Magical Thinking: Plague, Pandemic & Unconventional Cures from the Black Death to the Covid-19

When the pandemic strikes, and the trusted authorities are without a sure remedy, people extend their search for a cure, and they often resort to more unorthodox means of healing associated with alternative forms of authority and knowledge. Some of the most famous medieval collections of tales are set in times of plague when folk fled to the countryside to avoid exposure to pestilence, as in Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s grim “Pardoner’s Tale” from his Canterbury Tales (which were themselves modeled on Boccaccio‘s collection of stories).

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript ( The Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f.153v).

Medieval historian John Aberth writes of the plague known as Black Death, “for this pestilential infirmity [of 1348], doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medicine [physic], or the art of astrology.” Aberth adds that although there were no medical solutions, those peddling in various cures could profit from a plague, and he argues that “To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false” (The Black Death, 37).

In the Middle Ages, whenever plagues hit, people’s fear of the disease quickly resulted in a lack of faith in traditional authorities, at times followed by scapegoating. The later phenomenon has been observed with respect to xenophobic conspiracy theories targeting marginalized groups, which alleged that Jews were poisoning wells (and sometimes gypsies and witches) in order to spread the Black Death during the later part of the medieval period. And, as Samuel K. Cohn observes, it was then, “Not until the late sixteenth century did authorities once again arrest people suspected of spreading the plague through poisons and tampering with food; these later waves of fear, however, did not target Jews as the principal suspects; instead, witches or hospital workers were now persecuted” (“The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” 27).

Image of priest instructing the sick (lepers). James le Palmer, “Omne Bonum” in The British Library, Royal 6 VI f.301r.

Of course, in the earlier medieval period, when plague descended and church authorities—with all their medical knowledge and spiritual wisdom—were without a cure, medieval people might understandably turn to the other major source of authority in their lives, their kings and secular rulers, for guidance. We see this phenomenon manifest in the medieval belief that French and English monarchs (including saint-kings such as Saint Louis IX and Edward the Confessor) possessed miraculous healing powers. In time of plague, this gesture served to legitimize royalty as divinely sanctioned and win favor with the people, who could understandably become more restless during times of epidemic and pandemic.

Although kings and queens were often unskilled with respect to medical knowledge, especially by comparison to the clergy and university doctors, this sort of magical thinking and desire to imbue a leader with supreme knowledge and boundless inherent wisdom (despite their often limited information and experience) presents a totalitarian image of a ruler, which relies on public ignorance in order to reinforce the notion of a divinely organized, rigidly hierarchical society. It is a form of hero worship which knows no bounds.

The Royal Touch, in British Library, Royal 16 G.VI, f.424v.

As J. N. Hays points out, “the healing touch was a product of political motives, at least in part. But it coincided with a widespread belief in kings as magicians, endowed with near-divine powers” (The Burden of Disease, 33). This political motive leveraged popular belief in the royal touch to solidifying the claim that monarchs were chosen by God and thus superior in both the spiritual and political realms.

If the king’s touch failed to heal, or one simply did not have access to a royal hand, there was always the other—unspoken and taboo—source of power: magic and witchcraft. As Catherine Jenkin notes “During Venice’s plague outbreaks, notably 1575–1577 and 1630–1631, the population, desperate for a cure, turned to both sanctioned and unsanctioned healers. The wealthy consulted physicians; the less wealthy consulted pharmacists or barber-surgeons; the penitent consulted clergy; and the poor or desperate consulted streghe, or witches” (“Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft,” 202). Desperate times called for desperate measures, and without any effective treatments available, everything was on the table.

Image depicts the two witches on a broomstick and a stick, in Martin Le Franc’s “Ladies’ Champion”, 1451; see W. Schild. Die Maleficia der Hexenleut’, 1997, S. 97.

Still, the Middle Ages suffers from a somewhat inaccurate reputation with respect to religious and learned views on the magic, which until the later period regarded folk healing and herbal remedies as mere superstitions, though throughout the period, “witchcraft was universally illegal under both sacred and secular law and even healing magic might be considered heretical” (Jenkins, 204). Nevertheless, folk traditions were generally considered relatively unthreatening by church authorities, especially compared to popular medieval heresies, which argued for unorthodox, though often quite learned, interpretations of Christianity, such as the Catharism & Lollardy, and heretical groups such as the Knights Templar, Hussites & beguines to name a few that drew special attention in the period prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation.

Furthermore, folk healing was sometimes efficacious, and  Helen Thompson has recently argued for a connection between herbal remedies and modern pharmacies and drug markets.

Old English medical practices, The British Library, Cotton Vitellius C III, f.22v.

Richard Kieckhefer famously categorizes magic in the Middles Ages as either “natural” or “demonic” in orientation. Folk healers, and most so-called witches, (especially during the earlier period) are regarded by Kieckhefer as practitioners of the former, while seemingly more learned necromancers, who adapt and pervert Christian rituals, are considered practitioners of the later category of magic (and feature later in the period). Scholars such as Aberth, Kieckhefer, Jenkins, Brian Levak and others have each demonstrated a relationship between a rise in magic and the Black Death in Europe (Aberth, The Black Death; Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials; Jenkins, “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft”; Levak, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe).

Desperate people might pursue illicit measures to procure a remedy for pestilence, and as a result interest in magic cures, protections, spell, talismans and wards increased alongside demand. Indeed, it is possible that this contributed to theories that witches poisoned wells and ultimately the hysteria surrounding early modern witch-hunts.

Annales de Gilles Le Muisit, Black Death at Tournai, 1349; France Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale.

It is important to note that, while the church authorities generally maintained that magic was demonic illusion, the rise of universities gave way to a learned study of “natural magic” in the form of the pursuit to unlock the occult powers in the natural world [i.e. God’s creation]. Hayes observes how “Natural magic, which attempted to understand the hidden powers of nature, was bolstered by philosophy as well as by religion. These relations were clearest in the late Middle Ages and the period of the Renaissance, when neo-Platonic doctrines gained wider currency among thinkers. Neo-Platonic beliefs insisted on the complete interrelation and mutual responsiveness of the different phenomena of the universe” (The Burdens of Disease, 81).

This approach became more widely acceptable leading up to and during the scientific revolution, especially the medical theories of the ancient physician Galen [130-210 CE], and so what Kieckhefer might categorize as natural magic in the later period bifurcates into two distinct subtypes—the highly learned, quasi-medical and folk traditional healing practices. Moreover, the university study of medicine rooted in classical theories of the four humors remained a medical authority, and one which generally held the approval of the church authorities and royal authorities alike. It is worth acknowledging that none of these authorities appear entirely “correct” by modern medical standards, and even the most learned methods involved practices that were toxic and harmful to the body.

Physician letting blood from a patient. Attributed to Aldobrandino of Siena: Li Livres dou Santé. France, late 13th Century. The British Library, Sloane 2435 f.11v.

Still, while some medieval and early modern medical practices were undeniably ineffective or even counterproductive, it’s worth pointing out that some practices were helpful, such as quarantine measures during plague. Even the spooky plague doctor outfits from the early modern era—equipped with cloth masks and a leather suit for personal protection—reveal growing awareness with respect to contagion by contact (prior to germ theory), which overlapped with conventional medical theories that alleged the classical notion of miasma or “bad air” was polluting infected spaces with plague and pestilence.

Mark Earnest contends that “Despite its fearsome appearance, the plague doctor’s costume—the ‘personal protective equipment’ of the Middle Ages—had a noble purpose. It was intended to enable physicians to safely care for patients during the Black Death” (“On Becoming a Plague Doctor“). The plague doctors‘ cloth beak contained perfumed herbs to purify the miasma, their waxed robe were designed to shield the practitioner, and their cane allowed physicians a quick means by which to measure their proximity and maintain distance from sick patients during examinations and treatments. Although Earnest seems to regard plague doctors as a medieval phenomenon, historical evidence suggests that these practitioners were primarily a fixture of the early modern period.

Paulus Fürst’s 1656 satirical engraving called ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rom,’ or ‘Doctor Beaky from Rome.’

Although, there is ample evidence for widespread medieval belief in learned scientia “science” (often knowledge from classical sources or universities), many historians maintain the narrative that since the scientific revolution in the early modern era, there has been a gradual trend toward belief in science and medical professionals, and the public has generally come to accept doctors’ advice over the opinions of political leaders, when it comes to issues of health and medicine. However, even if one were to accept this notion of historical progress, today’s pandemic problematizes this grand narrative by demonstrating how similar medieval and modern people can be. Like so many established institutions and professional authorities in the age of (dis)information and the rise of Trumpism in America, medical professionals are under attack, and their recommendations and expert advice have become limited by the president of the United States.

As during some medieval and early modern monarchies, it seems that the political leader of the United States feels his position entitles him to an opinion on everything and bestows him with innate wisdom. And, like the royal touch, Trump is not afraid to offer his own unconventional and unsubstantiated remedies for the novel coronavirus which has resulted in an unprecedented global pandemic during his presidency. Despite no medical training or credentials, Trump has publicly sparred with NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) Director, Dr. Fauci, and with his own CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines and recommendations. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), known to slow the spread of this highly contagious and robust virus, has become politicized in the president’s attempt to deny the issue and deflect blame and responsibility by minimizing the perceived impact and threat of the disease.

US President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases attend a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on March 3, 2020, following up on the COVID-19, coronavirus, outbreak. Photo by Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images.

Indeed, our modern pandemic is not without its scapegoats, as president Trump continues to refer to the coronavirus as the “China virus” in a racially-loaded reference to the place of the virus’ origin in Wuhan, China (briefly referenced in my recent blog on internet trolling). Additionally, calling the coronavirus the “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus” fuels conspiracies theories, including that the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan. In addition to xenophobic scapegoating, today’s imaginative responses include now-discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who asserts that the novel coronavirus is being wrongly blamed for many death and even implicates Fauci in a “plandemic” that alleges masks “activate” the virus.

There is no evidence for viral engineering, nor any “plandemic” orchestrated by Fauci, but nevertheless these modern conspiracy theories persists online and ultimately in the minds of those persuaded by their unsubstantiated claims.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF CDC/ ALISSA ECKERT, MS; DAN HIGGINS, MAM.

Trump has himself given a couple of jaw-dropping recommendations, the first being his personal endorsement of the use of untested malaria drug hydroxychloroquin in treating the symptoms of covid-19, which Dr. Fauci repeatedly cautioned Americans against taking unless recommended by medical professionals. Some have raised the issue of Trump’s own small investment in hydroxychloroquin and allege a financial conflict of interest may lay behind his endorsement of the drug, though this claim has been widely discredited. Still, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Trump continues to insist on using this drug as a treatment for the novel coronavirus.

The president’s second and more startling suggestion was that perhaps an “inside injection” of disinfectants, such as Lysol and other Bleach products, directly into the body might do the trick, considering these chemical we so effective at killing the virus (and also people who ingest them). Trump then pointed to his head, adding: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” As expected, the CDC and Poison Control (as well as manufacturers and eventually social media platforms) responded by contradicting the president’s objectively harmful recommendation, enthusiastically pushed by some of his more ardent supporters.

Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies CEO Martin Meeson [right], speaks as President Donald Trump wears a face mask during a tour of Bioprocess Innovation Center at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Morrisville, N.C. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Even some at the conservative media outlet Fox News, often friendly to Trump and his agenda, in this instance challenged the president’s uninformed suggestion. Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto described Trump’s recommendations as “unsettling,” and the news anchor plainly acknowledged that “The president was not joking in his remarks yesterday when he discussed injecting people with disinfectant.” Cavuto also delivered a sober warning to his viewers: “From a lot of medical people with whom I chat, that was a dangerous, crossing-the-line kind of signal that worried them because people could die as a result.”

Indeed, when viewed in this light, Trump’s continued magical thinking with respect to covid-19 seems to mirror medieval responses to plague and the Black Death in certain ways, especially in the tendency to reach for unconventional remedies, from often unqualified authorities, in the search for a cure. But, as president Trump explains, if you’ve got the virus, already: “what do you have to lose?”

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)

Selected Bibliography

Aberth, John. The Black Death. Palgrave, 2005.

Barzilay, Tzafrir. “Early Accusations of Well Poisoning against Jews: Medieval Reality or Historiographical Fiction?Medieval Encounters 22 (2016): 517–539.

Brittain, C. Dale. “The Royal Touch.” Life in the Middle Ages, 2016.

Clark, Dartunorro. “Trump Suggests ‘Injection’ of Disinfectant to Beat Coronavirus and ‘Clean’ the Lungs.” NBC News (2020).

Cohn, Samuel K. “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews.” Past & Present 196.1 (2007): 3–36.

Durkee, Alison. “Nearly A Third of Americans Believe Covid-19 Death Toll Conspiracy Theory.” Forbes (2020).

Earnest, Mark. “On Becoming a Plague Doctor.” The New England Journal of Medicine (2020).

EnserinkMartin and Jon Cohen. “Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the Controversial Virologist Attacking Anthony Fauci in a Viral Conspiracy Video.” Science Magazine (2020).

Hays, J. N. The Burden of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History. Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Hetherington, Marc and Jonathan M. Ladd. “Destroying Trust in the Media, Science, and Government Has Left America Vulnerable to Disaster.” Brookings (2020). 

Jenkins, Catherine. “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 8 (2017): 202-08.

Kickhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Routledge, 1976.

—. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Levack, Brian. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Mark, Joshua J. “Medieval Cures for the Black Death.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2020.

Murphy, Mike.Trump Again Touts Unproven Drug to Treat Coronavirus: ‘What Do You Have to Lose?'” MarketWatch (2020).

Murray, J., H. Rieder, and A Finley-Croswhite. “The King’s Evil and the Royal Touch: The Medical History of Scrofula.”  The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (2016).

. “Medieval Medicine: Astrological ‘Bat Books’ That Told Doctors When to Treat Patients.” The Conversation (2019).

Thompson, Helen . “How Witches’ Brews Helped Bring Modern Drugs to Market.” Smithsonian Magazine (2014).

 

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.