What’s the Object? The Siege of Jerusalem and the Notion of ‘Context’

[Prepared remarks for the roundtable “Rereading The Siege of Jerusalem” organized by Julie Orlemanski and Alex Mueller at the convention of the Northeast Modern Language Association held 22 March 2013 in Boston, MA.]

The title I give to these remarks is prompted by a seminar I taught last fall. The seminar had two prongs: we made a sequential reading of Piers Plowman; simultaneously, we made a study of the poem’s manuscript transmission and, more generally, of the production and circulation of books in late medieval England. We paid attention especially to manuscript collocations: thus, we paired Piers Plowman with a couple of texts that occur with the poem in manuscript or can be shown to have been written by the same scribes: The Prick of Conscience; The Book of John Mandeville; The Siege of Jerusalem. The initial expectation for these pairings was always that the paired title would throw some light on how and to what end Piers Plowman was being read. And yet, there were always reasons to be skeptical about the supposition that manuscript collocation implied a special relationship between the texts collocated. In the case of such a widely copied work as Prick of Conscience collocations might be an expected result, a simple combinatory consequence of each work’s independent popularity. Nevertheless, what was lost for an effort to uncover the past readings of Piers Plowman was recuperated as enriched knowledge of book culture in fifteenth-century England. Put another way, the object of study in our seminar had a way of slipping from a particular literary work—Piers Plowman—to a culture and its practices of entextualization.

When we came to pair Piers with Siege of Jerusalem, however, the Siege had a way of seizing attention. To be sure, we could identify a number of thematic continuities between Piers and Siege: orientalism, salvation history, Biblicism. Moreover, the contemporary significance of these themes may be confirmed by manuscript context: Robert Thornton clearly read the Siege of Jerusalem as a chapter in salvation history. In Thornton’s book, the Siege of Jerusalem neatly links the death of Christ to Christian Europe’s wars against Muslim faith and empire, as Michael Johnston has shown. From other copies of Siege one can, similarly, reconstruct readings of the poem within the discursive coordinates of salvation history, orientalism, and dynastic history. All this makes good sense and perhaps only confirms what we can ourselves read within the poem. Moreover, we know that these topics were of interest to participants in book culture in late medieval England.

Yet, if this sort of contextualization is a justifiably unsatisfying response to the Siege of Jerusalem‘s brutal extravagances, two copies of the poem can put a point on these comments and re-balance textual particularity with cultural generalization. Early in the fifteenth century, a copy of this poem was brought to London. Two surviving copies of Siege of Jerusalem were written by professional scribes who worked in city; others may derive from London-produced exemplars. This piece of the poem’s transmission history seems to me important. In the opening decades of the fifteenth century, professional scribes in London produced what are among the most important witnesses to the works of Chaucer, Gower, Trevisa, and Langland, authors now seen as central to Middle English literature. Siege of Jerusalem was–in a minor way–part of this milieu. The scribe who wrote the copy of Siege in Lambeth Palace Library 491 has also been identified as responsible for a surviving copy of Piers Plowman, a copy of Mandeville, and two copies of Chaucer’s Troilus.

To the question, “What is the Siege of Jerusalem?” we can no doubt return the answer, “Salvation history.” However, the transmission of the text at the turn of the fifteenth century provides concrete historical grounds for responding to the question “What is the Siege of Jerusalem?” with the answer, “This is Middle English literature—like Chaucer and Langland.”

This answer is perhaps hyperbolic, but it is grounded in history and it serves—I hope—to put a point on what has brought us here today, namely, the task of “rereading The Siege of Jerusalem.” I began these remarks by describing a sort of slippage from text to culture. However, in the trajectory I have just traced, I think one can recognize a productively circular relationship between these two objects of study. Having located The Siege of Jerusalem within a cultural milieu in which one perhaps did not expect it, we are thrown back onto the task of reading the poem — but now with the additional aim of elucidating just what English literature was at the turn of the fifteenth century.

I’ll finish these remarks by turning to the question of the poet’s relation to his subject. Was the poet sympathetic towards the starved and slaughtered Jews? I don’t think so. Siege of Jerusalem is intensely interested in the cognitive and affective correlates of perceptual experience. The narrative repeatedly carves out objects of perception and narrates responses to them. Very often, the perceptual objects offered up by the poem are scenes of violent suffering. However, I do not see indication that the poet intends for the violence against and suffering of Jews to trigger sympathy or pacifism. On the contrary, as I read the poem, Titus’s two healing scenes supply, within the poem, a normative model of reader response to it. In each of these cases, rage heals. I see no reason to doubt that the author of Siege of Jerusalem concocted this poem with the aim of inciting devoutly racist hatred.

I put this forward as a hypothesis, something for us to talk about.

[References and Acknowledgments: Michael Johnston’s article is “Robert Thornton and The Siege of Jerusalem,” Yearbook of Langland Studies, 23 (2009): 125-62. For the textual transmission of Siege of Jerusalem I draw from Ralph Hanna and David Lawton, eds., The Siege of Jerusalem, EETS 320 (Oxford, 2003), pp. lxvii-lxix. See also Hanna, “The Scribe of Huntington HM 114,” Studies in Bibliography 42 (1989): 120-33. I am grateful to Julie and Alex for the opportunity to participate in this event.]

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