Conclusion Virtuous Pagans and Virtual Jews

  • Frank Grady
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Gower does tell one story in which the praiseworthy law of an unconverted pagan features prominently. This is the well-known tale of the Jew and the Pagan, which appears in book 7 in six manuscripts of Macaulay’s second recension of the Confessio amantis. One summer, in the wilderness between Cairo and Babylon, two men fall in with one another by chance. As they travel and talk, one asks the other, “What man art thou, mi lieve brother? / Which is thi creance and thi feith?” (7.3220–21). As we have seen, such an inquiry into a stranger’s “creance” puts us in virtuous pagan territory, and the traveler’s answer confirms our expectation


Christian Writer Miraculous Healing Piers Plowman Heavenly City Golden Legend 


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  1. 2.
    For this text see Robert Steele, ed., Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum EETS e.s. 74 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898), pp. 41–118; the story of the Jew and the “enchauntere of þe orient” appears on pp. 104–06. On the origins of the tale, seeGoogle Scholar
  2. M.A. Manzalaoui, “‘Noght in the Registre of Venus’: Gower’s English Mirror for Princes,” in Medieval Studies for J.A.W. Bennett (Aetatis Suae lxx), ed. P.L. Heyworth (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1981), p. 173.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ed. Steele, Three Prose Versions, p. 106. For discussion of Gower’s alterations see Elizabeth Porter, “Gower’s Ethical Microcosm and Political Macrocosm,” in Gower’s Confessio amantis: Responses and Reassessments, ed., A.J. Minnis (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1983), p.155, andGoogle Scholar
  4. Dorothy Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 110. Also noteworthy is the fact that in Gower, it is the pagan who first articulates his law, not the Jew.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    See Fran?s Hartog, The Mirror of Herotodus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, trans. Janet Lloyd (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 258–59. I owe this citation to Alan S. Ambrisco, who smartly uses “the rule of the excluded middle” to describe the relationship between the audience, the court of Cambyuskan, and the gift-bearing knight in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale in his “ ‘It Lyth Nat in My Tonge?: Occupatio and Otherness in the Squire’s Tale,” ChR 38: 3 (2004): 205–28, esp. 213–14.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The bibliography on medieval anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages more generally is too large and too quickly growing to be adequately captured in a footnote; nevertheless, some key texts (with an English emphasis) are Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978)Google Scholar
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  15. Sylvca Tomasch, “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), pp. 243–60Google Scholar
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  17. Lee Patterson, “‘The Living Witness of Our Redemption’: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer’s Prioresse’s Tale,” JMEMS 31:3 (2001): 507–60Google Scholar
  18. Sheila Delany, ed., Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings (New York: Routledge, 2002)Google Scholar
  19. Lisa Lampert, Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 7.
    On this passage see Benjamin Braude, “Mandeville’s Jews Among Others,” in Pilgrims and Travellers to the Holy Land, ed. Bryan F. LeBeau and Menachem Mor, Studies in Jewish Civilization 7 (Omaha, NE: Creighton University Press, 1995), pp. 145–49, andGoogle Scholar
  21. Iain Higgins, Writing East: The “Travels” of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 178–89.Google Scholar
  22. 8.
    “And other trees that beren venym ayenst the whiche there is no medicyne but [on], and that is to taken here propre leves and stampe hem and tempere hem with water and than drynke it; and elles he schalle dye, for triacle wil not avaylle ne non other medicyne. Of this venym the Iewes had let seche of on of here frendes for to enpoysone alle Cristiantee, as I haue herd hem seye in here confessioun before here dyenge. But, thanked be alemyghty God, thei fayleden of hire purpos, but alleweys thei maken gret mortalitee of people” (21.139–40). The accusation of course echoes contemporary charges that the Jews caused the plague by poisoning wells. The passage, typically Mandevillean in its assumption that “confessioun” is part of Jewish practice, is likely an interpolation into the Cotton text, as it is absent in the earlier Defective Version; see ed. M.C. Seymour, The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels, EETS o.s. 319 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 83.Google Scholar
  23. 10.
    Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. David Lawton, “The Surveying Subject and the ‘Whole World’ of Belief: Three Case Studies,” NML 4 (2001): 25, makes the provocative observation that in his itinerancy, “Sir John” resembles the homeless Jew: “Taken seriously, he is ubiquitous and homeless; he, not the Sultan or the Khan, is the ‘other’ of the text, at home in every language, the eternal foreigner: the ‘perennial other,’‘radically heteronomous.’ I am citing Levinas here, who goes on to add: ‘Jew’…It is Mandeville’s aporia; the text’s kinship with what it most hates.”Google Scholar
  25. 14.
    The distinction between potentially righteous Hebrews and cursed Jews is a staple of medieval Christian writing about Jews; see e.g, Kruger, “Spectral Jew,” pp.12–15, and Narin van Court, “Socially Marginal,” pp. 298–308. As Sylvia Tomasch has shown, the binary also informs Dante’s Commedia another poem very interested in virtuous pagans; see her “Judecca, Dante’s Satan, and the Dis-placed Jew,” in Text and Territory, pp. 247–67. Ironically enough, in post-Expulsion England the most likely encounter for an inhabitant of the London of Langland or Gower to have with living Jews would have been with a converted Jew; on the history of the Domus Conversorum, the establishment that housed such individuals, see Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Jews and Saracens in Chaucer’s England,” SAC 27 (2005): 125–65.Google Scholar
  26. 16.
    The definitive account of the poem’s manuscripts, sources, and origin is the edition of Ralph Hanna and David Lawton, The Siege of Jerusalem, EETS o.s. 320 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). All quotations are drawn from this edition. Notable among the surviving MSS are two in which the poem appears with Piers Plowman (the C-version in Bodleian Lib. MS Laud Misc. 656, the B-version in Huntington Lib. MS HM 128) and one (Brit. Lib. MS Add. 31042) copied by Robert Thornton, who also copied the Alliterative Morte Arthure. On the last seeGoogle Scholar
  27. John J. Thompson, Robert Thornton and the London Thornton Manuscript: British Library MS Additional 31042 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987).Google Scholar
  28. 17.
    The poet’s lurid attention to the grisly details of Jewish suffering during the siege essentially put the poem off-limits to modern criticism until relatively recently; in fact such an observation has itself become commonplace of the growing body of fine essays and chapters devoted to the Siege, which includes Ralph III Hanna, “Contextualizing The Siege of Jerusalem,” YLS 6 (1992): 109–21Google Scholar
  29. Elisa Narin van Court, “The Siege of Jerusalem and Augustinian Historians: Writing About Jews in Fourteenth-Century England,” ChR 29 (1995):227–48Google Scholar
  30. David Lawton, “Titus Goes Hunting and Hawking: The Poetics of Recreation and Revenge in The Siege of Jerusalem,” in Individuality and Achievement in Middle English Poetry, ed. O.S. Pickering (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997), pp. 105–117Google Scholar
  31. Christine Chism, Alliterative Revivals (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 155–88Google Scholar
  32. Roger Nicholson, “Haunted Itineraries: Reading The Siege of Jerusalem,” Exemplaria 14 (2002): 447–84. There is also a book-length studyCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Bonnie Millar, The Siege of Jerusalem in its Physical, Literary, and Historical Contexts (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  34. 21.
    Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 14.Google Scholar
  35. 22.
    The one exception to this rule is the Jewish historian Josephus, who accompanies Titus back to Rome,“þer of þis mater and mo he made fayre bokes” (1326). As Chism observes,“if a Jewish figure can be coopted to agree to his own supersession, Josephus is he” (p. 184). On the relevance of contemporary crusading to the Siege, see Chism, Alliterative Revivals, p. 169, who observes astutely that “The Siege of Jerusalem shows how the Muslim supersession of Christianity darkens medieval Christianity’s views of its own Jewish forefather. The poem reflects the troubled consciousness of an Augustinian Christianity caught in its own supers-essional dialectic and, unable to dislodge its successor from the Holy Land, taking ‘great consolation’ in turning its frustration against a more vulnerable precursor.” See also Nicholson, “Haunted Itineraries”; Millar, Siege pp. 147ff; and Mary Hamel,“The Siege of Jerusalem as a Crusading Poem,” in Journeys to God: Pilgrimage and Crusade, ed. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), pp. 177–94.Google Scholar

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© Frank Grady 2005

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