My Child And My Life: Sacrificial Obligation And Chaucer




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Medieval literature demonstrates that Christians of that era took their Bible seriously, particularly the Old Testament account of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. For them, the story was both fascinating and perplexing. Not only was Abraham one of the most revered figures, but he was also one of the most frustrating. He was admired for his ability to obey God's directive to sacrifice Isaac, but because he does so without displaying an ounce of emotion, that admiration is often coupled with irritation. How could a father as loving as Abraham remain expressionless and emotionless as he raised the knife to kill his son? To explain why, Church fathers espoused various methods of exegesis. But for many, the Church's teachings proved less than satisfactory, as is indicated by medieval writers, particularly the dramatists, who seized upon the Abraham and Isaac story in an effort to explain not only Abraham's lack of emotion, but also Isaac's reaction, one the Bible conspicuously omits. Among these writers was Chaucer, who knew well the Abraham and Isaac story. His tales on religion and morality qualify as variations of the passage as presented not only in the Bible, but also in medieval drama. The Hugelyn episode in the Monk's Tale, the Prioress' Tale, the Physician's Tale, the Man of Law's Tale, and the Clerk's Tale each present children as sacrificial figures. Through them, Chaucer explores the issues of his day that the Abraham and Isaac story presents: silence, affective piety, gender, salvation, and death. The tales demonstrate that sacrifice is often necessary for restoring balance on a personal and societal level. And like the Abraham and Isaac story makes obvious, those who remain steadfast in their faith through their darkest hour are rewarded by God.