Moses Maimonides, of Ibn Gabirol, and of Shmuel HaNagid, all of whom lived in medieval Iberia. Jewish scholars made an essential contribution to the Victorine biblical work of the twelfth century, just as Nicholas of Lyre, a Jewish convert to Christianity, brought his skill with the literal (philological) dimension of the Bible to his Christian biblical work. Scholars have long recognized the intensity of cultural exchange among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in medieval Iberia, in Sicily, and in several Italian cities including Venice, Pisa, and Verona, for example. Scholars have highlighted the multiculturalism at courts in both Iberia and Italy.

Chaucer and the Jews, edited by Sheila Delany, of course, does not deal with this "other" Jewish Middle Ages, partly because the English lens tends to overlook Southern Europe while also disconnecting Chaucer from the cosmopolitan Europe that he certainly knew. The collection, although it includes a number of more nuanced discussions of Judaism and its treatment by Chaucer and other English writers in his period, focuses on the first, the historically tragic story of European Judaism. The collection includes fourteen essays. Part one has five essays: Christine M. Rose, "The Jewish Mother-in- Law: Synagoga and the Man of Law's Tale"; William Chester Jordan, "The Pardoner's 'Holy Jew'"; Sheila Delany, "Chaucer's Prioress, The Jews, and the Muslims"; Jerome Mandel, "'Jewes Werk' in Sir Thopas"; and Sylvia Tomasch, "Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew." Part two shifts to "Chaucerian Contexts" and includes Mary Dove, "Chaucer and the Translation of Jewish Scriptures"; Timothy S. Jones, "Reading Biblical Outlaws: The 'Rise of David' Story in the Fourteenth Century"; Nancy L. Turner, "Robert Holcot and the Jews"; Denise L. Despres, "The Protean Jew in the Vernon Manuscript"; Eliza Narin Van Court, "The Siege of Jerusalem and the Augustinian Historians: Writing About Jews in Fourteenth-Century England"; and Anthony B. Bale, "'House Devil, Town Saint': Anti- Semitism and Hagiography in Medieval Suffolk." Part three includes three essays under the rubric, "Chaucer, Jews, and Us." This comprises an essay by Colin Richmond, "Englishness and the Medieval Anglo-Jewry"; Gillian Steinberg, "Teaching Chaucer to the 'Cursed Folk of Herod'"; and Judith S. Neaman, "Positively Medieval: Teaching as a Missionary Activity." Following the essays are a list of contributors, selected bibliography, and index.

The third part of this collection, perhaps the most innovative, because it deals with the institutional settings in which Chaucer has been taught, is enlightening and useful. Richmond's essay, previously published in The Jewish Heritage in British History, edited by Tony Kushner (1992), discusses curriculum, reference books, and institutional history. It draws attention to what I suspect is the most unsettling aspect of racial and cultural prejudice, particularly in England and at Oxford where he begins his essay. He writes that "ordinary people are far less gullible than intellectuals: the anti- Semitic notions of monks and friars had far less impact than credulous historians tell us they had" (224). Listing several English cities, he says, "Christians and Jews rubbed along as neighbors," but when the kings got the notion about what it was to be English and English was defined as Christian English, then it becomes "the governing elite who first equate Englishness with non-Jewishness" (224). Richmond's is one of the few essays in the collection that succinctly connects nation-building with repression of minority groups and yet, this is the most important feature of the increased hostility against the Jews beginning in the second millennium. England, France, and Spain share this common experience: repression of minorities to forge and sustain national identity. This is a grim lesson for our own times. In this section, Neaman's and Steinberg's essays also describe instructional situations that must deal with religion in the classroom, and both are useful for teaching any medieval text to students who reject or hold to religious beliefs.

Part two is the most successful and persuasive section of the book. There are good reasons for this. Like Richmond's essay in Part three, essay after essay in Part two is grounded in history, based on primary texts, and depends on clear and efficient writing to make its point. In particular, Nancy Turner's "Robert Holcot on the Jews" is a solid, well-researched, and well-written piece. Similarly, Denise Despres, in "The Protean Jew in the Vernon Manuscript" offers a thoughtful and provocative argument. In fact, examining a single manuscript like the Vernon proves very fruitful. Such an approach to the topic of the book helps the writer avoid grand generalizations and theoretical propositions, leading her to write that "Vernon's generically rich collection of texts featuring Jews considerably complicates any attempt to define the idea of the Jew in fourteenth- century England" (149). Eliza Narin Van Court's "The Siege of Jerusalem" also argues for a more complex and less binary, Manichaean view of a text that on the surface appears blatantly offensive to a modern post-Holocaust reader.

Part one of the collection, however, reveals some problems that result from far-fetched and vague theoretical musings as well as argumentum e silentio. Sylvia Tomasch, in "Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew," follows Richmond's and Shapiro's argument that "Englishness" was defined against Jewishness. So far so good, but when Tomasch moves to specifics, like "the Old Man" in the Pardoner's Tale who "emblematizes many of the most popular and pernicious anti- Judaic fantasies in the Middle Ages" (74), or equates Chaucer's England (I assume that raucous, drunken, contentious, rowdy, corrupt, devious, naive, as well as pious "flok" of the Canterbury Tales) with a "purified England" (77), or stretches the Monk's version of Samson so that it "dissociates Jews from their own bodies as well as from their religion" (74), one finds oneself looking for the proof for what Tomasch calls the "typical in medieval postcolonial cultural productions" (75). Similarly with Delany's argument that the Prioress' tale is really about Muslims rather than about Jews or that distinctions between Jews and Muslims are elided from the "thirteenth century on, especially in Northern Europe" (48), one finds oneself looking for the textual proof. Perhaps the Prioress has this popular notion, as shown in English crucifixion plays where the soldiers become not Romans but Muslims, but Chaucer, even in a virulently anti-Islamic polemic as in the Man of Law's Tale, reveals he has an educated view of the teachings and beliefs of Islam (Law, Koran, Prophet). He would have known, certainly, that Muslims, like Christians, were forbidden to charge interest, even though Christian Italy was the banking center of Europe. Also, not only is he thoroughly aware of the great intellectual contributions of Islam, he identifies Islam with this scientific and philosophic learning. Furthermore, in contrast to Delany's assertion, Islam is not an offshoot of Judaism. All three religions are offshoots of the Abrahamic religion, but Islam through Muhammad's revelation in the Koran is the successor and continuation of Jewish and Christian scriptures. Christine Rose's "The Jewish Mother-in-Law" also relies too much on far-fetched connections and secondary sources to make its argument that The Man of Law's Tale's wicked mother-in-laws are Synagoga who wickedly tries to destroy Ecclesia, their daughter-in-law, Constance. "Jerome Mandel's "'Jewes werk' in Sir Thopas," on the other hand, is an excellent, finely written and researched piece that shows how Jews were prominent in a variety of handiwork media. Incidentally, Mandel's essay, in specifying the fate of the Iberian Jewish population under the Almohade Berbers, explains why Jews were prospering in numerous towns in Christian Castile, Aragon, and Navarre.

Although many of the essays are indeed well-written, this cannot be said about them all. Just as there is a tendency for some to rely too heavily on secondary references (and all English), there is often a common retreat to reification. Important distinctions that William Jordan makes, like "High- and late medieval Christian commentators" or "scriptural and post-scriptural Jews" (31) often give way to careless generalizations like "Medieval Christians," "The Middle Ages," or "Islamic society." The reader wants to know where, when, and who. Furthermore, some of the writing in these essays demanded editing that one would have expected the internal publisher's copy editor to catch.

Looking at the European history of brutality, genocide, and cultural distortions honestly must be a central project of any humane society, and more specifically facing cultural culpability that led to the Holocaust is incumbent on all of us. As Walter Benjamin tragically argued, anamnesis is not merely a philosophical trope but a civic duty. A book like Chaucer and the Jews clearly intends to contribute to that project of memory, but because this enterprise is so serious, it is essential that such a memory stand fast to the historical record and not undermine its goals with far-fetched abstractions and attenuated connections.