Of Fals Ymaginacioun: Poetic Hypocrisy in Anglo-Arabic Letters, 700-1400

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-0857-8347
Abdelkarim, Sherif, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, English, University of Virginia

Broadly defined as the significant break between word, deed, appearance, or intention, hypocrisy might be the most overlooked and least understood “sin” in medieval literature. An odd one out, this moveable vice defies canonical classification: hamartiologists have attached it to Pride, Envy, Vainglory, Avarice. Seldom is hypocrisy named hypocrisy. Yet the vice’s active agent, the hypocrite, runs rampant in public, wearing a gaudy array of cultural and ethical markers. What gives literary hypocrites notable edge are their profound but problematic skills of persuasion and performance.

This dissertation studies the place of the hypocrite in Old English, Middle English, and medieval Arabic culture and poetry. It conceives of hypocrisy as unique from the other vices: unlike the canonical sins, the hypocrite’s complex intentions and skill sets can make it hard to couch in moral terms. Hypocrisy’s prominence in literature and poetry suggests its importance to disparate civilizations. Hypocrisy itself may indeed serve as a marker of civilization—its discontents and dissonances. The variety of terms and contexts for hypocrisy, moreover, suggests its variety of values and meanings, which this dissertation explores. In their surveys and close readings of hypocrisy in Old English, Middle English, and Arabic literature, my chapters aim to delineate the complexity—and poetic richness—of hypocrisy as a complicated, even problematic vice, as well as a practical, sophisticated skill.

Chapter One traces the overlooked linguistic and literary history of the character of the hypocrite in Old English literature. It demonstrates that the vice was conceived mostly as a negative character trait. Unlike the simpler vices, hypocrisy took manifold verbal and behavioral forms, as is indicated by the many terms connoting dissimulation. A common element in the heroic and especially biblical poetry explored is the hypocrite’s skills of performance and persuasion. Successful hypocrites were not simply vicious in this tradition, but problematically and necessarily bright, driven, and charismatic. Despite these poetic elements, hypocrisy’s poetic potentials aren’t fully exploited: the Satan of these poems intends to deter more than allure audiences. To measure this period’s conceptions of the vice against those of the centuries that follow it, this chapter includes accounts of hypocrisy’s key terms in the Middle English period up to Chaucer’s age.

Chapter Two picks up where Chapter One leaves off by homing in on Geoffrey Chaucer (d.1400), whose poetry played a pivotal role in more deliberately exploring hypocrisy’s stylistic potentials, applying them to poetic ends with the aid of numerous new loanwords expressing deceit and doubleness. The chapter first contextualizes Chaucer’s social and philosophical scenes. Responding to classical conceptions of a contingent world as represented in Boece and played with in his moral lyrics, Chaucer conceives of the vice as a powerful if not positive consequence of agency that allows humans to cope with and even flourish in a world turned upside down. Chaucer relies on what I call a poetics of hypocrisy to frame the social-ethical problems of his day, problems that resonate in his poetry. In Troilus and Criseyde, this poetics entails well-crafted hypocrites whose actions transform their narrative worlds at the levels of syntax, style, and plot.

Chapter Three delves deeper into the ethical implications of Chaucer’s hypocritical worlds. It turns to his Canterbury Tales to analyze its repeated manipulation of a civil assumption: that “every man should act in good faith upon the promises he made” (Hornsby, Chaucer and the Law 38). Inverting the principle that pacta sunt servanda (promises must be kept), the tales perplex readers by showcasing inconsistent characters who uphold agreements of dubious faith—oaths that suit such ends as murder, adultery, embezzlement, perjury, and treason. In their own ways, the tales considered—The Friar’s, Pardoner’s, Clerk’s, and Merchant’s—institutionalize hypocrisy as the basis for social exchange, a humorous relation that nevertheless forces audiences to face the hard consequences of agency, normativity, and moral (anti-)realism.

Chapter Four concludes this project. Broad in scope, it surveys hypocrisy’s key terms in classical and early postclassical Arabic literature. First it traces the different terms and conceptions—religious and cultural—of hypocrisy in Arabic literature across time (6th-13th century CE). As in the Old English tradition, hypocrisy enjoys an array of terms and connotations that share a common, publicly-performing element. Second, it probes hypocrisy’s personal and poetic potentials with a case study of the notorious Iberian diplomat Lisān al-Dīn Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d.1375), who paralleled Chaucer professionally. A reading of his literary life against his English contemporary’s reveals how differently each author conceived of and approached hypocrisy in word and deed: whereas Chaucer cultivates a subtle, playful, and useful poetics of hypocrisy in his oeuvre (and perhaps in his professional life), Ibn al-Khaṭīb wields hypocrisy—doubtless a vice in his hands—to craft an overt, highly personalized, and abusive style—no less poetic—that takes the traditions of madḥ and qadḥ (praise and blame) to new limits.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Hypocrisy, Hypocrite, Nifaq, Chaucer, Ibn al-Khatib, Ethics, Moral Anti-Realism
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