18.05.05, Blurton, The Critics and the Prioress

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Michael Calabrese

The Medieval Review 8.05.05

Blurton, Heather and Hannah Johnson. The Critics and the Prioress Antisemitism, Criticism, and Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. pp. 218. ISBN: 978-0-472-13034-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Calabrese
California State University, Los Angeles

In the book under consideration, Blurton and Johnson offer a serious, ethical contemplation of the history of the Prioress's Tale, from which one could chart the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary criticism and, at once, the history of our ethical engagement with issues of race and religion, specifically as it relates to "antisemitism" (the editors convincingly defend their use of "antisemitism" over "anti-Judaism") (3). This book, which contains in two chapters some material adapted from previously printed essays, will allow teachers of Chaucer and anyone who is doing work in the history of medieval religious literature to confront these issues in the classroom and in scholarship in a cogent and responsible way. The tale is one of the most powerful stories by the most popular and famous poet of the English Middle Age, and so it must, as the authors contend, be the center of our confrontation with the ethics of interpretation.

The clear introduction outlines the chapters and the topics to be addressed in the book, including the "tale's intended impact and its status as a 'masterpiece,'" (7); the tendency of criticism to focus on "evaluations of the character of the Prioress herself"; and a re-imagination of the use of contextualizing sources. The editors notice rightly that many such questions "invite debate and resist resolution" (7). And they wisely seek not to proscribe any particular readings, aware that "more remains to be said," in a testament to the value of this provocative book and also to the work of Chaucer and its perennial relevance to a readership that yearns to contemplate the relations among aesthetics, violence, hatred, and beauty in a body of triumphant medieval Christian literature. Whatever Chaucer's or the Prioress's inscrutable intentions, the tale proves to be one of the central documents in medieval studies, a site where we can do our best and most relevant work of teaching and empowering our students. In the struggle for relevance, this book affirms the role of the medievalist in conducting informed, responsible, dispassionate but urgent study of the often ugly human past as reflected darkly in acts of literary imagination that belong forever to a lost moment in history and yet remain forever new as encountered by each new reading community through time. What could be more ethical?

Chapter 1 offers a detailed critical survey and a chance for Chaucerians to revisit the work of old friends and remember just how many powerful and sincere voices have worked to negotiate the issues, which include: the potential sexism of psychoanalyzing the Prioress; the dangers of attributing to her an independent personhood; the limited value of noting Chaucer as a man of his time; and the dangers as well of embracing Chaucer as if he were a modern liberal progressive, with many scholars feeling that "Chaucer was simply too smart, too cultured, and too urbane for antisemitism to have tainted his world view" (28). Continued analysis examines "hard" and "soft" critical approaches, relative to the level of condemnation of the Prioress, then explores the relationship of ethics, historicism and theory, showcasing justly the significance of Aranye Fradenberg's pivotal essay and the quest for "a reparative ethics that would restore victims of Christian-Jewish persecution to visibility in the historical record" (47). The authors then explore the "virtual Jew" and provide some cautions about a scholarship that shifts focus from Chaucer's tale to "second- (even third-) tier authors, or from genres without literary pretentions," with the result, oddly that Chaucer's tale "does not often play a large role in recent studies of the 'literature' of medieval antisemitism" (53).

Chapter 2 calls for a new understanding of source study, questioning genealogical, "arborescent" systems in favor of a "network" or "rhisomatic" approach that looks less for missing pieces to a structured puzzle of direct influences and borrowings and more to Chaucer's willing adaptation of influences from "ritual murder stories" (58-59, 69). The authors argue that a too rigid designation of the tale as a "single subset of an only slightly larger subset of Marian miracle tales" obscures "its participation in a wider network of anti-Semitic tales" (59) and further that "the positing of a lost source may be obliquely related to the desire to exonerate Chaucer from the charges of antisemitism" (61). They then explore the uniqueness of Chaucer's addition of the prayer to Hugh of Lincoln as it relates to "an autopoietic text network" of "libelous stories of Jewish murderers and Christian victims" (63). Accordingly, "while critics have frequently remarked that the Prioress's Tale is not a ritual murder accusation narrative, the Prioress validates it by explicit reference to one" (76). And in the complex networks of stories that relate to Chaucer's tale, as studied by Denice Despres, lies a "symbol cluster" of "child-Host-Christ" that "interacts with legends about children slain by Jews in complex ways" (81). As Chaucer would have seen it, "the stories of Hugh of Lincoln and the Prioress's Tale" perform "similar cultural work" (83). Furthering and adjusting the important contributions of Roger Dahood, the authors read "across textual exemplars from the so-called C Group of the boy singer narrative and English ritual murder lessons" to access "the accumulation of cultural meaning" obtained in Chaucer's tale, in a section that explores analogues that feature the motifs of defecation and the privy. "Both the boy singer and ritual murder narratives," the authors further observe, "participate in a typology, in which their deaths recall Christ's" (91), a point that provokes further consideration of the tale's broad liturgical echoes (to the Holy Innocents), which critics often praise as one of the aesthetically successful aspects of Chaucer's creation, a turn that risks underestimating how such references actually link the tale further to ritual murder stories and to "ruthless power, typed Jewish" (92).

Chapter 3 explores the critical tradition that suggests that "the Prioress's antisemitism is directly related to her feminine shortcomings" (105) and would see her as an "ultimately silly woman" (107), thus locating error in her alone and not in "her theology or religious tradition" (108); in this deflective reading, potentially, "the tale's meaning is undermined by its compromised source" (110) so that the story "somehow is not to be taken seriously" (112). Problems with this reading include why she alone would be a such a "compromised teller" (114) and how critically "antifeminism is pressed into service as an alibi" for antisemitism (114), an antifeminism that exploits the accusation of woman as child, encouraged obviously by the tale's imagery and liturgical resonances. Further, some critics detect a false sentimentality and emotionalism in the Prioress, as opposed to the purer pathos and more legitimate "affective piety" of the Second Nun (132-5). The feminist project of recuperation of the 80's has served to "deflect critical attention from the Prioress," since "[w]hat feminist critic, or critic of any stripe, wants to recoup the Prioress, with her antiemetic tale, as a protofeminist?" (142). Nonetheless some feminist thought seeks to assert the Prioress's voice and authority through her high professional status and her links to the Virgin Mary. In surveying the complex and varied assays of feminist thought in Prioress studies, its many successes and struggles in confronting the gendering of the Prioress, this strong chapter honors the accomplishments of feminist theory and also explores "how easily medieval misogynist discourses come to serve as explanations for antiemetic ones" (151).

The important final chapter, "Chaucer's First Critics" avers that in fifteenth-century reception the tale was not subject to the kind of ironized reading we are accustomed to enacting but rather found a home in any number of devotional anthologies, disassociated from the Prioress as speaker and associated with Marian texts, often those by Chaucer's followers Lydgate and Hoccleve. This reveals that in the fifteenth century "part of Chaucer's renown was as a Marian poet" and "in this context, it seems that fifteenth-century readers were more interested in the solicitation of orthodox prayer and devotion in the miracle tale than in the sensationalism of the Jewish villains" (155). Throughout early reception "evidence points to the poem's seamless incorporation into an established culture of fifteenth-century piety" (174). Accordingly, "this story of reception significantly undermines arguments that emphasize the satirical edge of the Prioress's Tale" (186). An "Afterword" thoughtfully looks back on the book's arguments and implications for future work, making some provocative and acute assertions: "the tradition of admiring Chaucer's poem for its deft use of scriptural citation, or its emotional evocation of motherly sorrow, may be avenues for evading the implications of the story's antisemitism, but are also pathways for understanding how antisemitism itself plays on emotional ties forged elsewhere, and depends for part of its effectiveness on our fears for children, or the comfort and truth value of a communal religious tradition" (189). Final thoughts wonder if we can enjoy the tale "as a beautiful poem while remaining aware of its ugly implications" (190) and that as we continue to struggle with critical questions for an ever-evolving readership, it is "as important to keep an eye on the Critics as on the Prioress" (190).

Chaucerians can thank the editors here for documenting and chronicling our conscience and compelling the self-reflection that helps us constantly to re-determine who we are as a reading community. In fact, the concerns of the book reverberate past the one tale here studied into the entire experience of teaching the past, and this book can organically inform a teacher's presentation of all the medieval texts in the curriculum. Mostly it's the quiet assertiveness of the authors that make this such a winning volume. They fall into no treacherous traps; they neither preach nor plead, and they show much judicious craft in compiling, presenting, and explicating their material earnestly and productively. This book, written by scholars who care in every expansive sense of the term, will exercise the critical and ethical imagination, as it compels us to comprehend our own practices and the function of our criticism at the present time. Discussing the recurring theme, shared by so many of the analogues, of the "repeated return of the dead body" of the slain boy, the authors cleverly associate this trope with "the compulsion to repeat the story," that is, the tale's own tendency to propagate itself among medieval Christian readers--a phenomenon that Chaucer's tale takes part in. To this phenomenon we can add our own modern compulsion to discuss the tale critically and to share discussions, as evidenced by the vast corpus of commentary here discussed. Such work is never complete, and Blurton and Johnson have labored to ensure that our perpetual engagement with Chaucer is thoughtful, critically responsible, substantive, historically and textually sound, and, as a result of all this, deeply ethical.

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