Working Groups in Progress (2018-2019): Jewish and Christian Books in the First Millennium CE

Medieval manuscripts create the conditions for much of our knowledge of the past. The working group on “Jewish and Christian Books in the First Millennium CE” engages Jewish and Christian texts from Late Antiquity to the early modern period, focusing on how material texts and the history of reading enrich our understanding of these texts and their readers. By illuminating the ways in which textual knowledge was—and continues to be—produced, accessed, and preserved, the study of material texts is fundamental to the study of both Judaism and Christianity.

A central emphasis for our working group is the ways that Christian and Jewish communities have oriented themselves around books and reading. For our first meeting of the year, we discussed David Stern’s The Jewish Bible: A Material History(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017). Stern argues that Jewish books have often been adapted in response to the book technologies of neighboring cultures, but are also marked as Jewish through their physical form.

A recurring theme in the working group is how both physical technologies and cultural practices facilitate the creation of textual knowledge. The production of texts builds on complex interaction between spoken language, written text, and habits of reading. In November, Tzvi Novick introduced us to a particular example of this complexity by presenting his work on “Orality, Writing, and Language Choice in Early Roman Palestine.” In our next meeting (1 March), Hildegund Müller will discuss the medieval manuscript transmission of Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos. Her work engages the ways that medieval manuscripts, their scribes, and their readers have preserved and changed Augustine’s oeuvre.

Scribes and readers also curate texts for the benefit of subsequent readers. One way to do this is by providing paratexts, that is, features like tables of contents, section divisions, or explanatory notes that guide the reader and structure the text. In October, Jeremiah Coogan presented his research on the Eusebian apparatus, a set of Gospel cross-references that occurs in late ancient and medieval manuscripts from Ireland to Ethiopia. He argued that the Eusebian apparatus creates new possibilities for reading the Gospels, which we can see at work in a number of examples from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. On 12 April, Paul Wheatley will present a paper titled “Behind the Veil of Translation: Onomastics, Interpretation, and Revelation.” Paul will discuss onomastic lists, which often appear in biblical manuscripts and explain the names of biblical people and places. Like the Eusebian apparatus, these manuscript features shape how readers encounter sacred text on the page.

Because such paratexts are added by certain readers for the benefit of other readers, they enable us to glimpse medieval reading in action. Another way that we can observe the history of reading is by attending to what readers write. In our February meeting, Andrew King demonstrated how digital analysis can be applied to ancient texts. Andrew’s paper on “The Big Data of Intertextuality and the Book of Deuteronomy” offers an approach to “distance reading” that illuminates trends in the citation of biblical texts by various authors over time.

Modern practices of collection and conservation likewise generate particular bodies of knowledge to be studied. In our January 2019 meeting, the working group looked at Brent Nongbri’s recent monograph, God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Focusing on late ancient manuscripts from Egypt, Nongbri shows how nineteenth- and twentieth-century archeologists, dealers, and collectors shaped the manuscript collections that modern scholars study and what we know about them. Nongbri’s work also engages the physical features of early Christian books and the challenges of historically contextualizing them.

Physical books are always situated in economic, ritual, and readerly contexts. On 31 May, we will host a conference on “The Material Gospel” to discuss the Gospels as material artifacts. Gospel books were powerful objects. Augustine of Hippo complains that his audiences put Gospel books under their pillows to cure toothache. Amulets attest that even short Gospel excerpts were used for protective power. The Gospel in codex format represented Christian identity. Gospel books were processed in liturgy and imposed on the shoulders of ordinands. As an anthological object, the multiple-Gospel codex contributed to the development of a fourfold canonical Gospel. In times of persecution, Gospel books might even be subject to public execution in place of Christ himself. The conference will explore these and similar questions from the first five centuries CE. This conference will serve as a fitting conclusion to this year’s working group, drawing together a wide range of conversations about books and reading.

Jeremiah Coogan, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Fart Jokes: “The Summoner’s Tale” and the Timelessness of Crass Humor

 [This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]
The fart scene in Step Brothers.

In films today, one of the simplest yet effective means of eliciting laughter is a fart. The Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles features a scene with cowboys farting around a campfire after consuming beans. In “Step Brothers,” one character unleashes a long, loud fart during a job interview. Another example of fart humor in modern cinema is the dinner scene in “The Nutty Professor,” starring Eddie Murphy. Murphy plays several members of the Klump family who humorously pass gas at their dinner table. However, long before the advent of cinema, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, one of the collection’s more humorous works is told by the Summoner, who also uses a fart for comedic effect. By examining Chaucer’s use of a fart and the “Summoner’s Tale’s” discussion of how to divide a fart into twelve parts, we can begin to understand why fart jokes continue to make us laugh when used in cinema today.

In The Summoner’s Tale, a friar goes to the house of an ailing man, Thomas, to ask for a donation. He explains to Thomas that he will become better if he donates more, to which Thomas replies that he already donates plenty to the other friars who come to visit. The friar then attempts to manipulate Thomas, as friars and clergy were wont to do in Chaucer’s time, by giving him a sermon about the dangers of anger, before asking him again for a donation. Thomas replies that he can have a donation if he agrees to divide it equally amongst the other friars at the convent. When the friar agrees, Thomas has him reach around to his rear end, then unleashes a monstrous fart into the friar’s hands. The friar then goes to the lord of the village and explains the ordeal. The lord’s squire offers a solution for dividing a fart evenly: place each friar around a wheel, each at the end of one of the twelve spokes. Then, allow a fart to be released at the center of the wheel. The smell will then travel evenly along each spoke and to the nose of each friar.

The Summoner’s Tale can help reveal what it is about farts that continues to make us laugh at them in today’s films. One important element of The Summoner’s Tale is the repulsiveness of the fart. Prior to the release of the fart, Chaucer uses some graphic details to drive home the disgusting nature of what is about to happen: “And doun his hand he launcheth to the clifte, / In hope for to fynde there a yifte. / And whan this sike man felte this frere / Aboute his tuwel grope there and heere, / Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart” (III, 2145-2149). The imagery of the friar reaching around Thomas’s anus alerts the reader that something of a foul nature is approaching in the narrative. The word “grope” also carries crass connotation, which, when associated with a friar, could produce a comedic effect. Another important detail is that the friar is hoping to find a gift as he reaches around. The fart is an insult in this situation, and it is humorous because of its rudeness. The friar expects money or something of value, and instead receives an obnoxious, odorous gas.

Similarly, farts in movies receive laughter partially because of their disgusting nature. The inappropriateness of a loud and odorous gas during something as important in our society as a job interview is enough to strike audiences as ridiculous. In the film “Step Brothers,” John C. Reilly’s character releases a noisy, prolonged fart in the middle of a job interview (McKay, Step Brothers). In modern society, a reasonable human would not expect such an obnoxious fart to come during such an important moment, just as the friar would not expect a fart when he believes he is about to receive a gift.

Chaucer goes beyond the use of a single fart for humor in The Summoner’s Tale. After the friar angrily takes his leave of Thomas, a squire explains a way in which a fart could be divided equally and shared amongst the friars of the convent, as Thomas intended. The squire explains that the spokes of a wheel can divide a fart so that each friar along the side of the wheel receives the same amount of gas: “By preeve which that is demonstratif / That equally the soun of it wol wende / And eke the stynk unto the spokes ende” (III, 2272-2274). This elaborate plan for the distribution of something as base as a fart most likely struck Chaucer’s audience as humorous. The idea of such a well-planned, complex method for mathematically distributing something being applied to a fart is so ridiculous that it is funny. Similarly, elaborate musings about flatulence entertain us in movies today. In the film “I Love You, Man,” Jason Segel’s character is very perceptive of when someone else is passing gas. His extreme observational skills relating to a man passing gas make for a humorous moment in the film (Hamburg, I Love You, Man).

Michael Doherty
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Brooks, Mel, director. Blazing Saddles. 1974.

Chaucer, Geoffrey, -1400.The Summoner’s Tale IIIfrom The Canterbury Tales.Ontario: Boenig& Taylor, 2012. Print.

Chitwood, Adam. “Exclusive: Will Ferrell Talks STEP BROTHERS 2 and Political Comedy SOUTHERN RIVALS with Zach Galifianakis.” Collider, 3 May 2011, collider.com/willferrell-interview-step-brothers-2-southern-rivals/.

Hamburg, John, director. I Love You, Man. 2009.

McKay, Adam, director. Step Brothers. 2008.

Shadyac, Tom, director. The Nutty Professor. 1996

“The Canterbury Tales: The Legacy Today (The Summoner’s Tale).” The (Pop) Culture   Medievalist, 9 Nov. 2017, neomedievalism.info/2017/11/10/the-canterbury-tales-the     legacy-today-the-summoners-tale/.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Chaucer, Disney, and The Good vs. Evil Narrative

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]
Portrait of Chaucer: Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Disney: Wikimedia Commons

The art of storytelling is a complex one, but most tales can be distilled into a simple theme: good versus evil. While this approach to narrative might not seem immediately problematic, it becomes much more obviously troubling when a group of systemically oppressed people is repeatedly cast in the role of the villain. The Jewish people in particular have suffered a lot at the hands of this discriminatory casting, as is achingly apparent in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Prioresses’s Tale.” The poem, laden with an exaggerated anti-Semitism, has been difficult to reconcile for many critics. Some of Chaucer’s most devoted supporters excuse his prejudice as satire or as merely an unavoidable reflection of his historical and social context. I would argue, however, that these readings do not do enough to address the very real consequences of such anti-Semitism, spending too much time debating its origins rather than its effects. As Natalie Weber shows in her post “’The Prioress’ Tale:’ The Problem of Medieval Texts and the Alt-Right Movement,” Chaucer is speaking to people whose voices are still poisoning modern society. But his anti-Semitism may not even be the most famous in the world of media and entertainment.  Another way we can consider “The Prioress’s Tale” and its impact on Western culture is by examining the problematic nature of Chaucer’s work alongside that of another figure who looms perhaps as large and faces similar accusations: Walt Disney. While many have debated whether or not Disney was sexist, racist and anti-Semitic, the lack of cultural sensitivity and the presence of moral oversimplification in his work have made indelible marks on popular culture, regardless of the personal feelings Disney had towards these groups of people.

In her tale, the Prioress tells the story of a young boy who is murdered by inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto for singing the Alma redemptoris as he passes through their town. The depiction of Jewish people in this story is wholly unfavorable, to say the least, their cruelty a directive from Satan himself. The young boy, by contrast is the embodiment of religious devotion and childlike innocence.  He exhibits a degree of obedience and desire to please God seldom found in seven-year-olds, no matter how pure of heart they may be. The Prioress introduces him primarily through his steadfast faith: “And eek also whereas he saugh thy’mage/Of Cristes mooder, he hadde in usage,/As hym was taught to knele adoun and seye/His Ave Marie as he goth by the weye” (Chaucer 505-508). This child devotes his whole being to the worship of Christ’s mother, kneeling whenever the occasion for it arises. Throughout the poem, the Prioress emphasizes how the child behaves as he was taught, never once suggesting that he would deviate, intentionally or otherwise, from behavior sanctioned by his mother, his teachers, or by God. He is constantly characterized as “innocent” and “litel,” making it impossible for anyone to find fault with a creature so pure. Another section following his cruel murder compares his perfection to emeralds and rubies: “This gemme of chastite, this emeraude/And eek of martirdom the ruby bright” (Chaucer 609-610). By conflating the child and his “chastite” and “martirdom” to perfect jewels, the speaker defines him and his conduct as ideal, as items that are synonymous with value.

The speaker’s representation of the Jews is as condemning as the child’s is laudatory. The Prioress’s immediate connection of them to Satan could not make their evil nature any more clear. She says, “Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,/That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest” (Chaucher 558-559). As if it were not enough to accuse the Jewish people of being under the influence of Satan, the speaker had to characterize that influence as a wasp’s nest, implying not just danger, but a sort of festering corruption. They are not even distinguished by any one character, but simply exist as one uniform body of “cursed Jues.” Through the Prioress, Chaucer develops a narrative of good versus evil devoid of any character complexity on either side. Whether or not one believes that the story is evidence that Chaucer himself was anti-Semitic, he still engages with this harmful collapsing and villainizing of the Jewish community, and as Emmy Zitter argues in her essay “Anti-Semitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale,” “a satirist can be only as effective as his audience’s attitudes will allow” (278). Try as scholars might to search for reasons to read the tale as ironic, much of Chaucer’s audience would have seen such a representation of Jews as affirming of their own negative perceptions, and that fact is what makes the text dangerous, regardless of Chaucer’s intent.

Another man whose anti-Semitism has been a subject of intense debate is Walt Disney. The evidence is not totally consistent, as some cite his frequent employment of Jewish people as proof that he was not, while others claim that despite that fact Disney was deeply resentful of Jews’ success in Hollywood (Medoff). Turning to Disney’s alleged treatment of his employees is not incredibly helpful when evaluating the validity of these claims, but the stereotypes and ideals that came through in his work are much more revealing. In “Re-Reading Disney: Not Quite Snow White,” Claudine Michel describes an incident in which Disney almost let an offensive ethnic stereotype into his film:

The first version of The Three Little Pigs(1933), for example included a scene in which the Big, Bad Wolf disguised himself as a Hebrew peddler, complete with bear, long robe and thick spectacles. After leaders of the Jewish community in the US met Walt Disney to express their concern that such caricatures should not be lent legitimacy in the eyes of children at a time when anti-Semitism was rising around the world, he reluctantly changed the wolf’s disguise to that of an ordinary brush salesman. (12)

While most of the Disney films that persist in the modern consciousness stop short of egregious anti-Semitism, problematic representations of certain ethnic groups are still perpetuated by the company. In an article from the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Rachel Shalita from the Education Department at Hamidrasha Art Academy discusses the ways in which more modern Disney films promote anti-Semitism. The article’s author, Dana Shweffi, writes, “Shalita claims Aladdin depicts Arabs in a way that is reminiscent of old anti-Semitic cartoons and caricatures. ‘The movie opens with an Arab character that looks like a caricature of a Jew with a long nose and all of the Arab characters speak English with an Arabic accent except for Aladdin and Princess Jasmine who speak with an English accent’” (Shweffi). Even though it was made in 1992, Aladdin seems to actively embrace ethnic stereotypes. Through these characterizations, the Walt Disney Company does no favors for the Arabic or Jewish people, but this simplicity of representation manifests elsewhere as well. This lack of nuance also bleeds into all Disney films’ approach to morality, a problem that is more subtle, but still has insidious effects.

In films as old as The Three Little Pigs or as new as Aladdin, Disney’s staunch conservatism continues to make its way into much of his work. As with Chaucer and his “Prioress’s Tale,” “…much of the major animated work to come out of the Disney studio, the subtleties of traditional stories are boiled down into stark moral tales of Good v Evil, the forces of light against the forces of darkness” (Michel 10). These kinds of narratives may not be as obviously as harmful as those that deal in ethnic stereotypes to make their points; they are more subtly sinister in their role in dictating the moral values of an entire culture. Debating whether or not Disney or his work was intentionally anti-Semitic is in some ways a less productive discussion than one that examines “…Disney’s work as a potentially significant factor in shaping the notions of racial and cultural hierarchy in the West and the Third World alike” (Michel 13).  The simplicity of the good versus evil narrative is necessarily morally reductive and quite often places a person or group of people, sometimes Jewish people, in the position of wrongdoer. To have children consume media of this kind during such a formative period encourages them to develop a moral framework that is not unlike the one Chaucer puts forth in the “Prioress’s Tale.” Sure, the story is more compelling for its extremeness of character, but these tales also instruct one to understand humanity and morality as a dichotomy, so that when ambiguous ethical questions do arise, impressionable audiences are less equipped to deal with them.

Amanda Pilarski
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Medoff, Rafael. “Streep Ignites Debate: Was Walt Disney Anti-Semitic?” The American Israelite, 2014.

Michel, Claudine. “Re-Reading Disney: Not quite Snow White.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 17, no. 1, 1996, pp. 5-14, doi:10.1080/0159630960170101.

Zitter, Emmy. “Anti-Semitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 25, no. 4, 1991, pp. 277-84.

Shweffi, Dana. “Do Disney Movies Promote Anti-Semitism and Racism?” Haaretz, Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd, 16 Aug. 2009, www.haaretz.com/1.5092056.