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date: 06 July 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article explores Chaucer from three vantage points, focusing on issues relating to interconnectedness and intersubjectivity. First, it explores the history of popular and critical perceptions of Chaucer, describing the move away from single-author studies and the continuing importance of both historicism and close reading. Current critical concerns, including theories of mind, posthumanism, and scribal networks, are discussed as examples of twenty-first-century interests in interconnectedness. Second, the article focuses on the imaginative structures of Chaucer’s world, exploring how fourteenth-century ideas about public and private were inflected by medieval architecture and the flexible use of space. Finally, the article analyzes some of Chaucer’s dream poems, arguing that Chaucer often depicts the mind spatially and that his interest is in porous spaces rather than contained enclosures. His understanding that private spaces can be problematic for imaginative development maps neatly onto current critical preoccupations with interrelationality and the need to connect.

Keywords: Chaucer, public, private, historicism, posthumanism, dream poem, medieval architecture, enclosures, interconnectedness, intersubjectivity

Scholars and the broader public have preconceptions about Chaucer and his work, and this has long been true. In the popular imagination, he is a genial, middle-aged man who wrote great and irreverent poems featuring sex in trees, bold many-times-married women, and pokers in bottoms. When one finds out more, one discovers that he was a customs officer, a civil servant, a soldier, and possibly a spy; a diplomat who navigated complicated political factionalism. Many details of Chaucer’s life are enthralling: he was living on the walls of London, over one of the gates, when the rebels stormed the city in 1381; he was a prisoner of war in the Hundred Years’ War; his sister-in-law was the long-term mistress and finally wife of John of Gaunt, ancestress of every monarch since Henry VII; he was once granted a pitcher of wine a day by the king. Chaucer also produced a vast corpus of writings, mainly poetry, utilizing an extraordinary range of genres, forms, and techniques. The breadth of his abilities and of his reading (particularly in French and Italian) helped him to produce all kinds of texts—from tale collection to romance, philosophical treatise to lyric, dream poem to translation. Chaucer was enthroned as the father of English poetry shortly after his death and has never lost that authoritative status (Lerer 1993). He is commonly perceived as a founding member of the canon, an establishment figure who leavens his weighty status with wit and good humor, a “congenial soul,” as Dryden famously put it, for myriad readers (Trigg 2002).

Although the image of genial Father Chaucer can be supported by selective reading of his texts (especially his fabliaux) and of contemporary culture (by underemphasizing what other poets were doing with English), it is also, crucially, tied up with Chaucer the man, exemplified in posthumous “author” portraits. Chaucer, the son of a merchant who succeeded in the court, the “middle class” customs officer whose jobs as soldier and spy give him extra glamor, has been an accessible and appealing figure to legions of readers over the centuries, the poster-boy for medieval literature. Chaucer, viewed as an astonishingly talented, exceptional individual, is the only medieval author with a substantial presence in the popular imagination. And although the wealth of information that we have about Chaucer—especially noticeable in contrast with our knowledge about Langland, say, or the Gawain -poet—can tempt readers to dead-end author-based analyses, it also allows rich reconstructions of his imaginative and cultural environment.

In this article, I survey current critical trends, focusing especially on the twenty-first-century interest in interconnectedness, intersubjectivity, and cultural networks. I then move on to discuss Chaucer’s own understanding of the construction of the self in relationship to others and to the spaces in which he lived and worked, exploring changing ideas about the private in the mid-fourteenth century. The article concludes with an analysis of the mental structures depicted in the Book of the Duchess and the House of Fame, analyzing the significance of the chambers, wastelands, castles, gardens, and wickerwork houses of the mind in these poems. Chaucer, I suggest, was profoundly interested in selfhood as a process of change and interaction and in the relationship between how space is configured and our sense of our selves. His understanding that private spaces can be problematic for imaginative and personal development maps neatly onto current critical preoccupations with interrelationality and the need to connect.

Writing About Chaucer

Chaucer is the one medieval author whose position is still relatively safe on teaching curricula, and this position is reflected in the large numbers of (mostly excellent) companion volumes that place Chaucer front and center as an outstanding individual: The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer (Boitani and Mann 2004), Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (Ellis 2005), and A Concise Companion to Chaucer (Saunders 2006) are some of the best. Some of the most stimulating recent work on Chaucer can be found in relatively short, accessible essays in these and other edited collections: I would single out Maura Nolan’s “Beauty” and Vincent Gillespie’s “Authorship” as outstanding examples (from Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches: Middle English [Strohm 2007], and A Handbook of Middle English Studies [Turner 2013]). But although there are still very many individual essays and edited collections that focus on Chaucer, there has been a marked change in the kind of monographs that late-medievalists are producing. From the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s, we saw an embarrassment of Chaucerian riches. A selective and eclectic list includes Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Dinshaw 1989), Social Chaucer (Strohm 1989), Chaucer’s Narrators (Lawton 1985), Chaucerian Polity (Wallace 1999), Gender and Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Crane 1994), Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Hansen 1992), Chaucer and the Subject of History (Patterson, 1991), Chaucer (Aers 1986), Geoffrey Chaucer (Knight 1986). Many of these books are profoundly concerned with setting Chaucer in cultural, linguistic, and theorized contexts, and they are in no way narrow in their approaches. But, in all cases, these books overtly take Chaucer as their focus, and they do so to great effect: these are inspiring and field-changing books, and they are still essential reading for anyone interested in Chaucer’s writings.

Written in the same era, another ground-breaking monograph, The Making of Chaucer’s English (Cannon 1998), explicitly engages with some of the problems that can arise from Chaucer-centric readings of cultural history, an issue that has certainly been on the scholarly radar for a generation. In the twenty-first century, there have been many fewer influential monographs that have focused on Chaucer. Instead, scholars tend to write monographs with a thematic rather than an author-based focus. Work on Chaucer is thus embedded within a broader cultural discussion, and discussion of Chaucer’s texts is necessarily limited. Important books such as Empire of Magic (Heng 2003), The Performance of Self (Crane 2002), The English Romance in Time (Cooper 2004), Gestures and Looks (Burrow 2002), Premodern Places (Wallace 2004), and Languages of Power (Staley 2005), all fall into this category. There are major advantages for our understanding of Chaucer when he is consistently seen within a broad cultural and literary context; our period also gains if Chaucer is no longer the inevitable center of scholarly discussion. But there are undoubtedly some problems with the move away from single-author studies. There are obvious benefits to taking an argument through a run of Chaucer’s works, and the inevitable limitation of university literature courses means that Chaucer-focused books are central to how students learn. If the Chaucer monograph disappears, the companion will fill its gap but it does not do the same thing; we need a balance between all these different ways of writing about Chaucer.

Continued scholarly interest in reading Chaucer in his contemporary cultural context illustrates the fact that historicism remains central to Chaucer studies, often combined with a range of theoretical approaches. The history of emotions, the history of objects, and the history of sensation are growing fields that allow us to think historically in new ways about how Chaucer and his audience lived. What did grief and the cycles of life and death (cf. the opening of the Canterbury Tales) mean in a culture that lived through the plague and that treated dead bodies differently to our own? What (and how) did facial expressions and gestures mean in the late fourteenth century? Historicism is a broad and changing field that increasingly interacts with a smorgasbord of approaches and theories. Just as the work of, most notably, Aranye Fradenburg, has long demonstrated that psychoanalytic approaches and historical ones are not opposed to each other, so the work of many scholars demonstrates that close reading is central to much historicist work, although New Historicism often tended to downgrade the importance of formal approaches. And close reading has, in general, been less central to our field than it should have been. Even if new formalism was a damp squib in Chaucer studies, more nuanced approaches to close reading have produced some outstanding analyses of Chaucer’s work. Although there are fewer groundbreaking “Chaucer” monographs produced these days, I single out two books published about a decade into the twenty-first century as models of scholarship, uniting close reading, historicism, and theory in idiosyncratic ways that should inspire all their readers. These are also books that brilliantly embed Chaucer in particular intellectual environments.

Peter Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer (2010) is, audaciously, a long book on a single, not very long, Canterbury Tale (the “Nun’s Priest’s”). Travis situates his extraordinarily detailed and learned readings within long historical contexts, particularly exploring the reading practices of Chaucer and his audiences, while also drawing cross-temporal comparisons between, for instance, Dante and Toni Morrison’s understandings of learning practices and how letters and words acquire meaning. Indeed, in analyzing sound and noise, Travis both moves outside historicist frameworks and remains deeply embedded in them: he suggests that sounds can represent different domains of signification across history while also exploring the specific ways that educational models and reading practices might affect thought processes. Travis also focuses explicitly on our reading strategies, spending a chapter close reading close reading itself: more of us should take close reading as seriously as he does. This book is like no other on Chaucer, but Travis’s interests in the senses, in the use of animals, and in a careful reworking of historicism ally him with a number of current critical foci.

Ardis Butterfield’s The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, Nation (2009) also situates close reading within a theorized and historicist critical framework. Her meticulous reconstruction of language relationships in the late fourteenth century enables her to analyze Chaucer’s poetry in terms of the politics of translation. Her discussion of the Book of the Duchess, for instance, explores how individual words—such as defaut—can be interpreted in both French and English, although she eloquently insists on the problems inherent in terms such as “French” and “English” to define the language choices available. Her detailed analyses deploy theorists such as Derrida, Chakravarty, and Spivak to explore issues of monolingualism, translation, and language relationships. Butterfield’s work is characterized by her insistence on the necessity of seeing Chaucer within the linguistic and textual contexts of his world, of moving away from misleading ideas about originality that still often lurk in our critical climate. She explores Chaucer’s cultural identity as multilingual and interrelational, embedded within the Hainault-French-English world in which he lived.

The general move toward ever more embedded readings of Chaucer chimes with other branches of criticism that are concerned with decentering the individual subject. In recent years, Chaucer scholarship has increasingly turned away from a focus on human individuals—either author or characters. Instead, we have seen a focus on particular kinds of relationality: on animals, nature, and matter; on neuroscientific understandings of intersubjectivity; on collaborative authorship and the role of scribes, editors, and readers. Medievalists spent decades combatting the idea that medieval people lacked a sense of subjectivity and interiority and demonstrating that a glance at medieval literature should put paid to such ideas (Aers 1992). Medieval texts are often profoundly concerned with the nature of selfhood and with modes of understanding, expressing, and concealing emotions and anxieties. But, having established that subjectivity was not born in 1600 or thereabouts, and that medieval poetry is often deeply introspective, many scholars are moving away from work that focuses on individual selfhood.

Subjectivity, many would argue, is always constructed and maintained through connections with other minds and with one’s environment; it is a process rather than a fixed, enclosed state. Influenced by work on neuroplasticity and affect, scholars are increasingly interested in breaking down the self–other distinction and in considering how we change our minds, literally as well as figuratively. Chaucer’s interest in affect, cognition, and the reading process here comes into productive debate with current interest in the science of empathy, in mirror neurons, and in our growing understanding of neurological change. This kind of work is modeled most influentially by Aranye Fradenburg, whose recent articles explore how the mind is always engaged with other minds. Her work brings together a deep investment in modern theories of mind and a commitment to exploring medieval writings about affect transmission and signification. In her agenda-setting essay, “Living Chaucer,” (2011) Fradenburg takes as her key argument the idea that “intersubjectivity and its transmission by the signifier, is central to the ways Chaucer’s poetry thinks about change” (42). She understands Chaucer’s profound commitment to multiple perspectives and intertextuality as part of his preoccupation with intersubjectivity and with a deeply embedded philosophy of communication and mental change.

This focus on decentering the idea of the sovereign human individual also relates to a group of theorized approaches to literature that are concerned with posthumanist understandings of culture. Animal studies, object-oriented ontology, ecocriticism: these are all major critical movements in the twenty-first century. What unites these, and other, theoretical approaches is a concern to challenge the idea of humans as the inevitable center and focus of our interpretative systems. In particular, a lot of work is emerging on animal–human encounters and relationships in Chaucer’s texts, on the location of agency in the medieval worldview, on the slippage between metaphorical and actual animals, on organic and inorganic matter in Chaucer’s world. To take one important example, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (2012) focuses our attention not on figural animals, but on actual animals, and on encounters between, and communities of, human and nonhuman animals. Her analyses are rooted in questions of ethics, identity, hierarchy, language, and empathy. Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale” is the key Chaucer text in this book. In Crane’s analysis of this still-neglected tale, we can perceive some of the richness and breadth of her deployment of animal studies. Her focus, for instance, on duties of care and compassion between human and animal—part of her general interest in “how bodies, minds, and affects interpenetrate within and across species”—speaks to Fradenburg’s interest in communication, care, and connection.

In both of these areas of criticism (theories of mind and work on the environment and animals), Chaucer is seen as part of a network—of beings and entities in the world, of other objects and minds that affected him. Recent work has also placed him and his works within networks of authors, scribes, readers, and text workers in fourteenth-century London. The identification of Adam Pynkhurst as the scribe of the Hengwyrt and Ellesmere Canterbury Tales manuscripts was a flagship moment for this kind of work (Mooney 2006). Estelle Stubbs’s and Linne Mooney’s Scribes and the City: London Guildhall Clerks and the Dissemination of Middle English Literature 1375–1423 (2013), identifies a number of other important and prolific scribes, arguing that the guildhall became a clearinghouse for Middle English literature at this time. A great deal of research is yet to be done on the ramifications of these findings, which has changed our understanding of how texts were copied and of the kind of people who were principally employed in such labor. In particular, it has set Chaucer’s texts, along with other Ricardian literature, within deeply political and partisan contexts.

Living with Chaucer

The increased focus in Chaucer scholarship on interconnectedness—between subjects, between different kinds of text workers, between different kinds of beings and objects in the world—speaks to medieval preoccupations with concepts of private and public, self and other. Indeed, reading Chaucer’s earliest life record reminds us that Chaucer and his circle had an intimate understanding of how selfhood evolves and exists under subjection, surveillance, and claims of possession. Taking this record as a starting point, we can explore some of the assumptions about interconnectedness that structured Chaucer’s cultural and political environment.

During his adolescence, that intense time of transition and self-fashioning, Chaucer did not get to choose how he was going to look or what he was going to wear. In his first appearance in documentary records, Chaucer steps off the page as a teenage fashion plate, extravagantly dressed in clothes so breathtakingly fashionable and daring that contemporary commentators condemned them as causing the wrath of God to descend on England in the shape of the plague. At Easter, 1357, Elizabeth de Burgh (daughter-in-law to the king, Edward III), paid 4 shillings for a paltok for Chaucer, and a further 3 shillings for black and red hose and a pair of shoes. He was about fifteen at the time and was working (almost certainly as a page) in her household (Crow and Olson 1966). In the early 1360s, the critique of fashion focused on these specific garments: “particoloured and striped hose which they tie with laces to their paltoks… they go about with their loins uncovered,” “paltocks, extremely short garments… which failed to conceal their arses or their private parts,” “shoes with long toes” (Horrox 1994, 132–134). According to these chroniclers (John of Reading and the Eulogium-author), young men were going about in short tunics and long, split-colored leggings or tights, laced up together provocatively in such a way as to emphasize the genitals indecently.

Chroniclers’ accounts and the expenditure records of the king’s wardrobe date the arrival of the paltok to the early 1360s: the king and his circle wore them in 1361–1362; by 1363–1364, people lower down the social spectrum, such as squires, were also wearing them. In a very short period of time, the paltok achieved dramatic success in the fashionable world (Newton 1980:55). But the paltok, always written about in fashion history as a new item of clothing in the 1360s, was in fact being sported several years earlier, by no less a person than the teenage Chaucer (there are also two other brief references to paltoks in the 1350s [Middle English Dictionary [MED]). In 1357, then, Elizabeth’s household was at the cutting edge of fashion, leading the way where, a few years later, the king and his entourage were to follow. In clothing boys such as Chaucer in the paltok, Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Lionel, were making a deliberate statement about their own position and image.

The point is not that I want to replace genial father Chaucer with sexy, stylish Chaucer, although the fact that people are different things at different moments in their life is always worth remembering. What interests me, rather, is the household’s focus on ostentatious image creation and on using the bodies of relatively menial members of the household to stage that image. Wastour, the free-spending aristocrat in the contemporary poem Wynnere and Wastour, defends all the money that he spends on fashion against the criticism of the hoarding merchant-figure, Wynnere, saying: “And if my peple ben prode, me payes alle the better” (And if my retinue are proudly dressed, that pleases me more) (433). The convention of clothing servants marked their bodies as owned by their employers: when Walter, in the “Clerk’s Tale,” has his peasant fiancée stripped and reclothed “in swich richesse” (Chaucer 2008:385), this symbolizes his takeover of her identity; when he repudiates her and sends her away, her clothing is taken away too, because she is now removed from his marital control. Phoebus, in the “Manciple’s Tale,” is even crueler: when he turns out his devoted and truthful servant, he mutilates him, tearing out his white feathers, and then turns him black, marking him and his descendants forever as the victims of the unjust anger of a great lord with biopolitical power over the bodies of those who served him. Both those tales, however, also reveal the servant-figure’s resistance to the lord and his ultimate inability to control their thoughts as easily as he can their appearance. In Chaucer’s teens, he lived through the experience of having his body used to promote someone else’s image; he thoroughly understood what it meant to be subjected to the desires and whims of another.

Chaucer’s particular connection with Elizabeth de Burgh and Lionel, duke of Clarence, is of far less interest than the fact that he lived the itinerant, semi-public, sometimes glamorous, always-watched life of a household servant. Thinking about what this kind of life—deeply familiar to Chaucer and his readers—was like gives us access to some of the assumptions underlying fourteenth-century literature. Living in an aristocratic or royal household did not allow for much privacy, either for servants or for lords and ladies. This doesn’t mean that people did not desire privacy (contemporary court records show us medieval Londoners frequently protesting if neighbors overlooked their properties, especially their privies, for instance [Hanawalt 1993:28]). But the way that life was lived and the spaces it was lived in constructed a specific set of assumptions about the public and the private. The household must generally have been aware of menstrual cycles, of conjugal visits, of early signs of pregnancy, of stomach upsets—of all the things that today most of us like to keep secret (Underhill 2000:76). Even sexual privacy was not valued in the fourteenth century in the way that it is (by most people) today. Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” in which husband, wife, daughter, and two overnight guests all sleep in the same room, resulting in mistaken identities and rapes, plays on the forced intimacy that could result from the domestic arrangements of the less privileged. But, for the rich as well, great household living made privacy for sexual intercourse extremely difficult, both because of the press of people and their expectation of access and because of domestic architecture. In the “Manciple’s Tale,” the servant is represented as a caged bird (he is not caged in Ovid or Machaut’s versions) whose privileged access to the intimate spaces of the house has allowed him to see his master’s wife committing adultery. From his cage, he “Biheeld hire werk, and seyde never a word” (l. 241): an image of the servant who sees all kinds of things that he would rather not see—and he ends up being punished brutally for telling the truth to his master.

One’s opportunities to do secret things are much greater if one has hallways and corridors, if rooms are not accessed through other rooms. In Edward III’s massive building and remodeling projects at Windsor and Westminster in the 1350s and ‘60s, space was used in new ways. The major chambers still interconnected, but galleries were provided, giving the king alternative routes around his residences that allowed him to bypass all the people hanging around in the elaborate series of chambers. In order to reach Edward’s bedroom at Windsor, one passed through the great chamber (Chaucer probably never got further in than this in his long career of household service), then a formal audience chamber, then the king’s private dining chamber, then the second chamber where the king’s immediate attendants might wait and sleep (Wilson 2002:47–50). It is easy to see why galleries (or indeed trapdoors) would be very appealing to those who lived in this very public, communal way—all the more so if they had affairs of sexual intrigue to conduct.

The difficulty for even the most privileged in society of finding a private space for the most intimate acts is particularly clearly demonstrated in Troilus and Criseyde, a poem that meditates extensively on interiors, psychological and architectural (Nolan 2006; Smyser 1956; Brody 1998). When Criseyde is persuaded to stay the night at Pandarus’s house, where Troilus is waiting for her, she has in attendance some of her own male servants, her niece, and “other of hire women nyne or ten” (III, 598). Criseyde’s uncle and her most trusted women all accompany her to her bed in a small closet, and her women all sleep “at this closet dore withoute, / Right overthwart [directly opposite],” specifically within earshot (684–686). Indeed, the door is left open, and when Pandarus has managed to smuggle Troilus into the closet via a trapdoor, he quietly shuts the door, confident that the ladies are all asleep and that the storm outside is luckily loud enough to mask the noise (743–749). The long involved conversation and then the night of sex that follows have to take place in this claustrophobic context, in an atmosphere fraught with anxiety about who might hear what. In a house with corridors, there would be no need for the complicated trapdoor arrangement. In a house with multiple private rooms, the other women would be sleeping in separate rooms, and, in a society dominated by nuclear families, Criseyde would not move around the city accompanied by a dozen attendants.

Chaucer deploys an extraordinary range of techniques and sources as ways of thinking about interiority in this poem. Most famously, he uses Petrarchan sonnets and Boethian philosophy to portray Troilus’s search for a language of emotion and for an understanding of the role of the individual in the world. The poem is dominated by the play of private and public, microcosm and macrocosm, love and war, inside and outside, and Chaucer inexorably chips away at and fragments those seeming binaries, demonstrating that the private life is inevitably political, that the seemingly personal is deeply conventional, and that interiors are constantly permeated by exteriors. Setting the poem in the context of Chaucer and his immediate audience’s lived experience of how domestic architecture functioned and of their expectations of privacy and openness allows us a much deeper understanding of the nature of the poem’s interest in the blurred boundaries of any identity. Perhaps most interestingly, we can place the poem’s concern to explore the limits set on Criseyde’s ability to shape her own destiny within the context of a lifestyle in which many people, although privileged in all kinds of ways, could not choose what to wear, where to sleep, or what or when they would eat. Thinking about the clothes that Chaucer wore and the rooms through which he moved reminds us that our ideas of choice and freedom are deeply rooted in our own historical moment, geographical locale, and domestic architecture.

Furthermore, far from longing for a Woolfian room of his own, Chaucer questions the value of privacy. Chaucer and many of his friends and early readers were intimately aware of the changing domestic architecture of the times and of how that reflected and created changing attitudes toward the private. Great lords’ increased use of the chamber or withdrawing room rather than the hall for eating was a particularly fraught social issue, carefully described by the Gawain-poet and explicitly criticized by Langland (Kowaleski 2006: 251). New architectural projects in the mid-fourteenth century provided more private bedrooms for high-ranking court servants as the idea of possessing one’s own enclosed space became more important. Chaucer himself would not have had a private room in his long career in households and at court; his (in many ways uninspiring) job in the city had the advantage of giving him and perhaps his family a home—and rooms—of their own. In this personal, social, and architectural context of the later fourteenth century, it is especially interesting that chambers feature so heavily in Chaucer’s dream poems (gardens are more common settings in the genre). And the private chamber—although in some ways a bookish refuge—proves to be inadequate as Chaucer’s avatars move through doors, across different spaces, out of enclosures. Privacy is both intensely desired and mentally stifling.

Reading Chaucer

Although it is an ostentatiously literary and allusive poem, the House of Fame is also Chaucer’s most overtly autobiographical poem. The narrator is called “Geffrey,” he comes home from doing accounts to his room and his books, he is seeking poetic inspiration, and his poetic career moves through Troy stories and dream poems to contemporary life. But Geffrey also takes his place in a series of unreliable narrators separated from Chaucer himself, and Geffrey explicitly states his desire to keep his own self secret. In one of the most interesting passages of Chaucer’s poetry, he declares that he wants no one to “have his name in honed” (House of Fame, l. 1877) and that he must keep his sufferings and thoughts wholly to himself. The idea of Chaucer the private individual who wishes to retreat into himself with his private thoughts is appealing in many ways and “fits” perfectly with Chaucer’s political disengagement in his texts. But privacy and a retreat to a room of one’s own are problematic in the House of Fame: the eagle berates “Geffrey” for his self-imposed isolation, criticizing him for ignoring his neighbors and refusing to hear what they are saying (“Thou herist neyther that ne this” [l. 651]); instead, after work, he isolates himself with his books, sitting “domb as any stoon” (l. 656).

This image of isolation disparagingly links enclosed solitude both with disability and with the natural world. Being alone does not liberate creativity; on the contrary, it disables and dehumanizes. We could compare this moment with an iconic story about not being able to speak, retold in the Legend of Good Women. Here, Philomela finds a way to communicate through weaving after she has been horrifically mutilated by having her tongue cut out. Unlike Geffrey, who is psychologically made dumb, Philomela is physically unable to talk although mentally her ability to communicate with others is unimpaired. But Geffrey’s mental impairment is mocked by the eagle, who compares him with a stone. Here, the stone appears as something insentient, unresponsive, without agency in the world, associated with creative stasis. In contrast, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when Gawain’s constructed courtly exterior is stripped away, he stands “stylle as the stone” (l. 2293), the stone representing an honesty unknown in the mannered life of the great household.

But stony, walled, enclosed identities are ambivalent in Chaucer’s poetry. Many of his poems circle around images of enclosure, crystallized in the proverbial image of the mouth, walled with teeth and lips as a way of containing the tongue and speech: “God of his endelees goodnesse / Walled a tonge with teeth and lippes eke, / For a man sholde hym avyse what he speeke” (“Manciple’s Tale,” 322–324). This is a wonderful image for a diplomat to use because it brings together verbal negotiation and physical defences, discussion and siege, treaties and self-protection. Troilus and Criseyde, a poem set in and then outside a besieged walled city, is suffused with images of enclosure as both protecting and suffocating. Indeed, the symbolic force of walls must be different if one lives in a culture of walled cities, where the success or failure of military adventures depends on whether or not the walls hold. And Chaucer himself was acutely aware of this. He took part in the (unsuccessful) siege of Reims in 1359–1360, he was in Navarre in February 1366 during an intense and massive attempt to fortify the walled cities and to bring people inside, and for many years he lived on the walls of London.

The idea of the mind as an enclosure has a long history, from classical memory manuals to Lacan’s famous medieval-inspired depiction of the ego as a fortress or castle, surrounded by the wasteland or rubbish tip of the id (Lacan 1989:5). In images of the mind, and in popular depictions of medieval life more generally, the closed-off medieval castle is misleadingly dominant. Medieval mental topography, like medieval architecture, ranges beyond the castle to include many more permeable structures. Not everyone lived in towers or in their shadows; people lived in cities, in towns, on farms. Lynn Staley has recently suggested, for instance, that the semi-enclosed croft might be a more useful image of medieval life than the aristocratic castle (Staley 2010). And James Simpson has argued that Chaucer’s geographical and topographical imagination tends to privilege “relatively insignificant places” over “places of powerful cultural resonance” (Simpson 2006:55). In the Book of the Duchess and the House of Fame, Chaucer sets the stony castle against other, more open and less iconic structures, repeatedly representing a change of concept or narrative by an architectural and locational change. In the House of Fame, he ultimately suggests that the poet must move away from enclosure, from isolation, and from an aristocratic milieu to find poetic inspiration.

In these dream poems, being stony and enclosed is to be alone, untouchable, and incomprehensible. The Book of the Duchess is a profoundly interior poem about the formation of the lover’s identity and the formation of the poet’s identity, a poem that insistently connects self-hood to space. As Maud Ellmann writes: “the Book encrypts itself, walling up its narrators in narratives, its dreamers in their dreams.” Discussing the motif of “encryptment,” she goes on to comment on the importance of “rooms within rooms” in the poem, each beckoning “further inwards to a safe more secret, a crypt more cryptic” (Ellmann 1984:103–104). When the Black Knight tells us about the development of his interior life, he describes himself in terms familiar to readers of memory manuals as a blank wall or tablet “a whit wal or a table” (l. 780), awaiting the imprint of identity “redy to cacche and take / Al that men wil theryn make” (ll. 781–782). He commits himself to Love, as a servant, a slave, a tenant, a tributary, a feudal subject; in psychoanalytic terms, this is the classic formation of the self through recognition of subjection to a dominant power. The Lady then becomes that focus, and her loss has reduced him to a fragmenting figure, defined as “wo” and “sorwe” themselves, in a state of living death, no longer a complete person. Incompletion is an unbearable state of affairs for the Black Knight. Away from the castle, he is able to interact with another, but he is not able to communicate effectively. Instead, the experiences of the poem return him to the security of identity: his retreat to his long castle (Lancaster), with walls white (Blanche), by Saint John (John of Gaunt), on a rich hill (Richmond), is a return to a secure sense of an enclosed and isolated self, marked with his names and titles, some of which are the legacy of his relationship with White. His identity is represented by the classic fortress or castle, its impenetrable stones separating him from others: as Fradenburg argues, the white wall of his interiority, a “wall of wonder,” is transformed into an exterior “defensive wall, a material sign of seigneurial power” (Fradenburg 2002, 106).

The Black Knight’s description of Blanche also obsessively emphasizes how closed in she is: this stresses her chastity, of course, but also more generally suggests a completed, walled-in self. The Black Knight says:

  • But swich a fairnesse of a nekke
  • Had that swete that boon nore brekke
  • Nast ther non sene that myssat.
  • Hyt was whit, smothe, streght, and pure flat,
  • Wythouten hole or canel-boon,
  • As be semynge had she noon.
  • Hyr throte, as I have now memoyre,
  • Semed a round tour of yvoyre,
  • Of good gretnesse, and noght to gret

(ll. 939–947).

Her neck, then, was so beautiful that no bone or blemish could be seen; it was so white, smooth, straight, and “pure flat”—that it seemed as if she had no collarbone. The Black Knight is concerned to stress the perfect unbrokenness of the surface to a bizarre extent, describing his lady as inhuman in her masking of the realities of a body. He then makes the explicit comparison to an ivory tower (“a tour of yvoyre”)—although she lacks human bones, she is so untouchable that she looks as if she is made all of bone, a smooth ivory surface, a building that cannot be entered—made of another hard, impenetrable material, like rock or armor. And, of course, the ending description of the Black Knight again implicates her: the “long castel” with walls of white reminds us of her first name and her family name (Blanche of Lancaster) and of land, the buildings and possessions that she represented in life and which she brought to her marriage. In a very real way, she, like any late medieval heiress, represented actual castles and places to her husband. The ending of the poem, with its emphasis on her death, also reminds us that she is herself walled in a tomb: indeed, to be so complete and walled-in can only really be accomplished in death.

The enclosed, walled-in “castle” identity is presented as limited in this poem, offering an illusion of wholeness predicated on an inability to relate to others: the Black Knight utterly refuses to acknowledge the possibility of seeing with others’ eyes (1042–1053). His leaving his castle represents a breakdown for him; he cannot see it as an opportunity to engage with the perspectives of others: instead, he is unable and unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that there might be more than one way of looking at things (1052). The narrator of the Book of the Duchess—also a profoundly limited figure, although in a different way and from a different class—chooses radically different structures to represent himself and his own search for imaginative space. Dream poems most commonly start in gardens; when they start in chambers, the dreamer usually moves quickly outside, but, in the Book of the Duchess, we keep circling back to chambers. The chamber that the narrator promises to Morpheus is a parody of what a mercantile sleeper might fantasize about, complete with featherbed, satin cover, linen pillows, and tapestries, a luxury shopping list of soft furnishings, representing the dreamer’s own desire for a super-comfortable interior space as the space in which his own interiority can be nurtured. At the beginning of the poem, he is sitting upright in bed in his chamber, unable to sleep, when he asks someone to fetch him a romance. When it is brought, he reads it, rather than playing a game of chess or backgammon. The notable aspect of his place of sleep is that it is not wholly private; there is a servant there whom he can ask to bring him a book and there are people available with whom he could play a game—there is some potential for connecting with others in this space. When he dreams himself into a dream chamber, he finds himself in the middle of a riot of the senses: the sound of the birds singing is described in great detail, and the narrator tells us that the birds are sitting on the roof of his chamber, on the tiles, singing so that his chamber rings with their song. The windows and walls are painted with the story of Troy and with the Roman de la Rose, the most important stories in contemporary poets’ heritage. The sun shines through the windows and through these stories to reach the narrator. For all the sound and light, there is also a sense of distance: the windows are all, shut and, we are explicitly told, there are no holes at all (l. 324). The sound and the light are being filtered through to the narrator—the room is connected with its surroundings—but the song and sunlight are separated from him by the roof, walls, and windows that are described so materially.

The tone changes when the narrator decides to leave the chamber. In a passage dense with active verbs and with the first person, he tells us:

  • I was ryght glad, and up anoon
  • Took my hors, and forth I wente
  • Out of my chamber; I never stente.

(ll. 356–358)

The first person appears in every line; the emphatic initial “took” and “out” along with the rhyming verbs “wente” and (never) “stente” stress his movement beyond the chamber. The book-lined chamber has proved insufficient: he needs to go beyond the room, to talk to people as well as to read books, in order to find material for a poem and to develop his imagination. Imaginative and empathetic development takes place outside, in a place of wonder—and the very fact of change, of movement, is productive. The scene, though, is clearly circumscribed by convention and artifice, ostentatiously denying its imaginative independence and proclaiming its dependence on the books back in the chamber as it is modeled on scenes from Machaut’s poetry. The outside encounter between poet-client and mourning-lover-aristocrat figure was deeply familiar to Chaucer’s immediate audience from their knowledge of the Jugement du Roi de Behainge and the Fontaine Amoureuse. And, of course, at the end of the poem, the dreamer returns to his homely bed and book, just as the Black Knight retreats to his more formidable enclosure. These walled spaces of the mind have allowed only very limited mental change, only a little bit of interaction with other minds.

The House of Fame does something different and more radical. The castle, like the walled enclosures and ivory tower of the Book of the Duchess, is an oppressive and closed-off space. The castle is made of beryl and is “wythouten peces or joynynges” (l. 1187). It is, of course, a place of random tyranny and oppression and, Geffrey emphasizes, a place where nothing inspirational can be found; it provides nothing new for him (ll. 1884–1895). The temple of glass in this poem again offers the poetic heritage—specifically the Aeneid and the Heroides—and these stories contradict each other and enclose the narrator; they are described as “olde werke” (l. 127) in direct contrast to the new inspiration that he seeks. His own room is initially described briefly simply as the place where he usually went to sleep—although the brief reference at this point to the patron saint of captives (117) may also hint at the idea of oppressive enclosure. We are then returned to this room by the Eagle, who condemns Geffrey’s self-enclosure (as discussed earlier). Geffrey has made his room into a place of solitude, instead of opening the doors and listening to the neighbors’ stories. His room seems as walled-in as a castle—but the references to the neighbors’ proximity and their gossip—“that ne this” (l. 651)—makes clear the potential of this space if only he will move to its threshold, to the place where it blurs into the spaces of others.

The House of Rumor, a truly idiosyncratic architectural structure, has affinities with the city (Bennett 1968:100–115; Turner 2007:23–24), with a house, and with the mind itself—the narrator’s mind, now filled with everyday stories and influences. It is partly defined as different from the castle—under it, outside it—and that difference lies principally in its permeability: Simpson describes it as a “porous bricolage,” associating its architectural openness with Chaucer’s conceptual resistance to “cognitive fixity” (Simpson 2006: 69–70). It is full of entrances, its roof has 1,000 holes, all the doors are wide open, they are not locked at night, there is no porter. It is not made of rock or of precious stone; it is made of wickerwork, of twigs. This place—the place where new things can be found, where poetic inspiration does reside—is exceptionally open, pulsating, and dynamic. It is always moving and its movement is specifically termed “swift as thought” (1924). Like the mind itself, it is an ever-changing place, not a stable one, and, like the mind, it is dependent on its openness for its vigor (Kinch 2012). If it is an image of the mind, the House of Rumor sets the mental sphere up as ever changing and intersubjective, in stark contrast to a fortified castle or locked chamber. The House of Rumor shows Geffrey what his room could be like if he went to the doorway and listened to his neighbors’ chatter. And the mind here, in its chaotic porousness, in its nature as a repository for all kinds of material, is more like Lacan’s marsh and rubbish tip than a “haughty castle.” But, extraordinarily, Chaucer celebrates the rubbish tip as creatively productive: this is the place in which the Canterbury Tales gestates; it is full of storytelling “shipmen and pilgrims” (2122). As neuroscientists tell us, the structure of the brain changes depending on how we use it; it is part of its environment, not a closed-off, stable construction (Maguire et al. 2000). Similarly, the House of Rumor, in its defiant instability, is an engine room for change, creativity, and imaginative flexibility.

The House of Fame, then, suggests that for Geffrey to be able to write “newe thynges,” he needs to get out of his book-lined room and, armed with his knowledge, interact with other people, listen to their stories, engage with as many kinds of sources and ideas as he can. This movement from the House of Fame to the House of Rumor on one level mirrors Chaucer’s own movement from poet of dreams and Troy to deviser of the Canterbury Tales. The movement toward more experimental and interconnected methodologies could also serve as a metaphor for recent critical moves, as scholars focus on cultural networks, collaborative authorship, intersubjectivity, animal studies, and ecocriticism. Critics are, in a sense, always searching for the new—the “newefangelnesse” that Chaucer himself coined (Against Woman Unconstant, Anelida and Arcite, Prologue to the Legend of Good Women F)—and that search brings us closely into alignment with Chaucer’s own preoccupations. Contemporary Chaucer scholarship is deeply invested both in reconstructing the cultural assumptions and imaginative structures of the later fourteenth century and in thinking about Chaucer in relation to twenty-first-century concerns, whether these are theoretical, scientific, environmental, medical, social, or political. These two imperatives are not mutually exclusive. Chaucer may not have used the language of intersubjectivity, for instance, but the House of Fame’s depiction of creativity is uncannily in tune with modern theories of mind while also being rooted in fourteenth-century ideas about space, privacy, authorship, and imaginative freedom. Chaucer’s writings still have plenty to say to us, and we are finding dynamic new ways of listening.


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