Ripe for Conversion

Paul Strohm

  • Pagans, Tartars, Muslims and Jews in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Brenda Deen Schildgen
    Florida, 184 pp, £55.50, October 2001, ISBN 0 8130 2107 3

‘Othering’, a favourite gerund in current academic-literary discussion, has yet to enter the dictionaries, but it shouldn’t have long to wait. Its status is well earned, if the measure of a word’s popularity is what you can do with it, or the kinds of discussion and analysis it enables. I first encountered it in a 1986 essay on travel writing and descriptive ethnography by Mary Louise Pratt, in which she points to ‘a very familiar, widespread and stable form of “othering”’ whereby ‘the people to be othered are homogenised into a collective “they”.’ This process goes on, even without the assistance of North American academics, under the more familiar name of ‘stereotyping’. But the use of the term ‘othering’ adds the rich implication that the more ‘knowable’ (that is, the more stereotyped) the object becomes, the more inscrutable – ‘other’ – it remains. Post-colonial studies, beginning with Edward Said’s work in the 1970s on the exoticised and eroticised ‘Other’, acquired its initial impetus by naming and shaming this operation; its exposure has also been central to feminist and other anti-discriminatory ways of thinking.

Although applications of contemporary theory to earlier periods always threaten to make everything sound alike, blurring historical specificity, operations of othering are observable in all periods and cultures. The best approach is not to disallow recent terms and theories, but to adapt them to the particularities of the earlier situation. In understanding the medieval period, the concept of othering certainly has purchase, but it is usefully, or even necessarily, supplemented by another, less publicised, operation: ‘saming’.

The keenest theorist of saming was the late Naomi Schor. ‘If othering involves attributing to the objectified other a difference that serves to legitimate her oppression,’ she observed in a feminist context, ‘saming denies the objectified other the right to her difference.’ Although these processes are interdependent, saming is more characteristic of the medieval encounter with the unfamiliar or unknown. Its face is the more friendly and generous of the two, especially in the admirably benign Chaucer; but this is not to say that it is less telling, or less oppressive, in its final effects.

One of the great ‘samers’ of the later Middle Ages was the 14th-century travel writer known as Sir John Mandeville. Written close to home, somewhere in France, his vivid and readable travelogue is nonetheless animated by encounters with the unknown and unexpected: cyclopes, jewel-bearing vines, sheep the size of oxen, people who live under water and the like. Yet, however much his descriptions sensationalise the ‘other’, they usually end by disclosing an ever-so-slightly skewed or refracted image of the ‘same’. One travels imaginatively to record the world’s strangest practices, only to discover that they are after all rather familiar. Thus Mandeville’s contribution to the legend of Prester John, sovereign of a bizarro-world just east of the slightly better known Muslim lands. On one of his islands, according to the narrator (perhaps in a half-understood allusion to Parsi practices), the flesh of the dead is fed to ‘fowls of ravine’:

Behold how so worthy a man and how good a man this was, that the angels of God come for to seek him and for to bring him into Paradise . . . And then the son bringeth home with him all his kin, and his friends, and all the others to his house, and maketh them a great feast . . . And when they be at meat, the son let bring forth the head of his father, and thereof he giveth of the flesh to his most special friends . . . And of the brain pan, he letteth make a cup, and thereof drinketh he and his other friends also, with great devotion, in remembrance of the holy man, that the angels of God have eaten.

Within this orgy of exoticised difference is a reassuring kernel of the same: the commemorative feast is implicitly eucharistic, and therefore familiar to a society constituted around the sacramental consumption of the body and blood of Christ. Moreover, the feast turns out to be a force for unity among its Western beholders: it constitutes them as a community of observers, witnessing the exoticism of the cannibal other; it minimises their own internal differences, as to whether the eucharist should be regarded as a transubstantiation into actual flesh (Orthodox) or as a symbolic commemoration (Lollard); and, most reassuringly, it suggests that even the most remote strangers are, in the end, rather like them, and possess an untapped but intuitive appreciation of Western practices.

This confidence in ultimate sameness bolsters confidence in the possible conversion of the rest of the world: after all, if others already glimpsed Christian verities through a veil darkly, they would surely embrace them if the veil could be swept aside. Of the Saracens, for example, Mandeville is persuaded that

They knowledge well, that the works of Jesu Christ be good, and his words and his deeds and his doctrine by his gospels were true, and his miracles also true; and the blessed Virgin Mary is good, and holy maiden before and after the birth of Jesu Christ; and that all those that believe perfectly in God shall be saved. And because they go so nigh our faith, they be lightly converted to Christian law when men preach them.

Once awakened to the prophecies, the Saracens will be ‘lightly converted’ to the community of faith. Of course, such fantasies had their coercive side. Many different motives and logics underwrote the Crusades, and to the stirrings of a ‘missionary’ dream must be added spiritual chauvinism, piracy, commerce and territorial ambition.

Some of Chaucer’s voices sound a bit like Mandeville’s. An appreciative discovery of sameness certainly animates the Squire’s description of Cambyuskan’s Tartar court. For all his loyalty to the law of his sect, Cambyuskan is noble in ways fully recognisable to Western readers. Like Mandeville’s Great Chan, he is both splendid and tolerant:

. . . he was hardy, wys, and riche,

And pitous and just, alwey yliche;

Sooth of his word, benigne, and honurable.

The ‘Squire’s Tale’ begins with this Tartar lord’s birthday feast, an occasion ‘so solempne and so ryche/That in this world ne was ther noon it lyche’. To be sure, differences are admitted, but they are of the most minor sort: in dietary inclination, for instance, towards strange preparations of swans and young herons, and other things of which he will not speak. Such modest deviations aside, the revelry proceeds along familiar lines: so elegant is this dance party that Cambyuskan emerges as a successor to Lancelot, a worthy inheritor of a vanished tradition of European courteousness.

The ‘Squire’s Tale’ holds a trace of buried history: a fidelity, if not to fact, at least to what the medieval West thought about the Orient. The extravagant praise, and the gifts given to the Khan – a steed of brass, a fortune-telling mirror, a ring which makes it possible to interpret birdsong, and a sword with magical properties of wounding and healing – register European admiration for Eastern accomplishments. The result is a highly deferential account which nevertheless imagines an East easily assimilated to Western tastes and ambitions, a region ripe for conversion. Unacknowledged amid this insistence on sameness is a sense of the Tartar as other, and an accompanying recognition of the foreign court’s right to its own difference. This assimilation represents a deliberate artistic choice, since accounts of Tartar menace and violence are also available in late 14th-century England.

More troubling conclusions about the Arab East emerge from the Man of Law’s ‘Tale of Constance’. Constance’s reputation is carried by merchants to the Sultan of Syria, another Eastern potentate who welcomes those who have travelled in the West: ‘He wolde, of his benigne curteisye,/Make hem good chiere, and bisily espye/Tidynges of sondry regnes, for to leere/The wondres that they myghte seen or heare.’ His libidinal concerns momentarily taking precedence over doctrine, the Sultan resolves to wed Constance, even if it means sacrificing his own faith. Christianity seems about to prevail over the unresisting Muhammadans, in line with the Squire’s trust in its universal translatability. Yet the essential otherness of the Syrians now begins to emerge. The Sultan’s men regret the passing of their own ‘lawe sweete’; the ever-obedient Constance voices a suspicion that she is being sent to an intransigently ‘barbre nacioun’; and, finally, the incorrigibly evil Sultaness, or Queen Mother, conceives a deliciously devious plot to feign conversion and then slay the Sultan and his Christian companions:

We shul first feyne us cristendom to take –
Coold water shal nat greve us but a lite! –
And I shal swich a feeste and revel make
That, as I trowe, I shal the Sowdan quite.
For thogh his wyf be cristned never so white,
She shal have nede to wasshe awey the rede,
Thogh she a font-ful water with hire lede.

The Sultan is slain, despite all the baptismal water Constance is able to splash on him, and she is sent back to sea. Her embassies will take her to Northumbria, then through the Strait of Gibraltar to Rome, then back to England and finally to Rome again.

The Man of Law says that he learned the tale of Constance from a merchant: his hapless heroine sails both the missionary and trade-routes that flourished during the centuries following the first Crusades. Indeed, the tale tacitly admits the mixed motives so evident in all Christian contact with the Muslim East. No wonder that, faced with this scheme of easy conversion, instigated by a profit-seeking company of ‘chapmen’, and underwritten by Western church and secular authorities alike, the Sultaness discovers herself as a fundamentalist avant la lettre. The end of the tale has Constance opting to practise her Christianity on one continent alone. Yet the presumption that Christianity might provide a common ground for analysis of other people’s behaviour, if not for their conversion, will not quite go away. The agent behind the Sultaness’s evil turns out to be an envious Satan, making the real basis for Arab intransigence not their adherence to their own law, but rather the Christian struggle between good and evil, playing itself out, this time, with geographical rather than spiritual co-ordinates.

Of all Chaucerian characters, the most incorrigibly other would appear to be the Jews of the ‘Prioress’s Tale’, ritual murderers of an innocent ‘clergeon’, or choir-boy, who stirs their malice by singing an anthem to the Virgin despite their ‘lawes reverence’. Having slit the child’s throat, they throw his body into a latrine. Every kind of geographical, temporal and ethical space is opened between the observer and these ‘cursed folk of Herodes al newe’. They are confined to a ghetto (which the clergeon mistakenly traverses); the ghetto is far away in ‘Asye’, all Jews having been expelled from England a century earlier; and when the murderers are apprehended, their crime is judged so outrageous as to require indiscriminate and extra-judicial punishment, whereby anyone who harboured them or even knew of the crime (that is, the entire community) would be dragged about by wild horses before being hanged.

Yet even here there is an appeal to sameness. For, whatever the motivation of the perpetrators, Christian fantasy successfully recruits them for a programme of sacrificial re-enactment. In the Eucharist, in its accounts of martyrdoms and even in its tales of abduction and mutilation of the Host, medieval Christianity was heavily invested in ritual repetition, in rediscovering and repeating the transformation of Christ’s word into flesh. Christ’s sacrifice can also be repeated by non-Christians, when Jews and other pagans perform the role of Herod and re-crucify Christ in the person of innocents and saints. Oppositional as the fictive Jews might seem, they are, in fact, doctrinally on board, doing what the Christian religion of the time requires of them.

Brenda Deen Schildgen, writing about the ‘Tale of Constance’, makes the point that ‘the location of the “other” and the “Christian” are not stable geographical places, suggesting that political possession of the place is not at stake.’ Indeed, what Mary Louise Pratt calls the ‘will to intervene’ functions only fitfully in medieval texts. The Crusades are one obvious case, and a provisional territorial impulse, at least, may be discerned in the Latin Crusader kingdoms and fiefdoms established in the Holy Land. However, the Latin kingdoms lacked the material and cultural conditions that might have prolonged territorial control. Before the 18th and 19th centuries, the West’s shifting (and unfulfillable) interests and ambitions were more symbolic than real, and the tentativeness of even its symbolic claims is evident in the ‘Tale of Constance’ (where the East is written off as incorrigible and quickly abandoned), and the ‘Squire’s Tale’ (where the narrative itself disintegrates).

In the Crusades we encounter an essentially ‘pre-colonial’ formation, the ‘not yet’ or the ‘what will have been’ of the full-blown colonial enterprise. Yet this link with colonialism’s future offers a point of entry for ‘post-colonial theory’ into medieval studies. The term ‘post-colonial’ normally refers to the dissolution of empires after World War Two, but its application to the medieval period is defended as a provocation to fresh thought about a sometimes sentimentalised medieval past. The counter-argument is that the term’s force in the discussion of 20th-century colonialism might be weakened through generalised application. A compromise might respect the term’s late-20th-century provenance, while recognising that theories of post-coloniality have already made us more alert to elements suppressed in medieval texts: relations of domination and subordination; the uses of discourse to define and oppress minority populations; the ‘constructedness’ of racial and gendered subcategories; the unspoken assumption of Eurocentrism.

Schildgen shows some awareness of post-colonial ideas, but despite her prepossessingly front-loaded title, her concerns tend to lie elsewhere. In particular, she warms to discussions of learning in the late medieval West, and especially to the respective influences of Epicureanism and Stoicism on philosophical and literary discourse. The real contribution of the book lies less in its treatment of Chaucer’s far-away places than in its suggestion that the early Christian past is itself ‘another country’. Schildgen ingeniously suggests that such tales as the Second Nun’s life and passion of Cecilia revert to a late classical situation in which Christians themselves are represented as other, actively engaged in an attempt to move from outside to inside by creating a new centre of authority from the periphery of the pagan world. A more active involvement with contemporary theory might have sharpened some of this book’s arguments. Schildgen remarks at one point that the Squire’s version of Tartary ‘separates literature from history’ but the remark would have had more weight had it been considered in the light of Said’s perception that Orientalism concerns precisely those things that are not empirically to be known about the history of the Orient: that discourse on the Muslim East becomes historical in its deployment of the imaginary, in the concrete historical consequences that ensue from the construction of a fantastic other.

Recent, theoretically more engaged work is gathered in Jeffrey Cohen’s collection,The Post-Colonial Middle Ages. Kathleen Davis is particularly acute about the ‘Tale of Constance’, which she sees as enacting a process by which the East is considered for, but then rejected from, alliance with Europe. Simultaneously, the peripheral and once-pagan England is embraced, on the basis of history and blood-alliance, by a Europe ‘which now includes England as the proper space of Christian circulation and exchange’. A modest part of the gain from such an approach might be political: revised convictions about our literary and historical past have the potential to inflect contemporary attitudes. But the most obvious beneficiary of such inquiries is medieval studies itself, as it discovers and negotiates its own attachment to urgent present-day concerns.