In the summer of 2002, in preparation for my final-year university module on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I started reading a rather odd sort of poem. The House of Fame made little immediate impact on me, other than the image of a magnificent (and truculent) eagle bearing the poet up to the heavens and giving him the lowdown on scientific theories. But that autumn I went to an excellent lecture on the text, which mapped it out for me and helped me to understand what its essential themes are. And I came to feel, in the end, that it was this strange 2,158-line poem, rather than the Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde, that of all Chaucer’s works had made the greatest impact on me; that it haunted me.
Placed in the genre of Chaucer’s early ‘dream vision’ poems, The House of Fame begins with the narrator puzzling about the meaning of different kinds of dreams, and telling us about a strange one that he had on the tenth of December. He dreamt that he found himself in a temple of glass, in which he sees the story of Dido and Aeneas depicted (this he narrates at great length); upon leaving the temple, he is grabbed by a huge eagle, who, complaining of the poet’s weight, gives him a lecture on the science of sound, whereby everything that is talked about in the world reaches the throne of Lady Fame. The House of Fame, to which the eagle brings the poet, stands upon a rock of ice, into which the names of famous people have been carved, though many have melted away in the sunlight. Inside, Chaucer sees the great men of history standing upon pedestals, and, at the centre of it all, great Lady Fame herself, who casually dispenses good and bad reputations to people on a whim, completely regardless of whether their lives were good or bad. Meanwhile, outside of the temple, the poet sees a gargantuan house made of something like wickerwork, the Domus Dedaly (sometimes called the House of Rumour), which constantly spins, and is full of entrances and exits, through which gossip and news of all kinds constantly pass, and inside of which thousands of people are crammed, constantly telling stories one to the other which fly straight to Lady Fame; and, of all these people, one alone seems to be a man of great authority … and there the poem abruptly ends.
As I said, the poem baffled me at first, but it has given me a lot to think about since then. So today, on ‘Decembre the tenthe day’, I’d like to step away from the Anglo-Saxon period and explain what it is about this Middle English poem which plays on my mind so much.
The nature of authority is a major subject of Chaucer’s poem, and it posed questions that evidently troubled him. I’m very interested in medieval science, in medieval people’s curiosity about the world, and in which things they did and did not know, from the origins of dreams to theories of how sound worked. But how could medieval people be sure that such theories were correct? A lot of their scientific knowledge was received and passed on joyfully from those who came before them, and how could they be certain that this knowledge was correct – or even that the books were written by the people that they were believed to have been by? The House of Fame raises questions about the nature of knowledge, and of what authority means. Medieval people have a reputation for excessive credulity, but this was not the full story: as Chaucer himself wrote in another work:
A thousand tymes have I herd men telle
That ther ys joy in hevene and peyne* in helle, pain
And I acorde wel that it ys so;
But, natheles*, yet wot* I wel also nevertheless; know
That ther nis noon* dwellyng in this contree is no-one
That eyther hath in hevene or helle ybe,* been
Ne may of hit noon other weyes witen* know
But as he hath herd seyd or founde it writen
For by assay* ther may no man it preve.* attempt, practical experience; prove
(Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, ll. 1-9)
In the House of Fame, Geoffrey sees the famous men of history literally put up on pedestals, but he also sees just how fortuitous is the survival, or not, of their memory. Some names on Fame’s icy foundations have remained, preserved in the cold, as clear as the day they were inscribed; others, of people no less deserving, have been melted away by the sun. Any medievalist knows that what we retain of our time period is only fragmentary: manuscripts can be destroyed by fire, or simply lost; people’s voices can be left neglected and forgotten for ideological reasons, or actively suppressed. What have we lost? How many medieval people’s names have melted away, denied Fame’s protective shadow?
As for the Domus Dedaly, or House of Rumour, let’s look at the description of that:
Ne never rest is in that place
That hit nys fild ful of tydynges,
Other loude or of whisprynges;
And over alle the houses angles
Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles
Of werres, of pes, of mariages,
Of reste, of labour, of viages …
No rest is there within that place
For it is always full of tidings,
Of loud ones or of whisperings;
And every corner there does ring,
With gossip and with murmuring
Of war, of peace, of marriages,
Of rest, of labour, voyages …
(The House of Fame, ll. 1956-62; translation by A. S. Kline, Poetry in Translation)
A vast wicker cage with innumerable doors (pictured here in William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer), and filled with disembodied words flying every which way, out of control, spreading news, gossip and rumours, and endless, ceaseless sound …. what is that but Twitter? I greatly enjoy the social media that has become such a standard part of contemporary communication, especially my use of Twitter for communicating with the medievalist world (my blog would have very few readers without it!), but sometimes it is terrifying to witness the way in which these communications spin out of the writer’s control, and the way in which the endless noise of the internet can be used to threaten and terrorise people into silence.
But finally, let’s come to the House of Fame itself. Nine groups of people come before the seat of Lady Fame – some great and good, some wicked, some simply lazy – some desiring to be given a good reputation, and others wanting to forgo fame altogether, the good because of modesty, the bad because of shame. With the aid of her messenger Aeolus and his gold and black trumpets, the lady capriciously dispenses fame, slander, and simple oblivion upon the reputations of all these people (This time I will quote only Kline’s modernised version, for brevity’s sake):
And here withal there came anon
Another huge company
Of good folk, who began to plead,
‘Lady, grant us now our fame,
And let our works acquire a name
Now, in honour of nobleness,
And that God your soul may bless!
For we have deserved it all,
And it is right we find reward.’
‘As I may thrive, ‘quoth she, ‘you fail;
Good works shall you naught avail
To obtain your fame from me.
But know you I shall grant ye
All the evils known to fame
Ill reputation, and worse name,
Though you good have deserved;
Now go your way, for you are served.
And you, Aeolus,’ quoth she,
‘Take up your trumpet, let all see,
Known as Slander, the foolish one,
And blow their fame, so everyone
Will speak harm of them, nastiness,
Instead of good and worthiness.
You must blow the contrary there
Of what they’ve done, well or fair’ …
And along with this I did see,
There came a fourth company,
But certain they were wondrous few,
And they stood in line, anew,
And said: ‘For certain, lady bright,
We’ve done well with all our might;
Yet we care naught for our fame.
Hide our works and our name,
For God’s love, it’s certain we
Have done the whole gratuitously,
And for no other manner of thing.’
‘I grant you all of your asking,’
Quoth she: ‘let your work be as dead.’
(Trans. Kline, ll. 1606-30, 1689-1701)
This is what preoccupies me the most about Chaucer’s poem. People can spend their lives doing good things, and either end up with their names tarnished, or simply be forgotten, as if they had never been; while those who do terrible things can be given fame, either by getting a better reputation than they deserve, or by enjoying notoriety for their terrible deeds. Where is the justice in that?
So we have two rather sinister visions: a House of Rumour, and a House of Fame. I’d like to finish by mentioning three things I read as I started preparing this post, in late November 2016, which at first glance might seem to have nothing to do with The House of Fame at all.
Firstly, I read that a white supremacist had been found guilty of the murder of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox. After Cox’s death back in June, I remember thinking that she was someone who I would probably have thought very highly of, and whose approach to politics seemed very good – and yet it took her death for even her name to come to my attention. Since then, I have been impressed by how much emphasis the media have placed on Cox herself, her achievements and her beliefs, rather than on the ideologies of her killer, who has received little attention except concerning his appearances in court.
I also came across a blogpost by the medievalist Jeffrey Cohen, titled ‘The Story I Want to Tell’. Troubled not only by the rise of anti-Semitic white supremacists on the national stage, but also by their intrusion into a space which is dear to his own, Jewish, family, he concludes that it is not enough merely to report on hatred, but also on those who stand against such hatred:
That is the story I want to tell. Too many narratives marvel at the theatricality of hate. Let’s have stories of the challenge such hate receives … Rather than dwell within the Reagan Building, which had to host their event, I want to stand with the Hamilton hotel, which refused them welcome. Even if the only way to get this story is by telephoning them myself, I want to hear of the restaurant that when tricked by these white supremacists donated all their money and more to an organization dedicated to diminishing their power.
Finally, sometimes good acts are small enough that nobody trumpets their importance, but, accumulated together, they do make a difference to the world. This is the overall point of a recent pre-Thanksgiving article by David Wong on Cracked.com, ‘5 Reasons Holidays are Secretly Crucial to our Survival’.
History remembers the big victories, but ignores the hundred million smaller ones along the way — an innovation here, a process improvement there, a single mind changed over a cup of coffee. Microscopic yet crucial victories that simply don’t occur if those people shake their heads and say, “Why bother?” … [T]he entire earth is a hive of busy humans working on stuff that will make tomorrow better than today. Stuff like the recent discovery that we may massively cut greenhouse gases just by adding seaweed to animal feed (cows produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and seaweed breaks it down). The price of solar power is dropping so fast that it doesn’t matter what the U.S. government thinks of it — it’s going to win on economics alone. And so on.
In Wong’s ‘hive of busy humans’, I’m reminded of the House of Rumour, but in a positive way. Chaucer’s rounynges and jangles become the humming and buzzing of organised people getting on with making tiny little improvements to the world.
If news of these improvements actually gets out into the world, they might catch on, they might multiply. In an age of social media, we ourselves are Fame and Aeolus. What things do we decide to pass on, and tell people about? When we log in to Twitter, is it to spread hate, or to spread the word about good things that other people might want to join in with? When we tweet, which trumpet do we blow?
Larry D. Benson et al., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).