Visions of life and death on the road to Canterbury

February 25, 2005

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

Chaucer loved to play with concepts of dead images. Harriet Swain asks the experts about his fascination

Viewed through modern eyes, Chaucer's vast, spinning Hous of Rumour, in his poem The Hous of Fame , seems a precursor of cyberspace. See his Reeve's Tale in a contemporary light and the poet may not have been poking fun at Northern speech. Speakers at next month's "Second London Chaucer Conference: Chaucer and Vision" will look at the Middle English poet, best known as the teller of The Canterbury Tales , in a new light.

Bob Mills, one of the conference organisers, says this is in keeping with the growing attention given by English literature scholars to the presentation of vision through language. Prompted by an increasingly visual culture and by the development of disciplines such as film studies, the study of English has changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years, he says, to include, for example, thinking about "the gaze" using perspectives from film theory.

Mills says that Sarah Stanbury, associate professor in English at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, is well known for employing new film and psychoanalytic theories to explore Chaucer. Stanbury is plenary speaker and she will explore how Chaucer's work was influenced by ideas about images sparked by writer and controversialist John Wyclif and his followers, the Lollards, in late 14th-century England. Stanbury suggests that in Chaucer's day the Lollards had the kind of impact a powerful political party today would have if it suggested banning advertising. Lollards were critical of devotional images such as the crucifix. They stressed that images were dead, and that people were wrong to attribute life and power to them. Stanbury argues that while Chaucer did not address this debate directly, he seems attuned to it, acknowledging that images have extraordinary powers over the imagination and will, and playing with concepts of dead images coming to life and living things performing as images. For example, she says, he never describes important devotional images but loves describing pagan ones. "It's as if that's a safe place."

Nevertheless, he does not commit himself on the debate, says Stanbury.

"He's a sidelines observer of the political scene and seems to be doing exactly this while using language on dead and living images and being aware of the tensions."

An interest in processing and manipulating images was as strong for medieval as for modern audiences, says Deanne Williams, associate professor at York University, Toronto, who will speak about Chaucer and visual literacy. Chaucer's dream visions in particular "manifest the complex interactions between the visual and the verbal that define medieval manuscript culture", she argues. She says that they demand a visually literate reader, able to recognise references to particular paintings, although she warns that such conflicting demands of visual and verbal literacy also carry the potential for misunderstandings.

Catherine Byron, poet and lecturer in medieval literature and creative writing at Nottingham Trent University, has taken inspiration from this ambiguity. She too has concentrated on Chaucer's dream poems, in particular the chaotic wickerwork structure that is the Hous of Rumour, described in The Hous of Fame . This structure forms the basis for a project carried out as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Board creative fellowship. The project incorporates sound, pictures and text. It deals with layers of meaning, from Byron's own memories of growing up to her family home now falling into ruins and the themes and visual images expressed in Chaucer's poems - all transmitted through digital media.

What interests her is the contrast between the chaotic, low-tech wickerwork Hous of Rumour, a "fluid and aural" place, and The Hous of Fame , which is high-tech, inscription-based, made of glass.

"It seemed to me the Hous of Rumour was like a pre-vision of the internet," she says. "It is spinning so high above the earth it was a kind of cyberspace."

Katie Wales, professor in modern English language at Leeds University, and Reiko Takeda, visiting lecturer in the School of Humanities at Hertfordshire University, will tackle a more down-to-earth theme. They will argue that Chaucer's Reeve's Tale exploited the long-held idea of the North as alien and as a product of southern interpretation. But they warn against reading later meanings into North-South oppositions. Rather than laughing at Northern speech, Chaucer's use of its dialect is mainly for realism, they suggest.

Mills stresses the importance of context for the conference itself. He says that, in identifying speakers, organisers have looked to Europe as much as possible rather than to the US, which tends to dominate Chaucer studies.

Participants are coming from France and Italy as well as from England and the US. After all, when it comes to vision, perspective is all important.

The Second London Chaucer Conference will take place in Senate House, Malet Street, WC1E, on March 30-31 under the auspices of the London Old and Middle English Research Seminar and the Institute of English Studies ( www.londonchaucer.org.uk ).

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