Undergrad Wednesdays – Islamaphobic Rhetoric in Chaucer: Not Just ‘A Thing of the Past’

[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 Canterbury Tales were written in the late 1300s, using language so antiquated to modern ears that it sometimes hardly resembles modern idiomatic English. But does this mean some potentially problematic ideals reflected in the tales are antiquated as well? Certainly not. Anti-Semitism, misogyny, and class issues are just some of the relevant and often troubling topics which pervade the tales. Particularly disquieting is the Islamophobic language used in “The Man of Law’s Tale” because of how eerily reflective it is of language used in instances of hate crimes today in the Western world. Not only that, but a driving force behind an increase in such abuses is often attributed to misrepresentation of the Islamic faith in the media, particularly in newspaper headlines. Some may scoff at the archaic lexicon of Middle English, but hundreds of years after the death of Chaucer, we must reckon with the bitter truth that we are continuing to use the written or printed word to perpetuate extremely hateful and prejudiced ideas of Islam.

A medieval depiction of the Crusades, with Muslim soldiers on the left and Christians on the right (de Tyr).

There is no question that Geoffrey Chaucer’s representation of the Islamic faith in “The Man of Law’s Tale” is extremely negative. In this tale, a Syrian Sultanness massacres her own son and hundreds of his followers in cold blood in order to gain political power. She uses her son’s conversion to Christianity to manipulate her court against him and justify the massive slaughter. Chaucer paints her as the ultimate, heartless villain, using language which suggests her Islamic faith is the root of all evil, whereas the Sultan himself may be considered an upstanding character, but only because he has forsaken his beliefs and converted to Christianity. Even though this action is merely to become eligible to marry the Christian woman, Custance, any reason for conversion is seen as preferable to retaining the Islamic faith. Syria itself is referred to as “the barbre [barbaric] nacioun” (Chaucer 126), and the Sultanness as a “welle of vices” and “roote of iniquitee [evil]” (Chaucer 128). The Muslim nation is painted as barbaric and corrupt, a mysterious land of lawlessness where a mother may murder her son without remorse and become the source of evil itself. The devil, as a snake bound to hell, is invoked in comparison to the Sultanness, with the lines, “O serpent under femynynytee [femininity], / Lik to the serpent depe in helle ybounde [like the serpent bound deep in Hell]!”(Chaucer 128). There is no definitive proof that this starkly anti-Muslim rhetoric is representative of Chaucer’s personal attitude toward Muslims; he may have been incorporating a popular sentiment of prejudice inherited from the Crusades. Fought from around 1090 through the 1200s, this was the period of Holy Wars between Christians and Muslims over sites of shared religious significance (“Crusades”). But, whether Chaucer upheld those attitudes or not, the widespread popularity and influence of The Canterbury Tales could have facilitated the spread of such hateful views in medieval popular culture.

Modern-day readers may only speculate about just how much the Man of Law’s views spread originally, but it is certainly evident that the hatred continues today. The consequences are truly tragic, as the rate of hate crimes soars in places like London, where tension over Islamophobic media representation has been building since the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris. The Metropolitan Police of London reported a 70% increase in Islamophobic hate crimes committed over the course of the year following the month of July 2014-2015, from 478 reported the previous year to a disheartening 816. The people most at risk of becoming victims to such crimes are women wearing hijab, as they are more easily targeted (Sudan). Verbal abuse like that used against a woman riding public transportation often echo sentiments which appear in The Man of Law’s Tale; in this attack, the woman is referred to as “the devil,” reminiscent of the way in which Chaucer refers to Satan’s jealousy of the Muslim Sultanness (Sudan). Newspaper headlines make damaging blanket statements with gross and off-base generalizations like “UK mosques fundraising for terror” in The Daily Star Sunday, or “Muslim sex grooming” in The Times. The first of these headlines was condemned by IPSO press regulation, and the second was referred to as “appalling” by Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Ian Hopkins. Both were criticized for using extremely misleading language to paint the Islamic faith in a negative light (Versi). Statements like these are meant to make the Islamic faith and culture appear violent and barbaric, similar to the illustration of the Sultanness depicted by the remorseless mass murder and descriptions of the “barbre nacioun” of Syria (Chaucer 126).

A Muslim woman becomes the victim of verbal attack in language which invokes the devil, akin to that used in “The Man of Law’s Tale” (“ISIS bus rant: In the grip of hate”).

Hate-filled rhetoric of this nature proves that we cannot dismiss the prejudiced sentiment depicted in medieval texts like The Canterbury Tales as antiquated and irrelevant. Instead, the striking similarities it has to how Muslim culture is represented in language today are a testament to the fact that we have not made enough progress in promoting more globally-minded and tolerant thinking. Islamophobic rhetoric has existed for far too long in written, print, and now electronic media, and improvements must be made in the kind of language used to discuss Islamic culture in unbiased and culturally aware terms. We must recognize how deeply rooted intolerant language is, the consequences it has, and the need to finally move forward and correct the manner in which Islamic culture is represented.

Meggie Kollitz
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

“Crusades.” History.com.A&E Networks 2010. Web.

de Tyr, Guillame. Histoire d’Outremer. 1500s. France (Paris), Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, FranÇais 22495 fol. 90

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ed. by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed. (Broadview, 2012)

“ISIS bus rant: in the grip of hate.” YouTube, uploaded by RT UK, 19 October 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7NUgWhxLmg&feature=youtu.be&has_verified=1

Sudan, Richard. “Increasing attacks on Muslims caused by media-hyped Islamophobia.” RT. RT 8 December 2015. Web.

Versi, Miqdaad. “Why the British media is responsible for the rise in Islamophobia in Britain.” Independent. independent.co.uk. 4 April 2016. Web.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Food for Thought: The Alt-Right and the Prioress’s Tale

[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.]

In many of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,there exist the specters of fourteenth-century social attitudes, whether these be about religion, gender, or any other topic now carefully studied by literary critics. Even amongst all of these numerous tales, however, the “Prioress’ Tale” and its blatant, vicious anti-Semitism stands out as particularly troubling. Troubling, and, unfortunately, as relevant now as it was so many centuries ago due to a curious movement among the modern alt-right supporters of America. Social and political movements, including violent or radical movements, often justify themselves with appeals to authority, wherein they use literature of the classic Western canon, from the Bible to Aristotle to Dickens, to validate their ideologies. The modern alt-right movement that has recently gained some infamy in the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the Charlottesville rally is no different.

In order to gain real traction, radical movements must appear to be steeped in legitimacy. This can come in many forms, such as the pseudoscience, phrenology, perpetuating racist attitudes, but often it comes in the form of (mis)interpreting the literary canon to fit a radical ideology. For the alt-right and very far-right, a favorite author to discuss is, strangely, Jane Austen. If read and analyzed in the way that most people would, Austen is not an ardent supporter of the alt-right, but they use her works in multiple ways. For one, she becomes a symbol of sexual purity, as part of a mythological age that ended with the 1950’s in which women were pure and chaste. Austen’s novels, as do many of the titles alt-right movements use, also hearken to a nostalgic ‘better world’ of the past, where white, Christian males had the most social power. For example, in a speech at the University of Colorado Boulder, controversial conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos references Austen in his speech extolling the dangers of feminism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTBafIj-ay0 (link removed to reduce the traffic to his site; please use only if needed for research purposes to avoid supporting intolerance). Austen is just one of many authors that the alt-right has picked up as validation; they are, for example, also very fond of ancient Greek Stoicism, using this philosophy to justify their beliefs.

Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale” is a good example of the kind of literature that alt-right groups could use to justify their positions on anti-Semitism. It is a story that totally villainizes the Jewish people, putting them in bed with Satan, saying, “Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas/ That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest/ Up swal and seide, “O Hebrayk peple, allas!” (VII. 558-560). It not only casts Jews as villains, but also perpetuates stereotypes that have followed them for centuries, as the Prioress’s statement that the Jewish community is, “Sustened by a lord of that contree/ For foul usure and lucre of vileynye/ Hateful to Christ and to his compaignye” (VII. 490-492). In other words, they are villainous money-lenders. In addition, they hate Christians for their love of Mary, and conspire (a stereotypical favorite pastime for Jews) to murder a Christian child: “Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired/ This innocent out of this world to chace/ An homycide therto han they hyred” (VII. 565-568). Because of its similarity to the problems that the modern alt-right movement has with the Jewish people, this tale could be made into an easy example of how Jews have been the way that they are for centuries, and are unlikely to change. It could easily be used to fuel hatred.

The use of canonical literature to inspire hatred, of course, raises many problematic questions. What is the correct way to approach literature that deals with sensitive issues in insensitive ways? Is it best to attempt to teach it, giving the caveat that it is insensitive? Or is it best to ignore it, or ban it, because of the idea that even with the caveat there will be, here and there, people who use such literature to justify hatred? Is literary merit always worth that risk? This hearkens to the perennial debate about whether Huckleberry Finn should be banned; some people have moved to ban it for ‘inciting racial hatred’ in high schools. All this, of course, despite the fact that many critics do not think that Huck Finn is a racist book, and its author almost certainly wasn’t- just the possibility that it could incite hatred, due to ignorance and misinterpretation, is enough for some to want it banned. Perhaps some of the Canterbury Tales, such as the “Prioress’ Tale,” are even worse than Huck Finn, because of authorial intent. Mark Twain seems to not have been a racist; Chaucer, on the other hand, might have been terribly misogynistic or anti-Semitic. Should authorial intent matter? Indeed, should a book with literary merit be banned or restricted because its author had radical or violent views, or should it be read to try to understand and counter those views, despite the risks?

Upon reading the “Prioress’ Tale” and seeing the anti-Semitism therein, these questions must be asked. For ideals that most consider dangerous and grotesque, like neo-Nazism, radical Islam, or misogyny, classic literature can be a powerful tool for trapping the mind, just as it can be a powerful tool for liberating the minds of others. The question is, which use is going to take precedence; in other words, how can the liberating be maximized while the trapping is minimized?

James DeMaio
University of Notre Dame

Work Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, Broadview Press, 2012.


Undergrad Wednesdays – Teaching the Canterbury Tales in the Alt-Right Era

[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.]

Though it has gained prominence over the course of the past couple of years, the Alternative Right — commonly known as the “Alt-Right” Movement — was branded in 2008 by Richard Bertrand Spencer, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Seeking to appeal to young, often college-aged people, the Alt-Right Movement promotes white supremacy and radical far-right ideals. It rejects mainstream conservatism, and favors extremist politics.

According to an article in The Economist, the Alt-Right primarily promotes its agenda online, through websites such as 4Chan and Reddit. While it often utilizes elements of pop culture, such as memes, to advance its ideas, as of late, the movement has also employed a much older tool to defend its tenets: medieval history.

Photo Credit: Karla Cote. Crowds crash in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Alt-Right Movement held a rally that quickly became violent.

While many Alt-Right representations of medieval culture are historically inaccurate, as The Economist notes, the movement still draws on attitudes and customs present in the Middle Ages which support a white supremacist society.

For instance, many alt-right extremists draw on the anti-Semitism present in Medieval European texts and cultures. One such example of this problematic attitude can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in particular, “The Prioress’ Tale.”

This vita, meant to inspire faithful Catholics, in all truth represents Jews as a threat to Christianity. In fact, Chaucer even goes so far as to associate them with the devil. He describes Satan as provoking the Jews to kill the young, saying “Oure first foo, the serpent Sathanas,/That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest,/Up swal, and seide, ‘O Hebrayk peple, allas!/ Is this to yow a thyng that is honest,/That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest/In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,/Which is agayn youre lawes reverence?’” (Chaucer 559-564).

Not only do these lines portray Satan as swaying the Jews and convincing them to murder the young boy; it also depicts the Jews as inherently evil, as their hearts house Satan’s “waspes nest” (560). Thus, the tale effectively others the Jews, and characterizes them as a villainous people, bent on oppressing the Christians, when in reality, they themselves were often marginalized by surrounding Catholic societies. In fact, in 1290, the Jews were even expelled from England, Chaucer’s home.

The Alt-Right adapts stories such as “The Prioress’ Tale” and others, using them to justify anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideologies. They imagine a homogenous, European medieval society espousing these beliefs, and promote this culture as the ideal society.

How, then, can we combat this abuse of medieval history?

In “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,”Professor Dorothy Kim says we must begin by unequivocally condemning the alt-right. There is no room for middle ground; she says “Denial is choosing a side. Using the racist dog whistle of ‘we must listen to both sides’ is choosing a side.” Thus, we must begin by simply acknowledging that white supremacy is an issue in the field.

Many are also beginning to tackle this issue by ferreting out the myths surrounding medieval culture. As The Economist explains, “Academics are placing a new emphasis on the ways in which medieval societies differed from the homogeneous world imagined by the alt-right.”

However, this is not enough to fully address the problem at hand. Texts such as “The Prioress’ Tale” demonstrate that medieval societies sometimes did promote harmful ideals, such as anti-Semitism and fear of non-Western cultures. While some might argue that these pieces of literature should be abandoned altogether, this would ignore difficult parts of the past and fail to grapple with them.

Photo Credit: Painting by Edward Burne-Jones, courtesy of Wikipedia. The Virgin Mary places a grain of wheat on the martyred boy’s tongue, allowing him to continue singing after his death. The story casts Jews as dangerous villains, who kill a young boy and threaten the existence of larger Christian society.

Perhaps the best way to teach these texts — and reclaim them from movements such as the Alternative Right — is to begin by giving them context. This context can be developed by bringing in the writings of Jews, women, and people of color into the classroom and discussing the complexities of non-European medieval cultures. People of color, Jews, and women often faced barriers preventing them from participating in European literary traditions. However, expanding the medieval canon to include medieval texts from around the world can help to bring these voices into the classroom and expose students to a wider range of voices.

Furthermore, deconstructing how and why anti-Semitic beliefs developed in Medieval societies — as well as the ways they manifest themselves today — can help unearth the irrational basis of these ideologies. For example, a discussion of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of usury, and Catholics’ reliance on Jews for loans might help a misguided person come to understand the true reasons why anti-Semitism became prevalent in the Middle Ages, and subsequently, reject this prejudice.

Finally, outside of the classroom, it is important to help young people develop healthy communities and identities to inoculate themselves against movements such as the Alt-Right. The movement is known to draw especially on isolated, disaffected young men and offer them not only a means of understanding themselves individually, but also through the lens of a group identity. Thus, it is crucial to help young people develop healthy support networks and form both personal and communal identities around ethical shared values.

These suggestions are only a start to the massive issue of addressing the Alt-Right Movement’s infiltration of the academic sphere and its abuse of history to advance its agenda. Even so, this is a subject that cannot be ignored. To erase the difficult parts of history by attempting to avoid the problem only serves to perpetuate it; it is time to begin discussing ways in which to contextualize medieval history and move forward to create better communities.

Natalie Weber
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, Broadview, 2012.

Hankes, Keegan, and Alex Amend. “The Alt-Right Is Killing People.” Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center, 5 Feb. 2018, www.splcenter.org/20180205/alt-right-killing-people.

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In The Middle, www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html.

Southern Poverty Law Center. “Alt-Right.” Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/alt-right.

S.N. “The Far Right’s New Fascination with the Middle Ages.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 2 Jan. 2017, www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2017/01/medieval-memes.

Photo credits: