index.html   The Prior Root: The Transit Through Hebrew in The Prioress’s Tale



Gila Aloni, Florida International University

Shirley Sharon-Zisser, Tel Aviv University






Introduction


 

The description of the table manners of the Prioress in the "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales proceeds by negations:

 

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,

Ne wete hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;

Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe

no drope ne fille upon hir brest.

(A 128–32, our emphasis Footnote .

 

These statements of negation declare at least as much as they conceal. They reference courtly decorum, yet bring up the images of the grotesque behavior they deny. Classical rhetoric calls such statements dissimulations (Cicero 3.203). Psychoanalysis calls them disavowals (Laplanche and Pontalis 118 0).


Disavowals "affirm the laws they negate" (Sibony, Le nom et le corps 71). At the same time, they "affirm another law or another relationship to a law" (71). This relationship often rests on the allure of what is denied, and its return via the "frontiers of the unconscious" (70). The psycho-rhetorical structure of dissimulation and/as denial, we will argue, is the key to Chaucer's Prioress Tale. The tale's declared meaning, its anti-Jewish narratio, conceals or declares a more complex attitude to the relation between Judaism and Christianity.  Footnote

 



De–claring: Hebrew as Archaic Maternality

 

The Route to Root/(Ruth)

 

The space where the tale takes place is represented as one of transition, a street "thurgh" which "men myghte ride or / wende" (B 1683). Protagonists are recurrently described as traversing this space. The "litel child" (B 1742) comes "to and fro" "thurghout the Juerie" (B 1741–42). Searching for him, his mother repeats his journey (B 1783–93). After the murdered child is found and miraculously begins to sing, the "Christen folk" go "thurgh the strete" (B 1804) to witness the miracle. The miracle involves a transition: the Alma Redemptoris learnt by the child is described as having "passed thurgh his throte" (B 1738).

 

Transition is crucial to the tale conceptually and narratologically. The Prioress’s prologue and tale are preceded by a transition, whose context is the journey of the pilgrims to Canterbury and their engagement in the story-telling contest. This transition, a common feature of The Canterbury Tales, links the Prioress’s Prologue and tale with the previous tale. Having commended the previous tale, the host proclaims:

 

“‘But now passe over, and let us seke aboute,

Who shal now telle first of al this route

Another tale’" (B 1633–35).

 

Literally, the host’s call to the pilgrims to "passe over" is a call to make a transition from the bawdiness of The Shipman’s Tale to a tale of "another" order. In the context of the ensuing tale whose narratio is undeniably preoccupied with Judaic practices, the host’s call to the pilgrims resonates with one such practice: the feast of Passover, whose name commemorates God’s act of "passing over" the Jews, exempting them from the fate of death to which he condemned the first–born sons of their Egyptian oppressors, and ushering in their passing through the desert (Exodus 12:11–12). The host’s call to "passe over" in the transition from the Shipman’s to the Prioress’s tales introduces a biblical  Footnote intertext: the first Passover and the consequent transition of the ancient people of Israel from Egypt to the Land of Israel.

 

The introduction of the biblical intertext of a story of transition into the transition between the Shipman’s and the Prioress’s tales self–reflexively highlights the status of this text as a (textual) transition within a (spatial) transition between two places: the inn which the pilgrims leave and Canterbury. The host’s call to "passe over" suggests a parallelism between Chaucer’s pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and the Israelites on their way to the Land of Israel. The Christian pilgrims and the ancient Jews are made parallel by their positioning in a situation of transit.

 

In the transition, the pilgrims’ status of being in transit is accentuated. In the articulation beginning with the reference to "passe over”, the host refers to the pilgrims as "this route" (B 1634), as being on the route, en route, in transit. This reference introduces a pervasive sound–pattern involving the consonants "r" and "t”. These letters feature in the references to passing "thurgh" (B 1683, 1738, 1741, 1804). They feature in the word "roote" (B 1665) in the praise of Mary in the prologue, in the word "rote" (B 1712) describing the child’s memorizing the Alma Redemptoris  Footnote , and in the references to the child’s cut "throte" (B 1761, 1801, 1839). This sound pattern of r’s and t’s linked with an "o" or "u" (itself semantically linked with "wrot," speech [Marvin 41, n. 9]) introduces yet another biblical intertext: the Book of Ruth  Footnote . According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Ruth is read during the feast of Pentecost, at the end of a seven-week transition beginning at the end of the feast of Passover the host implicitly alludes to.

 

Like the story of the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, where they were in exile, to Israel, the story of the Book of Ruth involves a transition from the land of Israel to another country (Moab) and back. In both cases, the country returned to is the country of origin of the people of Israel, their geographical "root." In Chaucer’s text, the word "roote" refers to mother Mary. In the Book of Ruth too the land of Israel as origin or root is maternalized. Israel is the country of Ruth’s mother–in–law, Naomi, with whom Ruth chooses to link her fate (1:16). Ruth is a maternal root in another sense too. At the end of the Book, she is pronounced to be "as Rachel and Leah who had built the nation of Israel" (4:11). She is aligned with the matriarchs, the maternal roots of the people of Israel. She becomes one of the foremothers of one of the most famous biblical kings of Israel, King David. According to Judaic and Christian tradition, King David is one of the ancestors of the Messiah  Footnote . Ruth is part of the maternal root of the redeemer.




Root, Breast, Bresit

 

The issue of origin or root is inscribed in the tale by means of the repetition of "r" and "t," and by means of the combination of these two consonants with another one: "s." The first instance of the alliteration of these three consonants in relation to the Tale is in the host’s statement in the transition, in the word "first," a signifier of root or origin (B 1634). The second occurrence of the "rst" combination too has everything to do with maternal origin: it is the reference to the knowledge of the Virgin Mary sometimes being apparent to children "on the brest soukynge" (B 1648)  Footnote . The first two inaugural instances of the "rst" combination in relation to The Prioress’s Tale occur in signifiers semantically related to origin: a signifier of numerological and temporal priority, and a signifier of the primal oral object, the mother’s breast, whose function of psychic priority as the most primal object of need is thereby underscored.

 

In the tale, the "rst" combination appears a number of times, almost always in relation to Christ or Christianity (B 1679, 1685, 1696, 1746, 1842, 1846). The one instance in which this combination occurs in a different context in the tale is the reference to "Oure first foo, the serpent Sathanas, hath in Jues herte his waspes nest" (B 1747–49). In this case, as in the transition, the "rst" combination appears in a semantic reference to temporal priority. In this case, the temporal priority in question is of enmity to Christianity. On the surface of semantic meaning, this phrase involves a contrast between Christianity and Judaism as its "foo" Footnote . Yet the appearance of the "rst" pattern reserved almost invariably to Christ and Christianity in a reference to an entity semantically declared to be their adversary suggests an affinity rather than a contrast between the religions  Footnote .

 

The suggested affinity between Judaism and Christianity is an effect of the function of "rst" in the transition and the Prologue too. The words in which the consonants "rst " appear refer in the first instance to a member of the group of Christian pilgrims, in the second to Christian children. In Hebrew, these consonants, used here to signify temporal priority, are the last letters of the alphabet (רשת). Here too, Judaism and Christianity appear to be at odds. The combination of consonants signifying priority in English, the Christian language of Chaucer’s text, is the sequence ending the alphabet of the Judaic language, Hebrew. Yet the same sequence of letters has a fundamental relation to primacy in Hebrew. The first word in the Hebrew Bible, signifying absolute cosmic beginning, is בראשית (bresit) [in the beginning] (Genesis 1:1). Bresit is the title of the book of Genesis in Hebrew. Chaucer would have known this as the Vulgate habitually printed the Hebrew names of books alongside their Latin titles. St. Jerome’s Hebraicae Qvaestiones in Libro Geneseos would have told him this Hebrew word is the first word in the Bible (3), the word translated in the Vulgate as "in principio”. In Hebrew, the "rst" signifies alphabetical ending and, at the same time, absolute priority.

 

The most psychically charged articulation of priority in Chaucer’s text – the reference to Mary’s name as known even to children "on the brest soukynge" (B 1648) – involves an almost exact transliteration of the Hebrew word for cosmic origin, bresit. Maternal origin, the breast as primal oral object, cosmic origin, and Hebrew become conflated as the origin of the category Chaucer’s tale itself recurrently articulates by means of the "rst" combination: Christ, whom St. Jerome’s interpretation names as the implicit referent of the word bresit (3).

 

The semiotics of Chaucer’s text conflate the functions of mother and son. This conflation is doctrinaire. In patristic theology, the Holy Spirit is the maternal aspect of the Trinity, a function for which Peter of Bath finds evidence in the "genere feminino" of the Hebrew word for spirit, רוח (rua’h) (841). In patristic theology, Son and Mother, the "feminine" aspect of the Trinity (Peter of Bath 841), are facets of one divine substance (834)  Footnote . In Chaucer’s text, the maternal function is not unequivocally filled only by the maternal figures mentioned in the text’s semantic surface: the Virgin Mary, the "Mooder Mayde" mentioned in the prologue to the tale (B 1657), and the boy’s "mooder" mentioned in the tale (B 1815). The semiotics of the text suggest the Hebrew language fulfills this maternal function in it.

 

 

 

Maternal Filiation: N/J–ewe and Hugh

 

The identification of the functions of mother and son in the tale is not only a feature of the phonic and conceptual links between brest/bresit and Christ. This identification is a function of the characterization of the particular mother and son in its narratio.

 

Structurally, the parallel between mother and son is created by the description of their common act of passage through the Jewerye. When the dead child is carried to the abbey, his mother is described as lying "swownynge by the beere" (B 1815). She approximates his immobility to such an extent the people present can hardly [”unnethe myghte" {B1816}] separate his body from hers.


Mother and son are closely associated psychically  Footnote and phonically as well as spatially and physically. The child lies dead in a "pit" (B 1761), and his mother is described as enquiring "pitously" (B 1790) for his whereabouts. Earlier, the mother is described as roaming the Jewerye "With moodres pitee in hir brest enclosed" (B 1783). The physical space of the child and the psychic space of maternal pity are structurally and phonically associated with one another and with the originary maternal object, the brest/bresit.

 

Mother and son are characterized by means of allusions too. The contents of the allusions used to represent mother and son strengthen the association between them. The murdered child is described as one of the 144,000 slaughtered innocents accompanying the "white Lamb celestial" (B 1771)  Footnote – Christ as Agnus Dei, the sacrificial Lamb of God (Apocalypse 14: 1–5). In the Apocalypse, the innocents are described as having "nomen ejus, et nomen Patris, scriptum in frontibus sui" [his name and his Father’s name inscribed on their foreheads] (14:1). They are identified with the Lamb. The tale’s representation of the slaughtered child as one of the innocents accompanying the Lamb of God associates him too with this Lamb.

 

At the end of the tale, the child is associated with another sacrificial victim: "yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn /With cursed Jewes" (B 1874–75), a child for whose accidental death in 1255 "nineteen Jews were executed by King Henry III" (Langmuir 459). In two cases, the child in Chaucer’s tale is characterized in reference to an innocent one killed by a Jew.

 

The child’s mother too is characterized by means of an allusion to a story of a murder of an innocent. She is described as the "newe Rachel" (B 1817). The specification of the mother as being a "newe Rachel" seems to be designed to distinguish her from the Rachel of the Old Testament and underscore her implication in the Christian typology of Rachel as the archetypal mother weeping for the innocents slaughtered by Herod (Matthew 2:16–18), with whom her child is associated. Footnote

 

The allusions to the child as an innocent accompanying the "white Lamb celestial" and to his mother as a "newe Rachel" reinforce the association between them. They place child and mother within the Christian narrative of Herod’s slaughtering the innocents of Bethlehem, who in the Book of the Apocalypse are described as accompanying Christ and as identified with His name, for whose grieving mothers Rachel is made the prototype in the Gospel of Matthew.

 

Like the signifiers of the psychic/physical locations of mother and son, the signifiers placing mother and son in the Christian narrative of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents are connected phonically and alphabetically too. The innocents said to accompany the "white Lamb celestial" with whom the child is identified are described as singing "a song al newe, / […] nevere, flesshly, wommen they ne knewe" (1774–75). The combination "ewe," repeated in this description, is close to the name "Hugh," the name of another purported sacrificial victim of Jews with which the child is associated at the end of the tale. The combination appears again in the allusion to the mother as the "newe Rachel" (B 1817). This reinforces the close association between mother and child.

 

The link suggested by the repetition of the "ewe" combination in signifiers relating to child and mother and by the phonic resonance of "ewe" with the name Hugh with which the child is associated is more than phonic and alphabetical, and it is not only Christian. The Hebrew name Rachel, with which the mother is associated in the tale, literally means, as St. Jerome and Isidore rightly observe, an "ovis" or lamb (St. Jerome, Hebraicvm Nominvm 70; Isidore 7.6.37), the Christologically significant animal with which the child is associated in the tale. In the English language of Chaucer’s text, one of the synonyms of the name of this animal is the word "ewe”, which resonates in the allusions to mother and child phonically and alphabetically. In Chaucer’s Tale, mother and child are identified not only by means of their mutual inscription into a New Testament narrative reinterpreting and Christianizing the Old Testament story of the sacrifice of Isaac and the Old Testament prophecy of Rachel weeping for her lost children. They are identified by means of biblical Hebrew, in which the name Rachel signifies the lamb with which the child is explicitly associated in the tale, which is synonymous with the ewe with which he and his mother are phonically associated in instances numerous enough to become over–determined.

 

The alphabetical combination "ewe" features in the tale not only in reference to the slaughtered Christian child and grieving Christian mother. It features in the multiple references to "Jewes" (B 1763, 1819, 1875), and in the first reference to the space of the Jews, the "Jewerye" (B 1679). The "ewe" combination features in the reference to Jews as "cursed folk of Herodes al newe" (B 1764). Here the combination appears in the same word – "newe" – whose two other occurrences in the tale are in the references to the slaughtered innocents singing "a song al newe" (B 1774) and to the mother as the "newe Rachel" (B 1817).

 

The specification of the song of the innocents as "newe" is an echo of Apocalypse 14:3, which describes their song as "canticum novum". Semantically, this specification seems to be designed to underscore the text’s articulation of the new faith, Christianity, the hatred of which had caused the innocents to be slaughtered. Similarly, the text’s semantic level suggests the specification of the mother as akin to the "newe Rachel" is designed to underscore her implication in the Christian faith of the New Testament, and, implicitly, her contrast with Jews. Yet the only other instance of the word "newe" in the tale is in reference to Jews. This creates a connection rather than a contrast between the Jews and the Christian child and his mother.

 

The Vulgate’s rendering of the newness of the Christian song of the innocents alluded to in the tale as "novum" (Apocalypse 14:3) reinforces this link between Christians and Jews. The Vulgate’s "novum" phonically resonates with the Latin word ovum [egg] whose dative and ablative plural form, ovis, is identical in spelling with the signification St. Jerome, the architect of the Vulgate, gives to the Hebrew name Rachel: ovis, ewe. Combining phonic, alphabetical, and etymological resonances standing at the intersection of two religions (Judaism and Christianity) and three languages (the Hebrew of the Judaic religion, the Christian tongues of Latin and English), the semiotics of Chaucer’s text link rather than oppose "Jewes" and their allegedly "newe" Christian successors. Both Christians and Jews are conceptually, phonically, and alphabetically structured by the vulnerable, potentially sacrificial function of ewes who are the offspring of a ewe, a Rachel, whose psychic function as the ovis, the ovarian, the maternal, cuts across distinctions between religions and languages, between a privileged "I" and a debased "you." The semiotics of Chaucer’s text bespeak what John Hirsch articulated years ago without having specific recourse to them: "[f]inally we are all Jews" (41), in what is our most primal constitution as human beings, our being born to mothers.

 

 


Domine dominus no–ster:

The Name of the Christian Father?

 

The only fathers mentioned in the tale are symbolic fathers, fulfillers of the paternal function of the imposition of law  Footnote . The first symbolic father mentioned in the tale is the "provost" (B 1819) as representative of "the lawe" (B 1824) on the force of which the Jews found guilty of the murder of the child are hanged. The second is the "abbot" (B 1827), the father of a "covent" (B 1827) a representative of the law of (God) the Father. In both cases, the symbolic fathers are agents of the Christian symbolic order. The two references to symbolic fathers in the Tale are not complemented by any reference to a real father. The child in the tale’s narratio is significantly father–less. His first characterization in the tale is as "a wydwe’s sone" (B 1692), one who lacks a real father.

 

The references to fathers, real or symbolic, are far outnumbered by references to mothers and to the maternal. Besides the widow, the child’s real mother, the tale is replete with references to the archetypal mother of the Christian imaginary: mother Mary  Footnote . The tale includes an overt reference to one of the archaic mothers of the Old Testament, Rachel. This reference is not, as commonly assumed, a thoroughly Christianized one, invoking the image of Rachel as reinscribed in the New Testament. It brings into play the archaic Hebraic aspect of Rachel’s name, ewe. The recurrent alliteration of the "rt" sound pattern in the tale implicitly introduces into it another archaic Hebraic mother: Ruth. The Ruth intertext brings another such Hebraic mother into Chaucer’s Tale: Ruth’s Judaic mother-in-law, Naomi.

 

The Hebraic story of Ruth and Naomi gives the Mariological dimension of the tale a different inflection. Mary, the archetypal Christian mother, and Naomi, the archaic Judaic mother of the Book of Ruth, are linked by phonic resonance and psychic function. At the end of the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, Naomi re–names herself, because of her harsh fate, "Mara" [in Hebrew, bitter]. She says: "Ne vocetis me Noemi (id est, pulchram), sed vocate me Mara (id est, amaram), quia amaritudine valde replevit me Omnipotens" [Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for God has made my life replete with bitterness] (1:20). The new name Naomi gives herself is close in sound to the name of Mary. It is also close to the name of Mary as interpreted in the patristic tradition. The Vulgate provided its readers with a parenthetical explication of the signification of the Hebrew name Mara: amaritudine, bitterness. The same explication appears in St. Jerome’s exegeses, in his Hebraicvm Nominvm (frequently attached to the Vulgate), of the name of the biblical "Mariams" –– the sister of Moses in the Old Testament and the mother of Christ in the New Testament. One of the (incorrect) interpretations St. Jerome offers for the name of Mariam in the Book of Exodus is "amaritudo" [bitterness] (76), the explication the Vulgate correctly gives to the name "Mara" in the Book of Ruth. One of his interpretations of the name of Christ’s mother in the Gospel of Matthew is practically identical: "amarum mare" [bitter sea] (137). In the patristic tradition at the cultural backdrop of Chaucer’s tale, a Judaic mother of the Old Testament and the archetypal Christian mother of the New Testament are linked with one another phonically and exegetically. The tale itself, which explicitly and frequently alludes to Mary and implicitly invokes the Old Testament intertext telling the story of Naomi/Mara, foregrounds this link between Christian and Judaic mothers. What are the conceptual consequences of this link for the inscription of Hebraism and Judaism in Chaucer’s seemingly anti-Judaic Tale? An examination of the semiotics of maternality in the Ruth intertext suggests some intriguing answers.

 

The Ruth intertext resonates in Chaucer’s Tale in terms of narrative structure and phonic resonance. The psychic relation on which the Book of Ruth is predicated is identical to the psychic relation subtending Chaucer’s Tale, maternal filiation. Although Ruth is not, biologically speaking, Naomi’s daughter, Naomi addresses Ruth, her daughter–in–law, as "filia mea" [my daughter] (2:3). This follows Ruth’s conscious choice to adopt Naomi as her mother. This choice is more than personal. It involves Ruth’s adoption of Naomi’s national and religious identity. Ruth famously says to Naomi: "wherever you will go I shall go, and where you shall reside I shall reside, your people is my people and your God my God" (1:16).

 

In the Book of Ruth, Judaism is identified as the religion of the mother rather than of the father (who is literally absent from the tale, just as is the child’s real father in the Prioress’s Tale). The space of Judaism in the Book of Ruth is conceptually maternal: it is the field of wheat, the domain of past–oral as archaic in the most literal sense of the grains of wheat, the root of the most basic nutritive substance. The Book of Ruth, then, has to do with Judaism as archaic, maternal root.

 

Chaucer implicitly introduces the Ruth intertext with a view to the notion of Judaism as maternal root inscribed in it. This is evident in the mention of maternality as root in the prologue to the Tale. In the prologue, whose surface meaning is a praise of the mother Mary, Mary is described as "the roote / Of bountee" (B 1655–56), and immediately afterwards, twice as "mooder" (B 1657).

 

In Chaucer’s tale, mother Mary of the New Testament becomes closely associated with a maternal figure of the Old Testament story implicitly brought into the tale by phonic resonance: Naomi/Mara, who in the biblical story is identified with Judaism and the Land of Israel as archaic origin or root. By bringing in the biblical intertext of Ruth, Chaucer destabilizes the opposition between Judaism and Christianity stated on the surface of the tale. Judaism is inscribed in the Tale whose surface denigrates it as a prior root of Christianity, which, like Judaism, is inscribed in the Tale as conceptually maternal.

 

It is perhaps not incidental Chaucer made this Tale the articulation of a Prior–ess, a narrator whose characterizing name signifies not only an office in the Church but also priority and femininity. The fictionalization of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity Chaucer offers through the articulation of the Prioress is quite different from the relationship conceptualized in the Pauline theology. It is a relation of woman to woman, mother to mother, in which the function of maternal love – the Amor of the Prioress’s motto –– is transferred from the most prior root of the matriarchs of the Old Testament, Rachel and Leah, through the Moabite Ruth who turns Judaic, through the Judaic Mary who turns Christian, to the mother in the Tale, the "n/ewe Rachel" whose naming makes her Judaic as much, and at the same time, as she is Christian.

 

Yet if the theology fictionalized in Chaucer’s text is maternal rather than paternal, why is its Prologue preceded by an explicit reference to God the Father, "Domine dominus noster" [O Lord, our Lord] (B 1642)? Here too, the semiotic structure of Chaucer’s text is one of dissimulation and hiding. The seeming declaration of the name of the Christian (God) the Father declares something different. The verse Domine dominus noster, translated in the first line of the prologue, occurs in a conceptually maternal context. It is recited at the beginning of the first nocturne of Matins in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. Nor is this verse of Christian origin. It is transported to the Christian, Mariological context from a biblical source, the opening of Psalm 8. The rest of the Psalm recapitulates the story of the creation and praises the name of God for it. In the context of a text blurring the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity and fictionalizing the two religions as maternal, the question arising is: what God is alluded to? What is His "name”? As medieval exegetes were aware, a close analogue of the phrase "domine dominus noster" featured in Psalm 8 and the Mariological nocturne, appears in the verse from Deuteronomy 6:4, "Audi Israel: Dominus Deus noster, Dominus unus est”[Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One]. Alain de Lille mentions this monotheistic credo in his Contra judaeos (401). Peter of Bath mentions it in Contra perfidiam Judaeorum (828). In the two cases, the Pauline theologians cite the verse Judaism takes as its credo in order to criticize Judaism for failing to recognize the three–personhood of the one God. Within the context of a fictionalization positing Judaism and Christianity as equally maternal links in an ongoing transferential chain of love, the theologians’ citation of the monotheistic credo resonating in the Domine dominus noster is positively inverted. This credo becomes not a criticism of Judaism as an adversary of Christianity, but a foregrounding of the common prior root of Judaism and Christianity. Chaucer’s citation of the Domine dominus noster foregrounds what is implicit in the texts of the Pauline theologians: the idea whether conceived of as a unity or a trinity, the God of Christians and the God of the Hebraic people is one and the same God. This idea of the commonality of God puts the last word of the cited verse, the ”noster" [ours] into question. No religion, and no people, this idea suggests, can claim God as solely their own. Instead, He is a substance in which different religions participate, transferentially interacting as they do so.

 

The Latin "noster" put into question includes the same group of consonants, "rst," signifying, in Hebrew (alphabetical) ending and absolute origin (brest/bresit). Yet in this case, the consonants appear in a different order. The consonant appearing first in the order of the Hebrew alphabet, "r," becomes last. This reversal of order reinforces the conflation of ending and beginning inscribed into the Hebrew "rst," a conflation making it impossible to privilege either what comes first or what comes second, making it imperative to see both as equal links in a potentially endless participatory chain.

 

The "str" combination has another function. It functions as a clue to the dissimulational structure of Chaucer’s text. This combination of consonants appears one more time in the prologue, in the word "storie" (B 1653). As medieval exegetes were aware, in Hebrew, the consonants "str" (סתר) are those of the root of a verb St. Jerome correctly glosses as "Sethur absconditus" [hidden] (Hebraicvm Nominvm 84). On the basis of this root, Isidore (wrongly but significantly) glosses the biblical name of Esther as absconsa [hidden] (7.8.30). The word "storie," therefore, points to what is hidden as well as what is told. This suggests the tale’s "storie" of the ritual murder of a Christian child by Jews, reinforced by the declaration of appropriation of God by Christianity hides or de-clares a different text. Chaucer’s hidden text stresses the commonality of Judaism and Christianity, their being links in a transferential chain stretching to the same prior root  Footnote .

 

 

Am–or Vincit Om–nia, Am–en

 

           The transferential maternal chain posited by Chaucer’s tale points to Hebrew as origin or prior root. Yet this does not mean Chaucer’s text posits origin as a stable ending point which could ever be reached. Chaucer’s text postulates the prior root as a point of orientation which the "synful folk unstable" mentioned at the end of the tale (B 1877) always seek. The prior root is what "unstable," constitutively incomplete subjects necessarily pass through in their acts of seeking.

 

Since the prior in this text is transcoded with Hebrew, Hebrew too gains the semiotic value of a prior root which is not the object of nostalgic fascination but is a medium of an infinite, never-ending transit. Hebraism in Chaucer’s text has the character Daniel Sibony would attribute to all religions: the character of being "always in passage," in an act of passage functioning as a "umbilical," a "matrix of jouissance," through which a group (ever "unstable" as is the group of Christians explicitly designated by Chaucer), continuously "gives birth to itself" (Perversions 67–68).

 

Chaucer’s text acknowledges this condition of perpetual seeking. The host’s articulation of the imperative to "passe over" which brings in the first biblical intertext of transit is immediately succeeded by an imperative to "seke aboute" for another narrator (B 1633). In the tale, the boy’s mother is twice described as having "soght" him (B 1780, 1789). The condition of seeking features prominently in the Old Testament story of the people of Israel’s transit through the desert. The medieval Christian exegetes expound the words referencing seeking in the Bible. St. Jerome’s Hebraicvm Nominvm includes references to words of the Hebrew Bible translated as seeking or exploration: "Thares exploratores lactitiae. Thara exploratores odoris siue exploratio adscensionis uel pastio" (73); "Thermad exploratio redemtionis ... Tharsis exploratio gaudii" (113). In all these cases, a verb meaning to explore or seek is (correctly) pointed out as the translation of Hebrew words including the consonants "t" and "r" –– the same consonants structuring the many references to transit in the tale. The several references in the tale and the transition leading to it to acts of seeking intensify the alliteration of "t" and "r" featuring in the tale mostly in references to transits. This creates a conceptual link between the act of transit and the act of seeking. The alliteration of r’s and t’s in Chaucer’s text has another function. It brings into play the Hebrew name of the biblical text itself: Torah, explicitly mentioned by Isidore in his Etymologiarvm as the name the "Hebraei" give to the "libri Moysis" [the Books of Moses] (6.1.5).

 

Hebrew etymologies provided by the Christian exegetes reinforce the conceptual link drawn in Chaucer’s text between the categories of tr–ansit and of seeking (whose expressions in Hebrew derive from the root תור [t–r], fictionalizing the goal of transit not as a stable point of reference but as an act of passage, or, in the words of Chaucer’s text, of a future–oriented passing over. In the Hebrew Bible as in Chaucer’s English, the conditions of passing and of transit are referenced by two different words. Significantly, these Hebrew words feature in the Bible in the intertext of the first Passover allusively invoked by the host’s demand the pilgrims "passe over" to another tale. In this intertext, the Hebrew words used to describe God’s act of passing over the Jews and passing through the land to kill the first–born of their oppressors which is described in the next verse are derived from different roots: the first is [pasach] פסח and the second עבר [avar]. In the Vulgate, these two words are translated by signifiers derived from one root: "transitus" (11) and ”transibo" (12) – the root alliteratively resonating in the numerous references to the condition of passing "thrugh" in Chaucer’s text.

 

This etymological–phonic link between transition, passage and Passover in the intersection of English, Hebrew, and Latin, does more than reinforce the conceptual links between these categories. It points to yet another significant etymological–conceptual link which would have been cognitively available to medieval Christian intellectuals: the link between those categories and the Hebrew language. The state of traversing, of being in transit, like the people of Israel in the desert after the first Passover on their way to the Promised Land, and like Chaucer’s pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, is inscribed into the name of the people of Israel and of their language. The root of the word "Hebrew," עברית [ivrit], is identical with the root of the word used in the Book of Exodus to describe God’s wrathful transit through the land of Egypt: עבר [avar]. The category of transit resonating so powerfully in Chaucer’s text, phonically and conceptually, resonates with the name of the Hebrew language. Hebrew becomes implicitly inscribed in Chaucer’s text as the umbilical site of transit, of an origin never arrived at but always passed through by the Christian "folk" in the always already "unstable" transit in which it gives birth to itself.

 

Medieval exegetes such as Isidore and St. Jerome were aware of the etymological and conceptual links between the categories of Hebrew and of passing or traversing. The reference in Genesis 14:13 to Abraham as אברם העברי [Avram ha–ivri], translated in the Vulgate as "Abram Hebraeo," is glossed by St. Jerome as "Aheberim Hebraeorum uel transeuntium" [Hebrews and people in transit] (Hebraicvm Nominvm 73). St. Jerome references this link elsewhere as well: "Ebrioth transitus" (74) and "Abarim in transitu" (79). In his Hebrew Questions on the Book of Genesis, St. Jerome says explicitly: "in place of what we have put as the passer–by is written in the Hebrew ibri for this word means passer-by" (46–47). Isidore too glosses the Genesis reference to Abraham as "Heber transitus" (7.6.23).

 

For St. Jerome and Isidore, as for Chaucer who most likely had access to their texts, the notion of Hebrew was linked with transit or passing (Sibony, Le nom et le corps 41). In Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, root as origin and as root as route, what is passed through, are intimately related. Root as origin and as route are intimately related with the story of Ruth, of the passage, through maternal af–filiation, from non–Judaism to Judaism, and, through the Gospel of Matthew, from Judaism to the Judaic–based Christianity of Mary. This is a story of a potentially endless chain of maternal transference  Footnote . Given the transcoding, in Chaucer’s text, of Hebraism, transferential love, and open–ended, potentially infinite transitiveness, it is hardly surprising the incantatory motto with which the Prioress’s Tale ends, the "Amen”, functions not, as is customary to read it, as a mark of closure, but rather as an opening up into the maternal. Although this word is articulated in Chaucer’s text in the context of an apostrophe to the Christian God, son of "mooder Marie" (1880), it is, significantly, a Hebrew word. This word, as Daniel Sibony points out, "retains a maternal accent" in its resonance of the Hebrew signifier for mother, "em" (L’amour inconscient 279). "Amen" is not a signifier affirming closure. Instead, in particular at the end of Chaucer’s text in which its maternal and Hebraic resonances are overdeterminately brought into play, it functions as what Sibony calls a umbilicus (279), a mode of appeal and connection to a maternal origin which can never be reached and must always be deployed, redeployed, passed through. This appeal takes place, the semiotics of Chaucer’s tale suggest, in the context of a participatory interaction wherein, as the title of Ruperti’s twelfth–century treatise (Dialogus Inter Christianum et Judaeum) puts it, Christianity is in inter-active, dialogic interaction with Judaism-qua-archaic Hebraism, an interaction that allows and compels it to constantly negotiate its own cultural identity in a looking back to an origin projected into its present and open-ended future.

 

 

 


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