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Q & A with… Dr. Robert Epstein

Dr.Robert Epstein

FAIRFIELD – Dr. Robert Epstein is an associate professor of English at Fairfield University. , where he teaches courses in Medieval English Drama, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, among other subjects. Prior to joining the faculty of Fairfield U in 1998, he was a lecturer in history and literature, and in English, at Harvard University.
Epstein lives in Fairfield and is a member of the New Chaucer Society and the Medieval Academy. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and his Ph.D. in Medieval English Literature from Princeton University.
Epstein will teach a three-class series on Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport beginning Friday, Feb. 4 at 12:30 p.m..  He gave the Ledger a preview of his talk.

How would you describe Medieval attitudes towards the Jews?
A:  This a large and complex topic, and it’s difficult to generalize about.  Jews generally lived apart from Christians, usually by law.  Jews were, of course, in most places very restricted in their activities, including what they could own and what businesses they could enter.  But conditions could vary tremendously by country and region.  Conditions would have been very different in Spain, for instance, than in northern Europe.
Also, we should probably distinguish between popular anti-Semitism and official or authorized anti-Semitism.  The notorious “blood libel,” for instance, was a popular superstition.  When the Catholic Church itself eventually investigated it, it was officially debunked.  (Catholic theologians pointed out, among other things, that Jews would never make matzah out of the blood of Christian children, since blood, especially human blood, is not kosher.)
But official attitudes could also be very negative.  In many places, Jews were allowed to make their livings as moneylenders.  Lending at interest was illegal for Christians in the Middle Ages since the Church defined this as the sin of usury.  But Jews received license from local princes or kings to do it, partly because those leaders would need to borrow money.  In a familiar pattern, they would get behind in their debts to Jews, and then use local anti-Semitic feelings to drive out the Jewish community — a kind of loan default.  This is what happened in England, which is my focus.  In 1290, King Edward I of England, who was in debt to Jewish moneylenders, exploited popular resentment, including a legend of “Little Hugh of Lincoln” (a notorious blood libel), to expel all the Jews from England.  Jews were not legally allowed to live in England until the seventeenth century.

How was that image reflected in literature?
A: In literature, Jews could be presented in many ways, some of them very anti-Semitic, others relatively more benign.  I will be addressing specifically the representation of Jews in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The main place this occurs is in the “Prioress’s Tale.” The Prioress is the head nun in a convent.  She tells a tale that is about a miracle performed by the Virgin Mary.  It is also extremely anti-Semitic.  It is about a little Christian schoolboy who has to walk through a Jewish ghetto each day to get to and from school.  The tale is supposedly set in Syria, but Chaucer knew nothing of the Middle East and the town is basically just a typical European Christian town.  As the schoolboy passes through the Jewish ghetto, he sings a song in praise of the Virgin.  This so enrages the Jews that they capture him, slit his throat, and dump his body in their cesspit.  His mother becomes frantic searching for him, but no one can tell her where he is, and the Jews say nothing.  But through the miraculous intervention of the Virgin, he begins to sing the song again through his slit throat.  So they find his body and take it to the church.  The child explains that the Virgin placed a seed on his tongue that allowed him to sing and speak; when they remove the seed, he finally dies.  The town magistrate has all the Jews who knew of the murder slaughtered.
This is nasty stuff, obviously, and upsetting to many modern readers who love Chaucer.  For some decades, it was common for critics to claim that this depiction of the Jews was ironic.  That is, many have maintained that Chaucer meant for this depiction to be offensive, and that it is a reflection not of the author’s views but those of the Prioress, the character who tells the tale.  As Chaucer describes her, she does seem to be a rather frivolous woman, more concerned with manners, luxuries, and appearances than true holiness, and rather precious in her sensibilities. And so, readers can claim that the tale shows how she loves the little schoolboy and loves the Virgin Mary but is oblivious to her own bigoted hatred of Jews.

Does that excuse ring true?
A: There are a number of problems with this, and Chaucer criticism is now less likely to make these arguments.  For one thing, none of Chaucer’s medieval contemporaries seem to have thought the tale was ironic.  In fact, no one really made this claim until after World War II — when the Holocaust came to light, when significant numbers of Jewish professors entered American academia, and when anti-Semitism became socially unacceptable.  Also, there’s nothing remarkable about this tale from a medieval perspective.  In the end, Chaucer even compares the murdered schoolboy to Little Hugh of Lincoln, the boy supposedly ritually killed by Jews in England in 1255.  And I like to show my students a traditional Scottish ballad of Little Hugh.  It was first recorded in the 18th century, but it probably was told orally for centuries before that, possibly as long ago as Chaucer’s time, or even Hugh’s.  In many ways, it is extremely similar to “The Prioress’s Tale”—but there’s really no way that a popular ballad like this could be “ironic.”  It’s just a product of popular anti-Semitism.  We’d like our Chaucer to be too good or too liberal or too wise to tell such a tale without irony, but he’s a medieval writer, not a modern one. (Remember, the Canterbury Tales date from 1387-1400, so there were no Jews living in England at the time, or virtually none.)
Finally, I like to point out to my students that there are all sorts of prejudices that Chaucer may possess but that we tend not to notice because of our own prejudices.  For instance, in “The Man of Law’s Tale,” the villain is a Moslem Sultaness who murders her son and his entire wedding party to keep him from marrying a Christian princess.  Chaucer equates her with a demon.  But no one claims that this is an ironic portrait of Moslems.  And it’s not—it just reflects the kind of bigoted and misinformed characterization of other religions that was common in the Middle Ages.

For more information on Robert Epstein’s lecture at Congregation B’nai Israel call (203) 336-1858.

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