The Prioress and the Jew: Mining the Symbolic System through Lexical Genre Analysis of Modernizations

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Nathan Kebler

    University of Maryland, College Park

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My research uses quantitative analysis and reception tion of Lipscomb’s text was very positive which shows
that his changes create a text that is more congruent with
the aesthetics of contemporary readers. In comparison
to Wordsworth and Anderson, Lipscomb’s text was a
watered-down Chaucer which Lipscomb “pruned of indelicacies.”
HyperPo, as a text analysis tool, is an effective way of
creating and organizing lexical data. The addition of raw
counts, relative weights, and Z-scores gives the critic a
variety of measurements for their data. Working between
Middle English and Modern English creates problems.
Anderson’s nonstandard spelling causes inaccurate word
counts where some words (moder/modre/mother) are
counted separately and other words are counted together
(“sone” meaning both “son” and “soon”). Critics must
be careful if filtering common words that they do not
remove words which might affect their data.
My research suggests that Wordsworth’s modernization
was a fairly accurate translation of Chaucer, but this is
also the reason it was a failure. Contemporary readers
saw Chaucer and Middle English as barbaric and crude.
Lipscomb’s version, on the other hand, softened the language
and delivered a less vitriolic modernization. Lipscomb
worked within the framework of Dryden’s Fables
Ancient and Modern, published in 1700, which drastically
changed lines, added material, changed rhyme
schemes, and censored what he considered indecent.
Dryden’s modernizations were very popular and fit more
closely into the horizon of expectations of the time. The
social function of the legenda form, if distant in Chaucer’s
time, was no longer apparent to the 19th century
reader. In turn, changes within the symbolic system
between Christians and Jews render the Prioress’s character
opaque to modern readers. Her anti-Semitism is
troubling because it confronts us in the aftermath of a
long history of Jewish persecution which culminated in
the recent history of the holocaust.
Anderson, Robert, ed. (1795). The Prioress’s Tale. The
Works of the British Poets. London.
Benson, Larry, ed. (1987). The Riverside Chaucer. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin.
Graver, Bruce. (1998). Translations of Chaucer and Virgil.
Ithaca: Cornell UP.
Hallissy, Margaret. (1995). A Companion to Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales. Westport: Greenwood.
Hoover, David L. (2008). Quantitative Analysis and Literary
Studies. A Companion to Digital Literary Studies,
ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell.
HyperPo. (2008). Text Analysis Portal For Research. (accessed 20 October
Jauss, Hans Robert. (1982). Trans. Timothy Bahti. Toward
an Aesthetic of Reception. Minneapolis: U of Minn
P, 1982.
Lipscomb, William, ed. (1795). The Prioress’s Tale.
The Canterbury Tales, complete in a Modern Version.
Tomasch, Sylvia. (2000). Postcolonial Chaucer and the
Virtual Jew. The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Ed. Jeffrey
Jerome Cohen. New York: Palgrave, pp. 243-260.
Tyrwhitt, Thomas, ed. (1795). The Canterbury tales of
Wilsbacher, Greg. (2005).Lumiansky’s Paradox: Ethics,
Aesthetics and Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale.’ College
Literature. Vol. 32, Iss. 4: 1-29.
Wordsworth, William. (1947). The Prioress’ Tale.
Wordsworth’s Poetical Works. Ed. E. Selincourt. London:
Oxford UP.
Wu, Duncan. (1993). Wordsworth’s Reading 1770-
1799. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
theory in order to understand how early 19th century
readers viewed and received the work of Chaucer.
Using the HyperPo tool from the Text Analysis Portal
(TAPoR), my analysis suggests that modernizations of
“The Prioress’s Tale” were more critically successful in
the 19th century when they adulterated the original form
of the tale beyond the threshold of the distinctiveness
ratio (Hoover, 2008). I attribute this genre shift to a
change in the symbolic systems between Christians and
Jews which denigrated the legenda form in the 19th century.
The historic adulteration of the legenda form along
with the disappearance of its ‘loci in life’ illuminates
both how and why current analysis has focused heavily
upon the anti-Semitism of the tale while also coming to
an impasse of critical scholarship.
Criticism of the anti-Semitic nature of the tale has tended
to diverge and stagnate into what critic Lawrence Besserman
calls ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ readings. Hard readings view
both the tale and Chaucer as anti-Semitic, as was typical
of 14th century England. Soft readings focus upon
Chaucer’s satire of the prioress, as well as adducing ambivalent
historical evidence of the relationship between
Jews and Christians, in an attempt to redeem Chaucer,
the ‘Father of English.’ My research shifts this dualism
by suggesting that contemporaries of Chaucer saw the
construction of the Jew, or virtual Jew as posited in the
work of Sylvia Tomasch, as a purely symbolic construct
inherent within the form and social function of the legenda.
My analysis of the degradation of the legenda is
framed by the reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss.
Jauss’s theory, elucidated in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception,
diachronically links literary studies and literary
history by tracing the historical shift of genres through
changes to readers’ ‘horizon of expectations.’ According
to Jauss, texts propagate through their ability to conform
to and disturb the expectations of their readers. When
texts are well-received, they exhibit congruency with the
history and sociology of their audience. The reception of
deviations from the horizon of expectations signals the
historical and social approval or denigration of a text’s
ability to represent the norms and realities of its readers.
The structure of genre then is more than mere literary
fashion. The diachronic change of genre reception
reflects instabilities in the specific social and historical
norms and realities of readers at the time. Stable genres
reflect social and historical systems that are well-established.
Changing genres reflect periods of social and
historical change.
Within the 14th century context of ‘The Canterbury
Tales,’ the legenda of ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ is a ‘culinary
art’ (Unterhaltungskunst) because it demands no horizontal
change of expectations (Jauss, 1982). The legenda
represents an older form of art designed for what
Margaret Hallisy calls ‘simple believers.’ The characters
function as simple allegories of weakness, holiness,
and evil. The social function of the legenda is to show
how the holy but weak may paradoxically triumph over a
powerful evil with the help of God. The strength of this
simple allegorical form in subsequent modernizations
of the tale can be tracked through text analysis software
such as HyperPo.
The form of the legenda is reliant upon clear designations
of good, evil, and weakness. The saint must always be
portrayed as both good and weak. The villain is purely
evil with no sense of redemption. I have used HyperPo
to examine a lexical field centered about these terms in
Robert Lipscomb’s 1795 edition, William Wordsworth’s
1820 edition, and Robert Anderson’s Middle English
version in The Works of the British Poets. I have chosen
Anderson because he is the likely source for both writers.
My data from HyperPo suggests that Wordsworth’s text
is a fairly good modernization. He retains the rhyme
royal form, uses similar syntax, and foregoes translation
where he feels the modern word does not capture the essence
of the original Middle English. The lexical field
of the legenda is a strong match with Anderon (92% raw
match), but shows some weakening. Concerning reception,
reviews of Wordsworth’s text in 1820 either panned
or ignored the modernization. This seems to suggest a
disconnect between the function of the legenda form and
Wordsworth’s 19th century audience.
Lipscomb’s text is not a close modernization. Analysis
shows that the lexical field of the legenda is debased to
the point that the text only weakly resembles the form
(62% raw match). This match is below the Distinctiveness
Ratio of .67 which David L. Hoover advocates as
warranting attention (2008). It might be said that Lipscomb’s
text has ceased to be a legenda at all. Recep

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
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