Ethics, Criticism, Anti-Semitism: Chaucer’s Prioress and the Jews

Collaborative Group

Dr. Heather Blurton, Professor Hannah R. Johnson




Do scholars have special obligations when discussing historical bigotry? Are medievalists exempt from such questions because they study a period remote in time? This project reassesses the critical history of Chaucer’s anti-Semitic poem, the Prioress’s Tale, in the context of conflicts between the claims of ethics and those of historicism in discussions of medieval anti-Semitism. Contemporary critics feel compelled to acknowledge that the Tale carries a significant ethical challenge for post-Holocaust readers, but the nature of the dilemma is often elided, leaving the stakes for historical understanding unexamined. Our intervention combines archival work and historical analysis with a critical history of earlier scholarship. This project will result in a co-authored book that intends to contribute to conversations about the aims of studies addressing hostile representations of outgroups, within and beyond medieval studies. Most importantly, however, this project models a critical approach relevant to the study of texts and works of art that have traditionally been considered masterpieces, while at the same time containing significant anti-Semitic overtones, such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Dicken’s Oliver Twist, Bach’s St John’s Passion, or Wagner’s Ring cycle. This is Blurton’s and Johnson’s first long-format collaboration; they have previously co-authored a review article, “Virtual Jews and Figural Criticism,” for Philological Quarterly. Award period: July 1, 2013 - June 30, 2014