“Amonges Cristen folk a Jewerye”: Contamination and Christian Identity in Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale”

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Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are well known for their bawdiness, including the frank depiction of human anatomy and bodily effluvia. While “The Miller’s Tale” famously shows the unfortunate Absolon being tricked into kissing fair Alisoun’s “naked ers / full savourly” (3734-5), the Summoner’s performance focuses almost entirely on anuses and the excretions thereof, with the Prologue featuring a multitude of friars “swarm[ing]… / Out of the develes ers” in Hell (1693-4) and the tale itself centering on a particularly loud fart (2149-51) and the prospect of dividing it among thirteen unfortunate recipients (2253-2285). However, perhaps no other pilgrim exceeds the Prioress in her anxiety about abject bodily orifices and excretions, as reflected both in her own exceptionally fastidious character and the seemingly incongruous gruesomeness of her tale. Although it is not until the murder and disposal of the “litel clergeon” several stanzas into the tale that the story literally descends into its pit of blood and filth, we are perhaps granted the first and clearest indication of its concern with bodily boundaries in the opening lines:

There was in Asye, in a grete cite,
Amonges Cristen folk a Jewerye,
Sustened by a lord of that contree
For foule usure and lucre of vileynye,
Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye
And thurgh the strete men myghte ride or wende,
For it was free and open at eyther ende

A litel schole of Cristen folk ther stood
Doun at the ferther ende, in which ther were
Children an heep, ycomen of Cristen blood (488-97)

While not an overtly anatomical description, this passage clearly reflects an anxiety about permeability and contamination. We are presented with a view of the “Jewerye” as a dangerously open body, almost sodomitically “free and open at eyther ende” and therefore accessible to promiscuous travel by “Cristen folk” who inhabit the surrounding area. Supporting this reading of the “Jewerye” as a physical body is the fact that it is “Sustened” by the greedy sin of the local lord, for “foule usure and lucre of vileynye.” This statement connects the Jewish community to material production and consumption and to the amassing of “foule” worldly wealth, a process that Merrall Llewelyn Price aptly indicates was closely connected to bodily filth in the Middle Ages, with contemporary sources describing Jewish bodies split open to reveal entrails stuffed with gold and silver and usurers consuming coins excreted from the anuses of devils (200). Such an association between wealth, excrement, and even deviant bodily intercourse paints Chaucer’s “Jewerye” as a digestive tract, obscenely emitting filthy lucre into the open mouths of greedy Christians and openly beckoning Christian travelers to sodomitic miscegenation through either of its menacingly open ends. Completing this foul and threatening representation is the proximity of the “Jewerye” to Christian children, who lie in “an heep”—or what Price describes as a “fecal pile of undifferentiated children” (203)—at its “ferther ende.”

This grotesquely physical representation of the danger of Christian contamination by the Jewish community may be productively analyzed through the writings of anthropologist Mary Douglas, who writes in her seminal work, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, that human categories of filth and cleanness are used as an ordering mechanism which helps use create systems of classification and exert control over our environment. According to Douglas, “Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained” (40). Within this system, holiness may be defined as completeness and separation (53), while marginal states and spaces (such as bodily orifices and excretions)—which represent threats to neat classification, separation, and wholeness—are producers of anxiety (121-6). It has not been lost on recent scholarship that, within this framework, the fixation of “The Prioress’s Tale”—along with its teller—on bodily functions, orifices, wounds, waste, filth, and cleanliness may be interpreted as reflecting anxiety about contamination of the Christian community by religious Others. Price in particular tackles this idea, citing Douglas’s theories as a framework for his argument, in his article “Sadism and Sentimentality: Absorbing Antisemitism in Chaucer’s Prioress.”

However, what Price and others fail to address is the peculiarity of this anxiety in Chaucer’s England, given that the Edict of Expulsion issued in 1290 by Edward I had banished all Jews from the country more than fifty years before Chaucer was even born (Krummel 47). What led mid-fourteenth century English poets to portray Jews as a pertinent threat to the Christian community in spite of their long absence? If no longer present in England as a minority group, what differentiated Jews from other “heathen” groups such as pagans and Muslims, causing them to be singled out as the subject of common myths like the blood and host libels? While villainous Muslims and pagans appear in such works as Mandeville’s Travels, Richard Coer de Lyon, Sir Gowther, and Chaucer’s “The Man of Law’s Tale,” Jews featured as perhaps the most common of literary evildoers. Furthermore, as “The Prioress’s Tale” is merely the most famous of an entire genre of contemporary stories and sermons featuring Jews associated with cesspits, we can observe that the Jewish community was explicitly and uniquely connected not only to evil and undesirability, but specifically to filth, indicating that they—more than possible vestiges of pagan ancestry or the presence of Islam in the Holy Land—represented to medieval English Christians a uniquely potent threat to holiness, to the business of “separating that which should be separated” (Douglas 53).

In this essay, I will expand on the work of previous scholars to describe not only how depictions of filth were used to express Christian anxiety about Jews in medieval England, but also why this seems to have persisted so strongly even after the expulsion. Drawing on Douglas’s work, I will argue that Jews presented a larger and more immediate threat to the Christian community than other “heathen” groups largely because of the uncomfortable similarity between the two religions. As the progenitors of Christianity, God’s chosen people, and fellow “people of the book,” Jews occupied a marginal space between Christian and heathen, threatening Christian categorization of the world into “us” and “them” groups. This anxiety about Jewish violation of boundaries and threat to the medieval Christian worldview is reflected particularly well in the bodily violations perpetrated in “The Prioress’s Tale.”

“She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle”: The Prioress and Bodily Margins

Before providing a detailed interpretation of exactly what it signifies, it seems necessary to establish the fixation of both “The Prioress’s Tale” and its teller on concerns of cleanness and filth, separation and marginal states. Although this theme can be detected, as described above, from the very first lines of the tale, even earlier indications of it can be found in the Prioress’s description in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;
Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe
That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.
In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.
Hir over-lippe wyped she so clene
That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
Of grece, when she drunken hadde hir draughte. (128-35)

Here, we see an oddly explicit depiction of the connection Douglas draws between clearly defined boundaries and notions of cleanness—and therefore holiness. The Prioress’s impeccable manners are described in terms of maintaining boundaries: no crumbs transgress from the boundaries of her lips, her fingers avoid dipping into sauce, her clothes remain unspattered by culinary debris, and her mouth is “wiped so clene” that no grease finds its way to her drinking vessel. A holy woman, the Prioress “separate[es] that which should be separated” (Douglas 53), firmly maintaining boundaries and categories by preventing any food from passing from its properly appointed place to sully her body, her clothing, or even her drink. Special focus is given to a bodily margin, the mouth, which the Prioress polices scrupulously, with careful eating and thorough cleaning. This fastidiousness perhaps even renders her more suited for her religious duties, as we read that “Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne, / Entuned in hir nose ful seemly” (122-3). Although the nose is the orifice explicitly mentioned in these lines, it seems a reasonable assumption that the Prioress’s careful maintenance of her “ful small… softe and reed” mouth can only contribute to the “seemliness” of her holy song (153). This kind of holy issuance from the mouth is—as much as the abject excretions of other orifices—a motif that we see repeated in the Prioress’s performance.

The employment of Christian mouths in holy song first reappears in the Prologue to “The Prioress’s Tale,” where we see it perhaps more explicitly connected to her fixation on bodily orifices. Here, the Prioress proclaims that “by the mouth of children [the Lord’s] bountee / Parfourned is, for on the brest soukynge / Somtyme shewen they thyn heriynge[1]” (457-9). Although the direct focus of these lines does not appear to be on hygiene, this is an oddly physical depiction of Christian devotion, performed explicitly “by the mouth,” which we are shown in juxtaposition to the breast on which it feeds. Remembering the Prioress’s own seemly singing and eating habits, we can perhaps infer that Christian holiness is here associated with bodily purity, signified by orifices put to their most proper use. The mouths of Christian children praise god and suckle at their mothers’ breasts, while the breasts of Christian mothers serve the similarly pious function of sustaining their God-fearing infants. Later, in the tale, we will be provided with the story of a similarly good Christian child and mother, a child whose lips joyously and dutifully sing praise to the Virgin Mary and a mother whose energies are spent attempting to preserve the child who makes this holy song. However, because of their dangerous proximity to the menacing maw of the “Jewerye,” this mother and child are prevented from presenting the same picture of static serenity as the mother and child image conjured in the Prioress’s Prologue. Not only does the open-ended “Jewerye” threaten the religious homogeneity of their community by allowing Christians to travel through with appalling ease; it also threatens the individual bodily purity of Christian innocents who do so by rendering the most proper occupation of Christian mouths—in holy praise—an incitement to extreme violence and utter physical defilement.

As with the praiseful children in the Prologue to the tale, the devotion of “litel clergeon” (503) is described in distinctly physical, boundary-conscious terms. Depicting his singing of the Alma Redemptoris,the Prioress tells us that “Twies a day it passed thurgh his throte” (548). Although initially, we might view the singing of a devotional song as an innocent and benign activity, lacking in the danger that Douglas claims surrounds marginal spaces like the mouth and throat, even the praiseworthy activities of such vulnerable organs prove touched with peril—especially since the passage of song “thurgh his throte” is not the only passage through a marginal space occurring here. As the child sings, “thurghout the Juerie… / he cam to and fro” (551-2). If as suggested earlier, the “Juerie” may be seen as a grotesque, open-ended digestive tract, here we see the child passing through its “throte” as the song passes through his own, in an ominous image of monstrous human consumption that subtly underscores the danger with which even the most seemingly innocuous passage through marginal spaces is fraught.

It is at this point that the tale explicitly takes its turn toward the abject as the Jews, inspired by Satan, “conspire… / This innocent out of the world to chace” (565-6), hiring a murderer to cut the child’s throat and cast him into a pit of filth. Clearly, this murder is an act of extreme bodily violation, severing the passage through which both gospel and lifeblood flowed and desecrating the body of a Christian innocent through burial in excrement. However, the concern of these stanzas with separation, purity, and marginal spaces extends even beyond these immediately apparent observations. Perhaps most notably, in his appeal to the Jews, Satan himself seems to share the Prioress’s concern with the maintenance of boundaries, focusing as much on physical transgressions as spiritual ones:

Oh Hebrayk peple, allas!
Is this to yow a thyng that is honest,
That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest
In your despit, and synge of swich sentence,
Which is agayn youre lawes reverence? (560-4)

According to Satan, the boy’s offence is as much in his “walk[ing] as hym lest,” freely passing through the “Juerie” as he sings, as it is about the song itself. Having transgressed against Jewish laws and through Jewish territory, with the offending Christian song transgressing from his lips, the “litel clergeon” brings danger upon himself by toying with the kind of marginal spaces Douglas holds to be dangerous, violating the boundaries set by the Jewish community in the process. Perhaps it is telling then, that the Jews “conspire” not just to kill the boy, but “out of the world to chace” him. For the Jewish community, this is as much an act of reordering and relocation, removing a transgressive element from a world otherwise ordered by their “Hebrayk... lawes reverence,” as it is an act of violence.

Thus we are reminded of the danger and vulnerability of marginal, permeable spaces, both geographic and corporeal. While passages like the throat and mouth can be opened for the laudable purpose of conveying the gospel from individual Christians to the surrounding world, they are also undeniably vulnerable to danger, especially for Christians passing through Jewish space. While traveling the “Juerie,” even the virtuous opening of a Christian throat in song can lead to danger—in this case a second, deadly opening, by murder. And this is not even the first opening of the child’s body mentioned by the Prioress, who just a few lines before the murder tells us that “The sweetnesse his herte perced so / Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye, / He kan nat stynte of syngyng by the weye” (555-7). Thus even before his penetration by the murderer’s knife, the boy himself can be seen as a permeable space, a conduit—for song, for blood, and for holy “sweetnesse” that pierces his heart. While this fact may render him a virtuous figure to the eyes of a Christian reader, it also renders him highly threatening to the Jews and undeniably vulnerable to penetration by forces less “sweet” than the spirit of “Cristes mooder.”

In light of this, it seems especially important to note that, after his murder, the imagery used to describe the boy takes a sharp turn. Though foully violated, his “throte ykorven” (611) and his body polluted with the filth of the “wardrobe… / Whereas thise Jewes purgen hire entraille” (572-3), the child in death is suddenly seen not as permeable, but as paradoxically pure, whole, and impenetrable. A “martir, sowded to virginitee” (579), the boy seems to be granted his miraculous resurrection due to this purity, and subsequently, though physically “ykorven,” his body is represented as impervious. A “gemme of chastite, [an] emeraude / And eek of martirdom the ruby bright” (609-10), the child is eventually safely “Enclosen” in “a tombe of marbul stones cleere” (681-2). From this triumphant ending, it seems clear that just as danger accompanies margins and permeability, safety and salvation can be found in impenetrable purity, bodily integrity, and enclosure.

Price and Kruger on Jewish and Christian Bodies in “The Prioress’s Tale”

Both Merrall Llewelyn Price and Steven F. Kruger offer helpful insight into making sense of the “manifestly physical” concerns of the “The Prioress’s Tale” (Kruger 301), including both its extreme violence and its apparent fixation on states of cleanness and filth, separation and permeability. Although readers of the tale may initially be shocked at the seeming contrast between the mannerly behavior of the Prioress and the grisly horror of her tale, Price considers these seemingly incongruous elements part and parcel of her concern for the integrity of the corpus ecclesia mysticum, the metaphorical collective body of Christian believers (199). Meanwhile, Kruger stresses the connection between Christian bodily miracles and the destruction of Jewish bodies, concluding that medieval Christian conceptions of a bloodthirsty Jewish community destroying Christian bodies in “primitive, magical rituals”—and subsequently being destroyed in turn—were essential to exorcising unspeakable anxieties about disturbing elements of Christian theology and practice (318-9). In short, both critics recognize a connection between the Prioress’s demonization of Jews and the construction and preservation of a coherent medieval Christian identity.

For Price, “the Prioress is a bastion of remarkable personal hygiene and decorum in an unsanitary world,” a label that might seem virtuous until one considers that it is an indication of significant hypocrisy:

[F]or a woman who, her famous brooch notwithstanding, has supposedly sacrificed the pleasures of the body for those of spirituality, her larger preoccupations are remarkably somatic—integrity, wholeness, purity, permeability, contagion, absorption, digestion, and excretion. (198)

Although the Prioress’s exceptionally fastidious manners and ostensibly spiritual tale seem to attempt to banish the “natural messiness” of physicality in favor of the divine, these attempts merely serve to draw our attention to the body (210). Even in the General Prologue, meticulous description of the Prioress’s conscientiously unsullied lips, fingers, and breast serves to magnify rather than diminish our awareness of her as a physical being (199). One might even say that the narrator, in describing all of the bodily pollution that does not occur—food dropping from lips, fingers dipped in sauce, crumbs falling on breasts—actually conjures vivid, detailed images not only of a physical body, but a dirty rather than clean one. Similarly, although the tale encourages us to be inspired by the holy miracle it describes, its most potent images—including the forcible cutting of a child’s throat, the immersion of his corpse in Jewish feces, and the reanimation of the grotesque cadaver—are all distinctly bodily, and even abject.

Although much of Price’s reading revolves around the conviction that “the Prioress’s unusual [bodily] preoccupations indicate that she may be dealing with a number of psychosexual developmental issues” (199), more pertinent to the concerns of this essay is the connection he draws between Mary Douglas’s work and “The Prioress’s Tale.” Drawing on Douglas’s idea that “The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious” (qtd. in 199), Price writes that:

The margins of the body—mouths, wounds, anuses, vaginas—are therefore places where the integrity and cohesion of the body are seen as particularly vulnerable. The direction taken by the Prioress’s concern with apertures and orifices and the matter that proceeds from them… indicate that this preoccupation [with the body] signifies her concern for the Christian social body, the corpus ecclesia mysticum, the boundaries of which are constantly seen as threatened, and which must therefore be constantly policed. (199)

Simply put, the filth and violence of the tale may therefore be seen as an expression of anxiety about the threat posed to the Christian community by the presence of Judaism. Thus we are presented first with the assault of the Jewish community upon a Christian body; followed by the revelation of their failure to effectively destroy, desecrate, or disable it as a vessel for holy song; and finally with the vengeful destruction of the entire community of Jews. This order of events seems aimed at acknowledging the potential danger of a Jewish presence, but ultimately assuring that the followers of Christ will necessarily triumph, and their enemies will be destroyed. However, as Price concludes, the idea that Jewish bodies are “entirely excluded—or can ever be—is part of [a] fantasy,” as Jews repeatedly return to “haunt” Christian narratives like the Prioress’s, “requiring a bloody spectacle in order to [be] exorcis[ed]” (209-10). Therefore, “Far from pointing to the seamlessness of the corpus ecclesia mysticum in its focus on bodies… [‘The Prioress’s Tale’] instead draws attention to both the disturbing permeability of the human body and the dangerous porosity of religious, social, and community identity it represents” (210).

While Price does not attempt to explore the potential reasons that the Jewish presence is so hard to expel from the imagined collective body of the Christian community—particularly given that the Jews had already been physically expelled from England at the time of Chaucer’s writing—Kruger’s excellent essay on “The Bodies of Jews in the Late Middle Ages” provides a jumping-off point for answering this question. Less seemingly surprised than Price about the pronouncedly physical concerns of the Prioress’s spiritual tale, Kruger reminds us that medieval Christian attitudes toward physicality were not entirely negative, in spite of the now popular “shorthand” that the body was viewed exclusively as “the prison of the soul” with “the flesh battl[ing] spirit and the spirit the flesh” (302). Rather, “Christianity is, after all, grounded in the marriage of flesh and spirit,” as witnessed by miracles like the Immaculate Conception and transubstantiation, a fact that is reflected in the distinctly physical nature of miracles featured in medieval tales and sermons like—but certainly not limited to—“The Prioress’s Tale” (302). Therefore, instead of simply viewing the body as inherently abhorrent, medieval Christians had a complicated relationship with the physical, which Kruger agrees with Caroline Walker Bynum in characterizing as “rooted in dualism.” While Christians on the one hand, did view the “spirit [as] opposed to or entrapped by body,” they also sought “to plumb and to realize all the possibilities of the flesh… using the possibilities of its full sensual and affective range to soar ever closer to God” (qtd. in 302-3). According to this scheme, the rituals of contemporary asceticism—traditionally seen as rejecting and mortifying the body (302)—and even the torture and transfiguration of the flesh in miracle tales like the Prioress’s may be seen as exploring and affirming the possibilities of the flesh, rather than attempting to reject it.

However, this positive valuation of physical bodies was not extended universally. While medieval Christianity may indeed have embraced the possibilities of some bodies, it unambiguously abominated the flesh of others—particularly religious Others such as Jews. While other flesh, including the bodies of women and lepers, was also held to be abhorrent, Jews held the unique position of being portrayed not only as possessing “diseased and debased bodies,” but as destroying the bodies of Christians and appropriating their parts—particularly blood—for their own sinister rituals (303). This can be witnessed perhaps most clearly by the proliferation of the blood and host libels, which revolve around the use of Christian children’s blood in Jewish rituals and even the torture of the host—believed to be the actual flesh of Christ—by Jewish antagonists. For these reasons, “Jewish bodies were often themselves seen as the appropriate targets of violence” (303).

From here, Kruger continues on to a reading of the reciprocal acts of violence inflicted and suffered by the Jewish and Christian communities in “The Prioress’s Tale.” According to Kruger:

At the heart of The Prioress’s Tale is an opposition between the Christian body, attacked but preserved, and the Jewish body, foul (purging its “entraille” [573]), attacking innocence, justly destroyed… [T]he Christian community does not simply suffer but also inflicts suffering. The Jewish community not only makes the little boy a martyr but is itself victimized. Each community acts as both persecutor and persecuted. (306-7)

Therefore, in “The Prioress’s Tale,” we see a firm connection between “Christian bodily miracles” and “the violence of Jews and… the [subsequent] dismemberment and disintegration of their bodies” (318). Abhorrent as the Jewish community is, it is their violence that enables the miracle of the child’s resurrection, after which—having served their purpose—they are violently destroyed. In spite of their necessity to the story, however, Jewish actions are denigrated whether inflicting suffering or suffering themselves, and Christian actions are valorized, whether persecuted or persecuting (318). This is a phenomenon present not only in Chaucer, but in many other contemporary miracle tales, including as Kruger discusses in some detail, The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in which a group of Jews inflicts horrible torture upon a stolen host, only to find their leader himself dismembered and partially crucified in the process (308-18). Here, as in “The Prioress’s Tale,” a Christian body (the body of Christ himself) is celebrated, seen as miraculously “vital” and paradoxically invincible in its suffering. Conversely, Jewish bodies are represented as “corrupt and violent, powerful, yet falling to pieces” (318).

Kruger provides only what he calls “one tentative suggestion” for interpreting this odd relationship between Jewish and Christian bodies (318-9), but it is a suggestion that I find incredibly useful in making sense of the intense anxiety surrounding boundaries and hygiene in “The Prioress’s Tale” and other anti-Semitic literature. Positing that the intense preoccupation of Christianity with matters of the body, including the consumption of transubstantiated flesh and blood at mass, belief in the miraculous power of relics, and an obsession with matter consumed and expelled by the body, engendered “a correspondingly deep nervousness about body,” Kruger suggests that medieval Christians may have projected their anxieties about the potentially “primitive, magical, even cannibalistic” aspects of their own tradition onto Jews (319). Therefore, medieval Christian literature presents its readers with Jewish antagonists participating in disturbing rituals that, upon closer inspection, seem to closely parallel orthodox Christian practices: “Jews who needed who needed to drink the blood of Christian innocents to be made whole, Jews who destroyed bodies for their own primitive, magical rituals and who were, in turn, dismembered” (319).

While both Price and Kruger suggest that the defamation of Jews served an important function in the construction of medieval Christian identity, it is Kruger who most clearly recognizes the uncomfortable similarity between Jewish and Christian roles in contemporary miracle tales. Although his essay never explicitly states this, acknowledgement of such an uncomfortable similarity seems a likely springboard to explaining why Jews specifically were targeted for this vilification, as it begs the following question: Were Jews in miracle tales represented as fulfilling similar—although very differently valued—roles to their Christian counterparts simply because anxieties about the disturbing elements of Christian ritual had to be projected somewhere? Or, were Jews already perceived as disconcertingly similar on some level, therefore rendering their demonization necessary to firmly distinguishing them from virtuous Christians?

“Where as this Jewes purgen hire entraille”: Anti-Semitism and Excrement in Medieval Literature and Popular Belief

In answering the previous question, it seems necessary to return to Douglas, applying her ideas to a broader review of contemporary anti-Semitic literature and beliefs. “The Prioress’s Tale” was not alone in drawing an association between Jews and filth, or more specifically, excrement. We have already noted the connection commonly made between Jews and wealth, wealth and excrement illustrated in the opening lines of the tale. Beyond this, a wide variety of medieval sources associate Jews directly with excrement, without material wealth as an intermediary. Hardly unique to “The Prioress’s Tale,” disposal of murdered corpses in cesspits and dung heaps was a common feature of blood libel stories (Bayless 156-7). Additionally, Jews were often depicted casting Christian holy objects such as the host or images of the Virgin Mary into privies (Bayless 157, Price 201-3), accidentally falling in (Bayless 158, Gregg 214-5), deliberately immersing themselves to reverse Christian baptism (Price 201), or simply naturally possessing a distinctly fetid stench—the fetor Judaicus, which converts to Christianity would notice for the first time after their baptism (Price 201).

While previous critics have offered a number of explanations for this proliferation of excrement in anti-Semitic tales, none is entirely satisfying. Although clearly aware of the relevance of Douglas’s ideas on filth to “The Prioress’s Tale” specifically, Price seems oddly uninterested in applying them to the similar stories he cites as source material. Concluding his treatment of related literature with the statement that “In linking Jews and privies in the Prioress’s Tale… Chaucer is not simply following his sources; he builds the Prioress’s character and tale around this scatological juxtaposition,” he entirely ignores the possibility that there may be any deeper significance to the appearance of excrement in these tales at all, apparently ascribing complexity exclusively to Chaucer (203). In contrast, both Joan Young Gregg and Martha Bayless discuss the meaning of this trend in some detail, concluding that excrement appears so often in these tales because it is representative of a kind of spiritual bankruptcy. In her discussion of a popular sermon—which existed in many variations—telling of a Jew who fell into a latrine on a Saturday and subsequently refused rescue by Christians due to the observance of the Sabbath—Gregg writes that the tale was used as evidence of the Jews’ adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Falling into the pit of filth maybe seen as representative of the damnation in Hell expected to result from such an empty, literal outlook (214-5). Meanwhile, Bayless writes that Jewish submersion of Christian holy artifacts in dung is representative of “the sin of unbelief,” which led Jews to the unthinkable crime of polluting the holy with the utterly abject (156-9) One story cited by Bayless even ends with an angel blocking a Jew from entering the latrine in which he has disposed of a martyred Christian, crying “Wretch, you shall not empty your bowels here!” For Bayless, defecation in this case signifies sin, making the angel’s intervention a refusal to allow the Jew to continue in his sin of disbelief and irreverence for the holy (157). While this explanation is a good starting point, it does not seem to entirely account for the anxiety about separation and boundaries seen in stories like the Prioress’s. Here and in other tales, it is not simply the boundary between the holy and profane which is violated, but also the line between Jewish and Christian communities and the boundaries of the wounded, desecrated body itself.

Before even beginning her discussion of Jews and filth, however, Bayless quotes a passage from Honorius of Autun’s twelfth-century Elucidarium which may be useful to further illuminating the connection between Judaism and excrement. Describing the metaphorical body of the Church from top to bottom, Honorius concludes: “What is more, the dung that passes out of the belly to the pigs is the unclean and other evil-doers beneath the Church, who burden the belly of Mother Church, and whom, when purged by death, the demons devour like pigs” (qtd. in 156). In this passage, we see “evil-doers” not merely associated with excrement, but represented as excrement, which must be purged from the Church. As in Gregg’s reading of the cesspit sermon, the final destination for such “dung” is figured as Hell. Bayless finds this passage interesting largely because of the way in which Honorius distances the idea of defecation from the image of Christ. While earlier lines described the Church as the body of Christ, with its head, limbs, etc. discussed as belonging to him, this quotation not only ceases to do so, but also creates further distance by feminizing it as “Mother Church” (156). This, of course, may be seen as reflecting an anxiety about distancing holy images from the abject, just as the tales of Jewish desecration of holy images do. However, it also illustrates a need to distance holy images from unholy people, “the unclean and other evil-doers.” Like “The Prioress’s Tale,” this passage reflects a fear of contamination. Although it reassuringly affirms the eventual expulsion of unclean people from the body of the Church, by including such “dung” in the description of the body and admitting its “burden [to] the belly” of the Church, it also concedes that some evil people are always present within.

Although not likely conceived as belonging to the body of the Church as depicted by Honorius, Jews absolutely would have qualified as “the unclean and evil-doers,” and it is unclear where they might fit into this metaphorical picture if not in the bowels or “beneath” the Church—although expulsion from the Church’s body is equated with death and damnation, and even non-Christians were certainly at least figured among the living. If Jews are in fact to be located among the bowels or even as dinner for the pigs beneath, it is interesting to see that this is also where Christ disappears from the description. While a firm line is to being drawn between Christ and uncleanness, this does not merely take the form of separating him from the image of defecation, but also from the presence of “evil-doers” within—or nearby without—the body of the Church.

This all begins to hint at what I believe may be the reason that medieval Jews were so consistently associated with excrement, with contamination, and with general anxiety about marginal spaces and violation of boundaries: while not Christian themselves, Jews were uncomfortably similar in heritage and theology. According to the Catholic theologian Gregory Baum, conflict between the two religions—along with Christian anti-Semitism—began from the moment that the Church proclaimed Jesus the Messiah and Judaism did not. From this point on, the Christian Church was forced to distinguish itself from Judaism, which remained as a separate religion. “It was therefore almost from the beginning that the Christian affirmation of Jesus as the Christ was accompanied by a refutational reading of the synagogal scriptures,” insisting that Jews understood only the “letter” of God’s word, but not the deeper symbolic meaning (qtd. in Koretsky 14). However, in spite of this distinction, the fact remained that Jesus and Mary were Jews, that the arrival of Christ fulfilled Jewish Old Testament prophecy, and that Christianity may therefore be seen as a particularly proliferative sect of Judaism. Because of this, we see Jews associated with excrement perhaps not merely for the somewhat more obvious reason that it was representative of their supposed literalism and attachment to a physical world that would inevitably decay—but also because it reflected Christians’ underlying anxiety about distinguishing themselves from a religious Other with whom they shared entirely too much. Jews are therefore associated with the contaminating filth of excrement, because—like the “evil-doers” in the bowels of Honorius’s Church—they are themselves a contaminant, an unbelieving group inextricable from Christian history and heritage and therefore, an unwanted complication to defining Christian identity as the undeniably correct one true faith.

In conclusion, it seems relevant to return to Douglas’s explanation of the danger associated with bodily orifices and excretions:

[A]ll margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins. We should expect the orifices of the body to symbolize its specially vulnerable points. Matter issuing from them is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind.” (121)

Following Douglas in her belief that bodily orifices and excrescences are often symbolic of the “specially vulnerable points” in a “structure of ideas,” it seems likely that Jews might have been so intimately associated with filth because they posed a challenge to the integrity and coherence of a medieval Christian worldview. As fellow monotheists, the progenitors of Christ, and God’s “Chosen People,” sharing much scripture and prophecy with Christians, Jews were religious Others that could not be dismissed as easily as pagans or even Muslims, who were often pictured as savage idolaters, barely distinguishable from one another. This anxiety about Jews perhaps made them the ideal targets for the kind of projecting that Kruger believes Christians may have used to ease anxieties regarding the potentially disturbing bodily rituals and beliefs in their own tradition. Not only does such projecting perhaps illustrate a need to preserve a worldview in which the two religions are unproblematically distinguished from one another, with Christianity seen as unquestionably virtuous and Judaism as savagely wicked; in doing so, it seems to unconsciously acknowledge an uncomfortable similarity between the two. By depicting Jews as fellow destroyers of bodies and consumers of blood—albeit in a far more overtly sinister way—medieval Christians perhaps betray what Price calls “the dangerous porosity of religious, social, and community identity” present in the body of the Christian Chuch, with Christians and Jews positioned as two differently valued sides to the same coin.

Works Cited

Bayless, Martha. Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine. New York: Routledge, 2012. Ebrary. Web. 25 November, 2012.

Gregg, Joan Young. Devils, Women, and Jews: Reflections of the Other in Medieval Sermon Stories. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Koretsky, Allan C. “Dangerous Innocence: Chaucer’s Prioress and her Tale.” Jewish Presences in English Literature. Eds. Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1990. Ebrary. Web. 25 November, 2012.

Kruger, Steven F. “The Bodies of Jews in the Late Middle Ages” The Idea of Medieval Literature: New Essays on Chaucer and Medieval Culture. Ed. James M. Dean and Christian K. Zacher. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992. Print.

Krummel, Miriamne Ara. Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Price, Merrall Llewelyn. “Sadism and Sentimentality: Absorbing Antisemitism in Chaucer’s Prioress.” Chaucer Review 43.2 (2008): 197-214. JSTOR. Web. 25 November, 2012.


[1] Glossed in the Wadsworth Canterbury Tales as “praise”

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