The first event in the Sophie Kerr lecture series of the 2018-19 year introduced “terrible tales” in “horrible histories” from both a biblical and Chaucerian standpoint.
At the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Sept. 12, Dr. Courtney Rydel, assistant professor of English introduced David Wallace, Judith Rodin professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania since 1996. His most recent book is “Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction.”
Wallace’s discussion of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and Chaucer’s interpretation of it in “The Canterbury Tales” in the Physician’s Tale drew a variety of audience members to the Lit House.
“As an English major, I’ve come to all the Lit house events so far. I never really liked Chaucer in high school, but wanted to broaden my horizons in college,” freshman Emma Campbell said.
Wallace read passages from the story in the Book of Judges about Jephthah and his daughter, then read sections of Chaucer’s “The Physician’s Tale,” from “the Canterbury Tales,” highlighting the similarities that Chaucer drew from the original story, but primarily focusing on the differences.
“This reading has been challenging schools for a thousand years, but more recently, feminist writers have wondered about the implications. Three children up for death in the Bible, two boys, given a name, survive, but the nameless daughter dies,” Wallace said.
In the biblical story, Jephthah returns home to his daughter who runs to greet him. Because Jephthah swore an oath that he would offer up whatever greeted him at his home as a burnt offering when he returned in peace from the Ammonites, he had to sacrifice his daughter. His unnamed daughter spent two months in the mountains celebrating her virginity; upon her return, she was killed by her father.
According to Wallace, the need to give Jephthah’s daughter a name is so powerful that names are inscribed for her on Jewish memorials.
Wallace went on to discuss the differences in Chaucer’s interpretation of the story of Jephthah’s daughter.
“Chaucer eliminated the two months in the mountains to make the story more horrible. The host says he will die of a heart attack unless he is given the medicine of a good story quickly,” Wallace said.
In Chaucer’s tale, the daughter is referred to as “Virginia” at death, a name derived from her father, the knight Virginius.
“She was too beautiful to live. It was the sense of closure to move on with the pilgrimage and introduce the Pardoner’s Tale,” Wallace said.
Dr. Janet Sorrentino, associate professor and chair of history and fellow member of the Medieval Academy of America — of which Wallace is president — attended the talk in support of Wallace.
Dr. Sorrentino, who teaches a seminar on medieval women in Europe, discussed the “phenomena of a parent sacrificing a child and how Wallace’s two examples of sons ended in rescue, whereas Jephthah’s daughter and Chaucer’s tale did not. The naming in Chaucer’s retelling also drew on the idea of women and the value of virginity versus the ability to bear children,” Sorrentino said.
Wallace’s talk was organized by Dr. Rydel.
“Medieval studies is in convulsion because a lot of people are trying to figure out how to move forward and be relevant. [David] has been at the forefront of that. He is right in the thick of a discipline that is dramatically changing and is a significant scholar prior to the change as well,” Dr. Rydel said.
Freshman Melissa Defrancesco attended the talk to help connect history to her American Government and Politics class.
“I was surprised by the amount of feminism-related content that in so many aspects were connected to Chaucer’s writing,” Defrancesco said.
“My hope was that students would get the big picture idea that literary studies can’t be limited to one language and to look across cultural connections. There is extraordinary strength in medieval and early modern studies at WC. So many of us are passionate because we care about our students and see how the study enriches lives lived today,” Dr. Rydel said.