April 5th: Re-reading with Kathy Lavezzo

We discussed in class the ways that Jews are demonized in The Prioress’s Tale, and how the nameless boy is contrasted against them through his innocence. What evidence is there in the text to show that the villainous portrayal of Jews (or Judaism as a whole) is not merely used to emphasize the holiness of the boy, but rather deliberate anti-semitism? In what ways, according to Lavezzo, does the Prioress fall short of reality in her attack? After reading Lavezzo’s essay, how would you speculate Chaucer’s intentions for telling the tale?

5 thoughts on “April 5th: Re-reading with Kathy Lavezzo

  1. The Prioress’s Tale portrays Jews in a way that emphasizes the tale’s anti-semitic characteristics by focusing on the filth of the Jewish community. Lavezzo argues that the specific area that the boy’s body is thrown into – the latrine – is a deliberate connection between foulness and Jews. This idea of filth and waste would have been particularly poignant to Chaucer’s Middle English audience, as sanitation laws and practices were beginning to be put in place to reduce the realm’s filthiness and odor. The idea of separating filth and holy spaces such as churches was extremely important, so the Prioress attaching filth and foulness to the Jewish community suggest the unholiness of the Jews. Lavezzo also argues that not just the Prioress’s Tale, but the entirety of the Canterbury Tales references usury, which was long associated with Jews, in the idea of each pilgrim wanting to ‘quit’ or outdo the others with their tales. After reading Lavezzo’s arguments such as these, it is hard to believe that Chaucer’s intentions with the Prioress’s Tale were not anti-semitic, and that he was perhaps delving into stereotypes against Jews.

  2. Lavezzo contrasts the Jew’s uncleanliness with the boy’s holiness. One is pure while the other is disgusting. By connecting excrement to the Jews, the Prioress wants her audience to sympathize with her portrayal of them as evil and filthy.

  3. The Prioress’ Tale uses preexisting conceptions of Jews and anti-semitic language that would have been familiar to Chaucer’s readers. Lavezzo tells us to “imagine Jews in relation to profane built environments” (pp. 364). It isn’t just the Jews themselves but the places they live that are defined as foul. Their public latrine in the tale is part of the foulness as well. Jews are othered as much as possible by the Catholic Church at the time. Lavezzo also argues that Chaucer is hinting that Jews play a role in the materialism of Christians. The role of Jews as usurers is also important in their vilification. It’s portrayed like extortion and the Prioress momentarily comments on this in the tale. Lavezzo states that though the connection between Christian materialism and Jewish usurery is not overtly mentioned there is some hinting towards it.

  4. The connection between filth and Judaism is prevalent in the Prioress’ Tale, the intention being to draw a distinction between the worldly literalism of the Jew (the old way) and the spirituality of the Christian (the new way). However, as Lavezzo points out, usury was heavily involved in the construction of Christian cathedrals, which can be seen as prime examples of Christian materialism – hence a connection to worldly vices. Chaucer seems to have seen this as a taint on Christianity as inflicted by the Jews – or at least saw some subtle connection between the extravagance of Christian clergy and Jewish influence.

  5. Lavezzo seems to be interacting with the concept of how deeply in depth Chaucer goes to describe this particular subject matter. The idea that Jews opposed Christian purity and their potential for danger lie at the heart of Chaucer’s purpose. One particular point that Lavezzo makes great effort to emphasize is the evocation of usury that is seen through the actual crime. Linking Jews with usury and excrement was a well known concept by Chaucer’s time, and a classic move in the frame of medieval anti-semitism.

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