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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale

January 13th, 2011 Comments off

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Through her words and actions, the prioress of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale makes it plainly evident that she is a hypocrite who does not understand her own religion. The prioress’s misconceptions about her own religion lead to an illogical condemnation of Jews, a people who could scarcely be found in England in Chaucer’s period. Her insecurities regarding her sex and confidence in the validity of her faith and also her close-mindedness prevent her from gaining any sort of meaningful knowledge of other religions and peoples. Instead, she tries to spread her bigotry and willful ignorance with an inflammatory version of a tale common in the 14th century. Her tale seeks to elevate Christian women, such as herself, by constant invocations to Mary and the denigration of Jews. Tearing down another group makes hers seem, by comparison, better. To that end, she spews vitriolic anti-Semitism in her ridiculously macabre tale.

To ensure outrage at the murder to come, and to set up her tale, the prioress first must establish the victim as a wholly sympathetic character. While no one doubts the boy’s innocence, the prioress goes to almost comic (and satirical? lengths to also establish his near inhuman virtue. After learning that the Alma Redemptorisis about Mary, whom the boy and prioress both venerate with obsession, he declares:

“Now certes, I wol do my diligence

To conne it al, er Cristemasse be went.

Though that I for my prymer shal be shent,

And shal be beten thryes in an houre,

I wol it conne, oure Lady for to honoure. ” (105–109)

This sort of dedication may be expected from a member of a religious order, such as the prioress, who clearly approves of such a sacrifice. Indeed, the boy’s willingness to suffer multiple beatings for failure to study his primer could even be described as self-flagellation. The problem is that this boy is only seven years old. No amount of indoctrination is going to make a child that young eagerly accept physical abuse in exchange for the opportunity to memorize “by rote” (88) a song. He is not even going to truly study the song and its depths. How could he? He learned of the song by hearing other boys singing it. His peers, even the older ones, have only a superficial understanding of the prayers. So, too, does the prioress. Later on, the boy survives, temporarily at least, a vicious attack. The boy explains to an abbot that “for the worship of his moder dere Yet may I singe O Alma laude and clere” (220–221). Does it matter that he lacks all meaningful comprehension of the prayer? Not according to the prioress. He can mimic the sounds of the prayer and he worships Mary. That is more than sufficient for her. She doesn’t understand the prayer much better than he does; by her standard, he has done all that he needs to. After all, “in Chaucer’s day you were ignorant, or mad, or demonic to think that God did not exist, or could be anything other than the ultimate reality” (Besserman, 60). The laity did not need to spend much time contemplating metaphysics and ethics. However, a religion that lasts requires a careful and thorough examination of its fundamentals. Incoherent mysticism can gain an ephemeral following, but for a religion to survive a millennium, smart people must dedicate time and energy to the development of cohesive, internally consistent theological concepts and tenets. The prioress fails to comprehend the complexities of Catholicism. She reduces Christian virtue to rote memory of prayers. While such memory work is at least valuable in a Christian context, it is not fundamental to the religion.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 2)

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But, the prioress is not concerned so much with the adherence to legitimate Christian principles but rather to the institution of the Catholic Church, of which she is a part. Her insecurities about her beliefs, a result of not thinking them over, result in her desperate need to cling to the institution. This explains her position as a prioress. She lives in her own cloistered world, leading a group of nuns who do not bother her with provocative or critical questions about the nature their religion. She is a shepherd so engrossed with the affairs of her own flock that she is incapable of understanding outsiders of any sort. Thus, the attack against the boy receives a sudden, too-broad and ultimately unthinking reaction in the tale.

The prioress goes further than mere childhood innocence; she makes the boy Christ-like. She calls the Jews the “cursed folk of Herodes” (140). This not-so-subtle epithet invokes the Biblical account of Christ’s birth and his escape from the infamous order by Herod to slay all the baby boys. The boy in this tale also suffers an untimely death for his Christianity, but at a much earlier age than Jesus. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two is still clearly present, fixed in the minds of the audience. The song itself also conjures associations between the boy and Christ. It was commonly sung during the Boy Bishop rituals, popular in England at the time, which coincided with the Mass of Holy Innocents. “In the Middle Ages, the Holy Innocents were traditionally understood as types of Christ, who was himself in turn often represented in late medieval religious writing and drama as a sacrificial child” (Patterson, 510). Thus, the boy’s Christian goodness is magnified to that of the ultimate exemplar, Christ Himself.

Having elevated the sacrificial victim to a quasi-divine status, the prioress continues her over-the-top tale by vilifying the Jews. She gives the setting as Asia Minor, a Muslim area. In the Middle Ages, Judaism and Islam were often conflated by the Christians of Western Europe. Both groups have darker skin and write using alphabets different from the Roman alphabet. To many of the less than well-traveled people of medieval England, the differences between Judaism and Islam were minor and, more importantly, irrelevant. After all, if Christianity is true, then other religions are necessarily false—at least in the popular view. The special status of the Jews, God’s “chosen people,” within a Christian culture was largely overlooked in the Middle Ages. The particular region she describes is ruled by a Christian, but with a Jewish quarter, sustained by the lord of that country “For foule usure and lucre of vileynye, Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye” (57–58). Medieval Catholic teachings forbade Christians from usury, but that did not mean the practice disappeared. Economic enterprise requires the lending of money—and people tend to be unwilling to lend money without any sort of benefit. In short, usury is a vital component of a healthy economy. The Church condemned a requirement of the society that sustained it. To have it both ways, they simply let Jews become the bankers. According to the prioress, this makes the Jews “hateful to Crist. ” This is blatant hypocrisy. The Christians condemned Jews for taking up a profession that they were simply unwilling to do themselves. This snap-judgment further reveals the Prioress’s own simplistic world-view. She uses inappropriate absolutes to describe religiosity: Christians are good; Jews are evil. What is not evident here is any attempt to understand Judaism or even Christ’s own comments regarding the Jews. She shuts out the Jews, immediately dismissing them as evil.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 3)

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In so doing, she destroys any possibility of gaining new insight into the religion from which hers derived.

The prioress seeks to further validate her anti-Semitic views by associating Jews with Satan. As the boy sings Alma Redemptoris through the Jewish quarter, Satan whispers into the Jew’s ears. Evidently, Jews are close friends, or at least loyal subjects, of Satan. Indeed, the dark lord “hath in Jewes herte his wasps nest” (125). This is demeaning on several levels. Not only is there the obvious association with Satan himself, but apparently the very hearts of Jews are empty, sub-human shells. Love may dwell in Christian hearts, but Jews have only a wasp’s nest. Satan goes on to admonish the Jews for allowing the boy to sing his prayer against “oure lawes” (130). This is an inflammatory creation on the part of the prioress. The “oure” is slightly problematic; some lesser manuscripts read “youre. ” Either Satan is the lord of the Jews or he at least functions as a protector of their laws. In either case, the implications are the same. Jewish law, as conceived of by the prioress, is violently anti-Christian. By created this falsehood of mutual antipathy, she can better justify her own rabid anti-Semitism.

All of the evils in this tale stem from a lack of knowledge, or misinformation. Bad information ultimately stems from bad epistemology. Neither the prioress, nor any character in her stories, exhibits an understanding as to how to obtain legitimate, truthful knowledge—the kind from which progress flows. As a substitute for real knowledge, rationally ascertained and disseminated, the prioress relies on the emotional response of the audience to physical gore. Acting on direct orders from none other than Satan, the Jews conspired to kill the boy. They hired a murderer who grabs the boy on his way home from school and “kitte his throte, and in a pit him caste” (137). This highly sensational murder is told to incite a purely emotional reaction. There is nothing wrong with emotions, per se. Emotions serve as an automatic manifestation of our most sincere and innate values. However, they are not infallible. A misidentification of how a specific action applies to our values, or even of the values themselves, can result in the wrong emotional response. Emotions wield a strong power over us, but we are still fundamentally rational beings and we need not act on our emotions when reason tells us otherwise.

After the throat slitting, the tale quickly turns even more macabre and disturbing. The boy’s mother finds him and he sings the prayer loudly. Through divine intervention, he is able to overcome physical limitations. He tells the people, “Me thoghte she leyde a greyn upon my tonge” (228). The act of Mary extending the life of a fatally injured boy is theologically complex. How can someone live with a slit throat? How can that person sing? The “greyn” has no direct, logical connection to its effect. It is not a bandage or ointment. The “greyn” is not even placed that close to the wound. So what is the “greyn”? Communion wafers are placed on top of the tongue by the clergy in the Catholic Church. This “greyn” could be a literal grain or seed, or it could be a metonymy for a communion wafer. The prioress, despite her position of religious authority, operates on a very simplistic level regarding religion, just like the boy. She needs a concrete object present. The same principle applies to the sale of absolutions by a pardoner. It is too abstract to just say that by God’s grace the boy was allowed to stay alive a little longer.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 4)

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There are actually several layers, each progressively more concrete. God is highly abstract, Jesus less so. Mary, who is just a human being, is even more concrete. But even that is not enough. The prioress needs something she can touch. It is highly unlikely that the prioress fully grasps the concept of transubstantiation, but she clearly appreciates religious rituals. She advocates going through with the rituals, such as prayer, even if the person performing the ritual has absolutely no idea what it all really means. Her need for visuals to convey knowledge carries over into the discomforting violence of the final dozen stanzas. Not only is there the violent crime against the boy, and his supernatural singing, but also the retributive justice and dirge by the public and the boy’s mother over his death.

This odious murder of the little boy incites barbarous violence against the Jews. The prioress attempts to justify the wholesale execution of a large number of people though their often tenuous complicity in the heinous crime. The local magistrate gathers up the Jews, declaring:

“Yvel shal have that yvel wol deserve:”

Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,

And after that he heng hem by the lawe. (198–200)

The offending Jews are not only drawn by horses, but also hanged. More importantly, all of this is done in accordance with the law. The prioress already established that this region had a Christian ruler. It follows that the laws and punishments should reflect this Christian background. Christian theology is ostensibly based on love, which when consistently applied should not promote murder. Christ taught his subjects to “turn the other cheek” and love their “brothers. ” The prioress, in being both a woman and more specifically a nun, might reasonably be expected to be a pacifist. She is not; the outraged populace in her tale wants vengeance and they get it. A calm, reasoned approach to the murder (if such a thing is possible), would be to methodically determine whom to blame. With guilt established, perhaps even a Christian argument could be made to justify execution of those involved. Instead, the entire group is mercilessly slaughtered. What follows is treacle displays of mourning for the murdered boy, then a stanza of pure hypocrisy. The prioress offers a final prayer emphasizing, of all things, mercy: “That, of his mercy, God so merciable On us his grete mercy multiplye” (254–255). In only two lines, “mercy” appears three times. In one respect, the prioress is finally getting something right: Christianity does indeed teach mercy. However, they just had an opportunity to show mercy to the Jews, or at least humanity. Instead, they brutally murdered them. Once again, she is able to express the Christian ideas without even beginning to grasp what they mean. A request for mercy is not a meaningless string of words offered because social institutions say it’s the right time. It is a profound statement of humility before a person whose powers exceed your own or, in this case, before God Himself.

The Prioress’s Tale is one of brazen self-righteousness, gross ignorance of other cultures and religions. The title character is hopelessly solipsistic with no ability to look beyond her own carefully constructed fantasy world. As a result, she ends up blindly advocating a host of evils and lesser wrongs.

Bibliography

Besserman, Lawrence. “Ideology, Antisemitism, and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. ”The Chaucer Review 36. 1 (2001) 48-72

Patterson, Lee. “‘The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption’: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. ” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31. 3 (2001) 507-560.

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Feminist Themes in the Works of Anne Bradstreet

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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Anne Bradstreet’s "The Prologue" was intended to introduce her lengthy epic poem entitled Quaternions and by doing so, persuade male readers that she, although a woman, possessed enough talent to be worthy of their attention and contemplation. In this poem Bradstreet defended her sex against the disdain that men had shown toward female writers as a whole. The basic theme of her well-known text was the ability of female poets and their lack of acknowledgement by men. Much of the poem was self-deprecating, echoing the kind of criticism aimed at female poet like herself. She seemed to accept reluctantly the general attitude toward female authors, although demonstrating that she could use poetic devices with skill and had a firm grasp of a broad range of literature, including classical Greek and that of Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas, a writer of religious epics from France.

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Much tension between different systems of values was expressed in Bradstreet’s poem, "The Prologue," reflecting the nature of her Puritanical background. Personally Bradstreet views herself as an equal to any male writer of the day, but is forced by society to remain submissive and humble, systems of values clashing at this epicenter. In one instance on the third line, Anne begins, "For my mean pen. " (stanza 1, line 3), emphasizing that she viewed her ability to write about war and other manly ideas as "lowly or humble. " She was claiming that since she was a woman, she would be unable to write about great events that concern male poets "of wars, of captains, and of kings, Of cities founded, commonwealths begun," (1,1-2).

Anne Bradstreet refused to pretend to be a man but rather profess herself as an educated woman of the world, not feeling the need to hide her identity. On the fourth line Bradstreet continues, "Nor can I, like that fluent, sweet-tongued Greek Who lisped at first, in future times speak plain. By art he gladly found what he did seek;" (4, 19-21), referred to Demosthenes, an ancient Athenian who overcame a speech impediment by practicing with a rock in his mouth. Practice or as stated "art" could not make up for the lack of talent or for the fact that nature had made her a woman. Each critic said that Bradstreet should tend to her knitting and be content doing the typical work of a Puritan woman as stated on lines twenty five through twenty six, "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue Who says my hand a needle better fits;". Many other instances of tension are well noted including the idea that all nine of the Greek Muses were female deities.

Calliope was the muse of heroic or epic poetry, a form of expression that Anne Bradstreet was attempting in he Quaternions. By stating, "But she the antique Greeks were far more mild; Else of our sex why feigned they those nine, And Poesy made Calliope’s own child? " (6, 31-33) Bradstreet further affirmed her belief that women should be treated as equals for if the muses were female, then women should possess this ability. In lines thirty-seven to forty two she says, "Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are; Men have precedency and still excel. It is but vain unjustly to wage war; Women can do best, and women know well. " Here she deferred to male superiority but insists that she has her place also. Men need not be threatened by her works and poetic abilities, although her strong tone and apparent attitude towards Puritan traditions may bring about another conclusion.

The tension displayed in Anne Bradstreet’s poem was a direct consequence of her Puritan up-bringing; therefore many Puritanical elements can be found in her poetry with metaphysical qualities. Members of the Puritan society understood that all men and women were not equal. Men were given dominion over their families, ministers and church leaders exercised authority over communities, and women ruled over children and servants. A woman’s power came from her position in the community due to her husband’s social status, her personal character, and her roles as a wife, mother, and church member. Bradstreet’s social authority comes from her role as a daughter and wife of two Massachusetts leaders and wealthiest men, not her own talents for writing. Anne Bradstreet’s poem contained many metaphysical qualities, including her reacting against the traditions of Puritanical society and writing with witty, ironic and passionately intense verses. "The Prologue" shed light on the injustices happening to female poets in the 17th century as we view them today.

Anne Bradstreet used "The Prologue" to defend herself against the views of influential Puritan leaders and to show that through her literary style, she was worthy of respect. Bradstreet used her understanding of modern and ancient poetic devices to display that she was an educated, well-read woman of her time. Among these devices were rhyme-pattern, rhythm, and tone. The last word of the first line of every stanza rhymes with the last word of the third line.

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Feminist Themes in the Works of Anne Bradstreet (Part 2)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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Likewise, the last word of the second line of every stanza rhymes with the last word of the fourth line. The fifth and sixth lines form a slant rhyme, in that their endings look similar but they do not actually rhyme when pronounced out loud. Anne Bradstreet used iambic pentameter, an ancient rhythm meter used during the age of the Greeks. The syllables "Sure, an, Greeks, far, mild" are emphasized while the syllables "But, tique, were, more" remain unstressed. This poetic device followed suit on the first line of each stanza. Bradstreet used a somewhat cynical tone, in which she hoped to force her readers to consider her own value as an author. On lines twenty-five and twenty-six Bradstreet affirms her tone, "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue Who says my hand a needle better fits. " Bradstreet seemed to resent her own unimportance. She became upset not because she was a woman, but because women were treated improperly in her mind. Using tone, rhyme-pattern, and rhythm, Anne Bradstreet displayed her own intelligence and ability in her work, "The Prologue", showing to her male counter-parts that she felt no inferiority.

Many other elements of literary style could be found in Anne Bradstreet’s "The Prologue", including metaphors, similes, and personification. Anne Bradstreet displays her own talent in saying, "And O ye high-flown quills that soar the skies, And ever with your prey still catch your praise," (8, 43-44), a very strong and apparent metaphor. The male poet as a bird of prey, used his quills to catch his "praise", his metaphorical prey, something that Anne Bradstreet felt that she could not hope for. By contrast she claimed that her poetry is low, deserving of only crowns of kitchen herbs and metaphorically compared to ore, minerals hidden deep in the ground. "If e’er you design these lowly lines your eyes, Give thyme or parsley wreath; I ask no bays. This mean and unrefined ore of mine. " (8, 45-48), further reaffirmed the current view of women in the

Puritanical society. One simile, a type of metaphor using the words "like" or "as" to link two dissimilar objects, could be found in Anne Bradstreet’s introductory work. This example may be found on the nineteenth line, " Nor can I, like that fluent, sweet-tongued Greek," where Bradstreet compared herself to Demosthenes. Personification, the treating of an abstract quality or thing as if it were human which is also a literary term very similar to the metaphor, can be found on more than one occasion in Anne Bradstreet’s poem. "Their dates have run;" (1, 4) gave time the ability to move forward in a human style of progression and "High-flown quills that soar the skies," (8, 43) tells of a quill pen, an item used to write with, flying in the air, something that it could not possibly do. The tools of metaphors, similes, and personification were used heavily in "The Prologue" to prove to the readers that she, in fact although a woman, possessed enormous talent as a writer and should be taken seriously.

A myriad of other literary elements was used in Bradstreet’s "The Prologue", many of which were abstract and less common in her time. Allusion, symbolism, allegory, connotation, denotation, and paradox could all be found in her lyric poetry, a type of poetry that expressed the thoughts and feelings of the author. Allusion was used when discussing Demosthenes in "Nor can I like that fluent, sweet-tongued Greek. " (4, 19-22). Also "Of wars, of captains, and of kings, Of Cities founded, commonwealths begun," (1, 1-2) appeared to be a reference to The Aeneid by Virgil, an ancient epic describing the founding of Rome. Anne Bradstreet’s poetic art also discussed Calliope, a muse often called upon during invocation for inspiration during epic poems, including Homer’s The Odyssey. Connotation and denotation are demonstrated in the word "quills" (8, 43), the literal meaning of the word being a quill pen, an instrument used in writing, and the figurative meaning being a big bird of prey with quills as feathers. Symbolism was often used in poetry of the Puritan time very heavily. Calliope symbolized the women who had the ability to write, but were not allowed to because of social restrictions set on them. The treatment of women as described in this poem was an allegory of how slaves and people who were not "visible saints" in the Puritan community were looked upon. Anne Bradstreet used great poetic license and by doing so, showed the world that women, including herself, were just as capable writers as men.

Through style and content Anne Bradstreet attempted to break down pre-set barriers of Puritan society, which prohibited the literary expressions of women from being taken seriously. She presented areas of tension with an untimely perspective, and literally slapped the faces of male poets who believed that they were superior. "The Prologue" defended Bradstreet’s sex against the disdain men had shown toward female writers in general and herself in particular by using lavish styles and intense content.

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Feminist Themes in the Works of Anne Bradstreet (Part 3)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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