The Late Medieval Clerical Proletariat & the Vocational Crisis in Modern Academia

Educational training was the cornerstone of ecclesiastical and monastic life in the early medieval period, with the aim of producing knowledgeable clergy, who might then serve as spiritual and intellectual shepherds for their population. However, as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton explains in her recent monograph, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry, because universities in the late Middle Ages were turning out more clergy than the church could hire in beneficed positions, many found themselves experiencing a crisis of vocation. Kerby-Fulton argues that this crisis produces a “clerical proletariat” many of whom ultimately become civil servants, secretaries in great households, writing office clerks, or casual liturgical laborers, especially in London. She shows how this crisis of mass underemployment is further exacerbated by pluralism (the unethical practice of hogging multiple benefices).

Beneficed priests were in a privileged position: they received both income from parish holdings and wealth from the church. Although medieval universities were producing highly educated clergy, there were more qualified candidates than ever before, while at the same time, beneficed priests were sometimes acquiring multiple benefices and then outsourcing the work of delivering the mass and managing the church operations to poorer paid vicars, chaplains and lesser church officials, while pocketing most of the money themselves.

Kerby-Fulton argues that this sharp increase in qualified clergy and decrease in beneficed positions, resulted not only in a vocational crisis and the creations of a clerical proletariat, but ultimately in a resurgence in Middle English poetry, as this class of clerks saw more opportunities for writing English because they were working for the laity, though many still worked with Latin (or French) documents all day long. Figures like Thomas Hoccleve, a late medieval poet-clerk, comment regularly on the financial struggles and tenuous existences of the unbeneficed clerical proletariat, observable in his poem “The Complaint” which states:

Thomas Hoccleve’s Signature; Durham University Library MS Cosin V.III.9, f.95r.

I oones fro Westminstir cam,
Vexid ful grevously with thoughtful hete,
Thus thoughte I: ‘A greet fool I am
This pavyment a-daies thus to bete
And in and oute laboure faste and swete,
Wondringe and hevinesse to purchace,
Sithen I stonde out of al favour and grace.

“When once I came from Westminster, very bitterly troubled with burning anxiety, I thought like this: ‘I am a great fool to beat these streets like this every day and to work doggedly and sweat indoors and outdoors, in order to earn nothing but restlessness and misery, since I am fallen out of all good fortune and grace.’” (Jenni Nuttall, 183-189).
In this passage, we learn how Hoccleve is very upset with his vocational prospects (184), and he deems himself a greet fool “great fool” (185) for working endless and performing in and oute laboure faste and swete “firm and sweaty labor, indoors and outdoors” (187) with nothing to show for it but wondringe and hevinesse “wandering and hardship” (188).

Thomas Hoccleve presents ‘The Regiment of Princes’ to King Henry V; British Library, MS Royal 17, D.vi f.40r.

Similarly, in his poem, The Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve laments how he initially pursued the priesthood but ultimately forgoes these dreams and instead marries. Hoccleve describes his vocational rollercoaster, emphasizing that at first he sought Aftir sum benefice “after some benefice” but states that whan noon cam, / By procees I me weddid atte laste, “when none came, in time, I did wed at last” (1452-53). Moreover, Hoccleve stresses that his initial reluctance to marry is specifically because he long held hopes of a career as a beneficed priest, explaining that I whilom thoghte / Han been a preest “for a while I thought I would have been a priest” (1447-48). In both poems, Hoccleve expresses his frustration with the vocational crisis of underemployment which produces the clerical proletariat that Kerby-Fulton examines in her book.

Members of the clerical proletariat loom large in Middle English literary culture, and various characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, including the Clerk of Oxenford, the hapless lover and parish clerk, Absolon (in the “Miller’s Tale“), and the noble Parson, who is perhaps the most virtuous figure on the pilgrimage. Similarly, William Langland (the author of Piers Plowman) was such a clerk, and likely so were the authors of the Owl and Nightingale and Laȝamon’s Brut. The University of Pennsylvania Press notes that “Taking in proletarian themes, including class, meritocracy, the abuse of children (“Choristers’ Lament”), the gig economy, precarity, and the breaking of intellectual elites (Book of Margery Kempe), The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry speaks to both past and present employment urgencies.”

Author portrait of Laȝamon in British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A.ix., f.3.

Indeed, many modern untenured scholars (including myself), who work three or more academic jobs to pay the bills, will surely identify with the position Hoccleve voices in his complaint. As Kerby-Fulton insightfully observes in her book, the circumstances outlined in this late Middle English poem closely resemble the current crisis of vocation within modern academia, where well-paying tenured faculty positions are disappearing as the universities seek to outsource more and more of the work of education to adjunct professors, the modern equivalent of the late medieval clerical proletariat. Meanwhile, universities continue to produce an endless stream of highly skilled and qualified professionals, many of whom will sadly face chronic underemployment and even possible unemployment as a result of over-qualification and unethical practices now embedded in our private university system that is seemingly more concerned with profits than with the future of the academy.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame


Further Reading & Selected Bibliography

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Harvard University: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2021.

Hoccleve, Thomas. The Regiment of Princes, ed. Charles R. Blyth. University of Rochester: TEAMS Middle English Text Series, 1999.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

Laȝamon. Laȝamon’s Brut. Western Michigan University: Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, 2019.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman, ed. Robert Adams, Patricia R. Bart, et. al. Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, 1994.

Nuttall, Jenni, trans. “Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’: An Open-Access Prose Translation.” International Hoccleve Society, 2015.

Varnam, Laura, trans. “The Complaint Paramount [The Superlative Complaint] by Thomas Hoccleve.” Dr Laura Varnam, 2019.

Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

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:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/134055122@N07/35729897044

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prioress%27s_Tale