Cursed Companions: The Literary Representation of Jews in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods in England
Wise, Sherri Lynn
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Despite their expulsion from England in 1290, Jews continue to figure prominently in English literature. This dissertation explores how Jews are imagined in absentia in English literature between the late medieval and early modern periods. Implicitly engaging with periodization, I study several literary texts on either side of the Reformation divide. I examine England's absent Jews through two medieval objects: the writing desk (scrinaria) and the casket (archa) as a means of locating the Jews simultaneously within the literary imagination and historical events. While the New Testament's increasing demonization of Judas entrenched notions of treachery and extended them to all Jews, the Gospels's many contradictions also enabled writers to deploy Jews creatively to explore a host of Christian anxieties. I propose a revisionist reading of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice by connecting the play's caskets and bonds to medieval history and the economic system of the archae. I then move backward in time to explore the original Christian representations of Jews in the Gospels, through the character of Judas, whose contradictory stories make him the first protean Jew. I analyze several of Judas's medieval incarnations: in the Legenda aurea, the Medieval Ballad of Judas and the Corpus Christi plays. I argue that while Judas was fiction created to harmonize the disparate biblical narratives, he becomes implicated in subsequent blood libels. Yet, at the same time, the figure is also used to explore more universal concepts such as subjectivity and free-will. The last section of this dissertation examines how Jews figure in three utopian texts. I begin with Thomas More's Utopia and then move to its literary descendant, Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. By focussing on how Jewish figures appear in these texts, I am able to look at change and continuity on either side of the Reformation divide. I argue that despite the widespread belief that the Jews had a role to play in the millennium, a fundamental ambivalence about actual Jews remains. I conclude with Milton's Of Reformation, arguing that this most political of poets exemplifies the radical and persistent ambivalence of Christian writers towards absent Jews.