Gower Bibliography

Fellows in the Wilderness: Neighborly Ethics in 'The Tale of the Jew and the Pagan'

Houlik-Ritchey, Emily. "Fellows in the Wilderness: Neighborly Ethics in 'The Tale of the Jew and the Pagan'." South Atlantic Review 79.3-4 (2015), pp. 65-75. ISSN 0277-335X


In having the righteous pagan in his "Tale of the Jew and the Pagan" express a philosophy based upon the "Golden Rule," Houlik-Ritchey notes, Gower locates the ethical foundations of Christianity in paganism and explicitly rejects its historical roots in Judaism, specifically in the injunction to "love thy neighbor" in Leviticus 19:18, an "alternate ethical kinship" (66) also reflected in the choice of Aristotle and the source of the instruction in CA Book 7. But viewing the tale through the lens of the "neighbor theory" of Kenneth Reinhard and others, Houlik-Ritchey argues that the tale also interrogates so reductive a relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The two men in the tale greet each other as both brothers and strangers, an ambiguous and indeterminate relationship that "marks them as neighbors" (67). While certainly unknown to Gower, the wide semantic field of the term "felawe" by which the Jew defines his own ethical obligation echoes rabbinical debates about the precise sense of "neighbor" in Leviticus 19:18, and "the pagan's astonished reaction to the Jew's speech figures, anachronistically, Christian judgment upon the limitations of Judaism 'as it has construed them'" (70; Houlik-Ritchey's emphasis). The pagan's own creed, moreover, echoes another injunction, to love strangers, in Leviticus 19:33-34. The tale takes place in a "wilderness," a setting in which both men are strangers as well as "felawes" in the sense of "traveling companions," and the men's respective ethical responsibilities are defined in this space removed from civilization yet also fraught with historical resonance, as it is located between Cairo and Babylon, the sites of Jewish exile. "In sum," Houlik-Ritchey concludes, "I argue that Gower's 'Tale of the Jew and the Pagan,' reimagining the origins of Christian ethics to efface its Jewish legacy, pinpoints a source of ambivalence regarding the ethical indebtedness of Christians to Jews that refuses to settle down. As I hope I have shown, the Jew and the Pagan are neighbors, and their ethical codes seem, in ways unforeseen and unintended by each, to share an ethical responsibility for those that chance, circumstance, and the physical world make proximate. Though neither man heeds his creed's call to neighbor-love in quite these terms, those implications of their analogous responsibility to each other are legible to us. The tale, by way of paganism, thus brings into sharp focus Gower's construction of a neighboring relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Gower's Jew and Pagan take us, in the end, back to where we historically began: Christianity's many debts to its Jewish neighbors" (73). Houlik-Ritchey has a great deal to offer to our understanding of this tale, but her essay contains a couple of odd statements (e.g. "Book VII is the book of Justice," 66), and her summary overlooks the pagan's prayer in 7.3300-09* and the implicit intervention of God in response, which one thinks might aid her case that the pagan is a proto-Christian but which would also seem to qualify a bit her emphasis upon the importance of the setting, particularly her reference to the "swift ecological punishment" as the wilderness "stalks the unethical man for the kill" in the form of the lion (72). [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.1.]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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