Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In which I make myself cry

Through the course of the various re-structures of our syllabus and curriculum reforms we've undergone over the last few years, I struggled to find the right balance of medieval literature and medievalism in the one subject I offer in second and third year. I'm glad to say I think I might have got the balance just about right. The subject is called Romancing the Medieval, and we have 75 students reading Chaucer and Malory in Middle English, Sir Gawain and Margery Kempe in modern translation, amongst a few other things, while I gave a lecture last week on medievalist poetic tradition (OE translations by Tennyson, and Heaney; and thanks to Chris Jones who is expert in this stuff, a sonnet by Borges on Old English; and Chaucerian extracts from Lydgate, Spenser and Dryden, as well as Ted Hughes' poem about Sylvia Plath declaiming Chaucer to the cows, etc.). We will move, soon, to Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and some of the Idylls, The Lord of the Rings, and a week on medieval fairy tales.

But today it was the Prioress's Tale. We are moving into the second half of the course, and now that they have had a pretty solid introduction to medieval literature, I wanted to start thinking about scholarly medievalism. I got them to read Michael Calebrese's essay (the one Eileen had a bunch of us respond to for one of BABEL's sessions at Kalamazoo last year) for its uncompromising scrutiny of the easy absolutist ethics the Prioress seems to encourage amongst readers.

Anyhoo, in thinking about this tale of blood libel against the Jews, who are said to have murdered the little Christian boy so devoutly singing his Marian hymn, I also told the story of St Hugh of Lincoln, and remembered my visit to Lincoln Cathedral, where next to the remains of his shrine, the cathedral has framed this notice and prayer:

Trumped up stories of "ritual murders" of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later.  These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend, and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.

Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray:


Lord, forgive what we have been,
amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be.

Perhaps it's because I'm overtired, and frankly, a little up and down in spirits at the moment, I couldn't read this prayer to the class with choking up a little. It's the sheer simplicity of the acknowledgement of wrong that gets me. Yet this often seems such a hard thing for the church to say...

But of course, in the context of Calabrese's critique of emotional absolutism, and my discussion in the lecture of affective piety, I don't really trust my emotional response here. Was it too easy?

In thinking about the Prioress, though, I kept returning to the description of her in the General Prologue, where we are told she "peyned hire to countrefete chere/ Of court, and to been estatlich of manere." So here's my question to the Chaucerians amongst you: has anyone ever suggested that the Prioress's sentimentalism is part of this performance of courtly demeanour? Do we know anything about a self-conscious fashion for this kind of piety in the Ricardian court? Is there something blindingly obvious I'm missing here? Yes, I promise I will do my own research on this soon enough, but in the meantime, what do you reckon?


8 comments:

Karl Steel said...

I think not trusting your affective response is fine, but at the same time I think closing it off is a mistake too.

Interesting question on the Prioress: was there a fad for Mariolotry that was recognized AS a fad? Curious to hear what people will say.

Another question: tt's usual, isn't it, to say that the poetic form of her tale represents an earlier poetic work that Chaucer reused for the CT? But what if we see its highly wrought form as of a piece with her commitment to aping court fashions? Where else do we see this form?

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

As you know, I can't help with the Prioress, but I'm intrigued by your question 'Was it too easy?' Does this mean you're arguing that an emotional response has to be struggled against, and hard-won, before it's valid?

I would love to talk to you about this, but probably over a non-virtual drink.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I don't know about ties between courtliness and sentimentalism. It's an interesting connection, and to my knowledge hasn't been made yet. Miri Rubin and Anthony Bale are good at detailing how sentimentalism in the Marian materials is frequently connected to violent anti-Judaism, but I don't think either connects these materials to a courtly audience: as I recall, the supposition is that they are intended for a feminine elite but not necessarily for courtly readers. Like many suppositions based upon backwards projection, that may simply be wrong -- though Bale is good at looking at MS culture.

As to affective response, where would we be without it? The "sheer simplicity" (as you say) of the Lincoln notice is, as you observe, profoundly moving. I always close my class on the Prioress's Tale by reading the account of Rachel murdering her children in Mainz, a sacrifice intended to prevent their being taken by the Crusaders (part II of that link). It's from a Hebrew chronicle not contemporary with the events and even though it seems like an eyewitness account it is just as literary as Chaucer's tale. Nonetheless the vignette does record the reality of violence practiced against children in the Middle Ages, sometimes the result of interfaith hatreds. Rachel's son Aaaron, having witnessed his mother's killing of his brother and sisters, runs behind a chest and pleads "Mother, mother, do not butcher me!" His mother is relentless:

"When this righteous woman had made an end of sacrificing her three children to their Creator, she then raised her voice and called out to her son Aaron: "Aaron, where are you? You also I will not spare nor will I have any mercy." Then she dragged him out by his foot from under the chest where he had hidden himself, and she sacrificed him before God, the high and exalted. She put her children next to her body, two on each side, covering them with her two sleeves, and there they lay struggling in the agony of death."

Yes, I know the scene is imagined, even allegorical, but it does also come from something that really unfolded, and does in its own way bear witness through Aaron's eyes to the horror of being an unwilling participant in someone's fatal drama. I can't read it aloud to my students without crying, even if I try to hide the fact from them.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for that Jeffrey. Very moving. I'm teaching TWO Canterbury Tales courses this upcoming Fall (one under-, one grad), and if I try that twice in one day, I'm sure my face will end up swollen and unrecognizable.

I don't know about ties between courtliness and sentimentalism. It's an interesting connection, and to my knowledge hasn't been made yet.

Here's an observation that I'm sure has been monographed somewhere: our? mine, anyway, students find the fainting and crying, the love sickness, and other (to their eyes) excessive emotion of medieval romance funny and foreign. I've always had the blandest of answers, but what if those intensified emotions are themselves a courtly fashion (dating, ok, from the 12th century, but then, yes, ported over to affective piety, which then developed in concert: this is becoming too tangled as I write it, but I'm forging on ahead)? At any rate, I'm trying here to argue against sincerity or the condemnation of the LACK of sincerity. I'm trying to, uh, have my Bourdieu and eat it too in terms of the social understanding of emotion.

This reading works--to what degree I don't know--if we read the Prioress alongside the emotional life of the Knight's Tale. It's not that they--Knight or Prioress--feel things more deeply, but that they feel things as one does in the court, and, feeling thus, as in affective piety, or as in the court itself, things end in blood.

Karl Steel said...

...because for affective piety, or for courtly romance, or for Mariolotry--whether before the cross or in its many antisemitic tales (see John of Garland Stella Maris for the classic collection)--pain is the proof of an emotion's sincerity. Note what proves the Prioress's (misplaced) animal love: feeding them what she should give to poor humans, yes, but on either side of that observation, attention to suffering: her weeping if they were beat, her pain if she sees a mouse caught in a trap.

Once suffering and sincerity join hands, the rest of the narrative writes itself: the child has to end up dead.

Stephanie Trigg said...

I'm not actually sure why I distrusted my own emotional response, though Kerryn might come closest here. If I'm really frank, I felt embarrassed that I had let my guard down. I was really surprised by my reaction, as I had thought my interest in that prayer was simply a scholarly one.

Jeffrey, that's a gruesome account. I went the other direction and found a calm, modern neutral account of the St Hugh story from an online Jewish Encyclopedia, part of my desire to "correct" the prioress, I guess. I'll go look at the Bale soon: thanks for that reminder.

I love Karl's point about emotion and sincerity, esp. the idea that courtly excess of emotion has somehow extended to contexts of piety. This would be a fascinating study about the movement between or transfer or between emotional practices in different cultural contexts.

It was the bit about the little dogs that sparked my interest here, too: the suggestion that this emotion is performed somewhat self-consciously...

Next week it's Margery Kempe: we'll see if I start weeping and roaring in class again.

thiel said...

It is neither untrustworthy nor surprising that you were moved by an Anglican prayer! And "the sheer simplicity of acknowledgement of wrong" is something that we might all take from the liturgy.

Meredith Jones said...

When I was in year 12 at school my music teacher, Mr Coles, cried in class when we reached the end of Rigoletto. That's still my favourite opera. So cry away Stephanie--it means you're a good teacher as well as everything else.