- Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings
Chaucer and the Jews is an outstanding collection that brings together important reprintings with exciting new work. The fourteen essays present both richly historicized and theoretically sophisticated analyses of the figure of the Jew, recognized in so many of the contributions as a critical "absent presence" in the late medieval English imagination.
As she outlines in her introduction, one of Delany's aims is "to recuperate a side of his [Chaucer's] work that has usually been veiled" (p. viii), entering the field of Jewish Studies through questions raised by study of Chaucer's work. This approach challenges readers to look beyond a narrow critical focus on the infamous antisemitism of Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale."
This type of inquiry is exemplified in Colin Richmond's provocative and impassioned "Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry," which urges readers to consider how "Jewish history permeates European history," and how "its absence from the history of . . . England tells us at once a great deal about Englishness" (p. 214). Richmond reviews key moments in English history and the writing of it, offering a revisionist look at the ways in which inclusion of Jewish history challenges cherished assumptions.
Delany's own contribution to the volume takes such a path, investigating the overlooked setting of "The Prioress's Tale" in "Asye," which according to Delany, "likely includes . . . Central Asia . . . Turkey and the Arab regions" (p. 43). Delany's approach goes against the grain of much interpretation of the "Prioress's Tale," which often tends to remove it from history. Delany examines a broader geo-political frame, showing how the tale's setting reveals a concern with Islam and demonstrating how representations of Jews and Muslims are intermeshed in late-medieval English imagination. Delany makes the convincing argument that Chaucer would have been well aware of these political, economic, and military contexts, although she resists providing a definitive answer on Chaucer's own (ultimately unknowable) views.
This critical connection between representations of Jews and Muslims is also found in Christine Rose's essay, which analyzes visual as well as theological and literary materials to show how the two evil mothers-in-law in the "Man of Law's Tale" evoke the figure of Synagoga, thus representing the Jews as a menace inextricably linked to Islam.
William Jordan provides a careful study of the Pardoner's collection of unusual "relics," among them a sheep bone from a "Holy Jew." Jordan shows how such an item might have impressed the uneducated through drawing on the cachet of a "Jewish pedigree" that seems to hark back to the patriarchs. This "relic" would not, however, have fooled the more sophisticated, serving as yet another element through which the Pardoner's "vicious" nature and damning hypocrisy is revealed. [End Page 158]
Jerome Mandel's essay unravels the puzzling reference to the "Jews werke" of Sir Thopas's hauberk in the "Tale of Sir Thopas." Mandel argues that the handiwork of Jews would be associated not with the type of workmanship necessary to create effective weaponry, but instead with decorative finery, generating a contrast sure to make Sir Thopas seem even more ridiculous to a knowing audience.
In the last essay in the "Chaucer Texts" section, Sylvia Tomasch draws upon both postcolonial theory and cyberspace studies to develop the concept of the "virtual Jew." Before their 1290 expulsion, the Jews of England were subjects of "internal colonization," living as a dominated group within the country (pp. 75-6). Even after their exile, however, they retained a powerful "virtual" presence that grew from their previous historical presence. Drawing on a range of texts and contexts, Tomasch explores how this "virtual presence" reveals "integral connections between imaginary constructions and actual people" (p. 78), presenting a theoretical tool for understanding the nature and power of the Jewish "absent presence" in English history and in constructions of what constitutes "England" and "the English."
After this wealth of readings based in Chaucer's writings, the volume then presents essays on important non-Chaucerian texts. Mary Dove demonstrates how...