Chaucer’s Narrator Turns to Sleep for Answers
Suggesting that the narrator has something to do with this poem’s engagement with a proto-cognitive science leads us to close reading some more of the Middle English text.
In Dreaming: A COGNITIVE PSYCOLOGICAL ANALYSIS, William David Faulkes observes,
“The narrative integration of consciousness during dreaming suggests that dreaming may play a role in (have adaptive effects upon) our organization of symbolic knowledge and in the accessibility of such knowledge to conscious awareness” (Faulkes 201).
The narrators in medieval dream visions have a similar perspective on the dreamscape. They believe in some way the dream elevates their ability to experience or understand the waking world. These narrators turn to dreams to find answers in their waking lives. As we briefly explored, the introduction to the House of Fame begins with a lengthy sixty-five lines of reflection pertaining to the nature of dreams before invoking the dream.
A Narrator Reflects on Dreams
Immediately after the narrator introduces his interest in the first eleven lines, he then backs away and removes himself from the conversation about dreams while continuing to make broad statements about the supposed natures of dreams:
House of Fame Lines 12-20
I noot; but whoso of these miracles I don’t know; but whosoever of these miracles The causes knoweth bet than I, Knows the causes better than I Devine he, for I certeinly Let him pronounce them, for I certainly 15 Ne can hem noght, ne never thinke Do not know them, or ever think Too besily my wit to swinke Too diligently for my mind to work To knowe of hir signifiaunce To know of their significance The gendres, neyther the distaunce The types, or their how far Of tymes of hem, ne the causes, Apart they occur, or the causes, 20 Or why this more then that cause is; Or why this more than that cause is;
(Chaucer ll. 11-20)
Chaucer uses this moment to say that those who understand dreams more than him, perhaps cognitive scientists contemporary to him, can surely explain them better; he does not spend much time thinking about dreams (Chaucer ll. 12-16). Interestingly enough, lines 17-20 call the reader’s attention to a laundry list of speculations about the phenomenon. Their “significaunce”, “gendres”, the “distuance / Of tymes of hem, ne the causes” are things that the narrator, supposedly, does not think about. By mentioning them in the poem, the author clearly has a grasp of the subject.
Chaucer Acknowledges Body and “Brayn”
Chaucer’s narrator continues by saying, “As if folks complexions / Make hem dreme of reflexions” (Chaucer ll. 21-22). Kathryn Lynch glosses this reference to physical “temperament” as an allusion to the medieval physiological understanding of humors like “blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile” (Lynch 43). This is an example of the dream having physical origins in the body. Chaucer the author is aware of the idea that the body’s physicality seems to have a direct relationship with the origin of the dream experience.
Chaucer adds, “as other sayn, / For to greet feblenesse of hir brayn” (Chaucer ll. 23-24). The recognition of the brain in this reflection is extremely important to this discussion because although Chaucer’s narrator calls the brain feeble in this instance, and again says this is someone else’s idea, the word “brayn” directs the reader to the part of the body where the experience is believed to occur. The brain is a point of origin for dreams in these lines. The fact that people in the Middle Ages conceived of the brain as a source for dreams is evidence for the existence of a proto-cognitive science in Chaucer’s era. It is an interdisciplinary moment within the literature where an author acknowledges an anatomical construct as the origin of a neurological experience.
Dream Theory Inventory Continued
Chaucer’s narrator continues through an inventory of dream theories. The narrators mention of these theories in lines 25-40 confirm the author’s awareness of an assortment of hypotheses:
House of Fame Lines 25-40
25 By abstinence, or by seknesse, Because of asceticism, or by sickness, Prison, stewe, or greet distresse, Prison, confinement, or great distress, Or elles by disordinaunce Or else by some pathological disorder Of naturel acustomaunce, Of one’s normal behavior That som man is too curious Such that some man is obsessed 30 In studie, or melancolious, In study, or melancholy Or thus so inly ful of drede, Or thus, so inwardly full of dread, That no man may him bote bede; That no man may offer relief; Or elles that devocioun Or else that the religious devotion Of some, and contemplacioun Of some, and contemplation 35 Causeth swiche dremes ofte; Causes dreams to happen often; Or that the cruel lyf unsofte Or that fierce and painful existence Which these ilke lovers leden Which these very lovers lead That hopen over moche or dreden, That hope for excessively or fear That purely hir impressiouns That purely their emotions alone 40 Causeth hem avisiouns; Allow them to have visions;
We are handed a record of the scholarly and perhaps colloquial conversations being had at the time about dreams and their origins. Chaucer realizes that there are many assumptions that are made and because of this, he finds it hard to select one as a finite conclusion. Rather, Chaucer would prefer to briefly lay out the presumptions for his readers to acknowledge before moving on. In doing this, the narrator suggests that perhaps psychological disorders are at play, or thinking deeply about the larger questions in life, or perhaps dreams are the byproduct of strong emotional experiences. Whatever the stance may be, Chaucer the author made a point to illustrate the wide spectrum of perceptions people had about dreams in order to bolster the creative work that would follow.
Dream Theory is for Scholars, not Narrators
The move that distances the narrator from these larger metaphysical questions, in line 12, allows him to more specifically retell his specific dream. Later, in lines 49 and 50, “our flesh hath no might, / To understonde it aright,” the narrator asserts that it may be impossible for us to understand dreams. Dream theory is not a finite science, then and now. With this, Chaucer the poet must take the humble approach of specifying that the job of answering these questions belongs to the “grete clerkes” who concern themselves with “this and other werkes” (Chaucer ll. 53-54) . The job is turned over to those great scholars.
Chaucer’s inclusion of this reflection on the nature of dreams shows that he himself in some way was engaged in a reflection about the process of dreaming, but may have been struck by the intensity and intricacies of dream theory leading him to write a work that begins with a musing on the topic.
The Importance of Invocation in House of Fame
The invocations located at the beginning of each of the three books of the House of Fame also contain evidence for Chaucer’s acknowledgement of an interdisciplinary understanding of this particular process of the mind.
In Book I, Chaucer calls on “the god of slepe” to help him remember and retell his dream correctly (Chaucer ll. 69-79).
Book II’s invocation to Venus contains a list of allusions to dream narratives that predate Chaucer’s work: “Isaye, ne Scipioun, / Ne King Nabugodonosor, / Pharo, Turnus, ne Elcanor” [“Isaiah, or Scipio, / or King Nebuchadnezzar, / Pharoah, Turnus, or Elkanah”] (Chaucer ll. 515-516).
Chaucer had a clear awareness of the dream traditions and literature that was inspired by the process of dreaming. These allusions are followed by a request to “tellen al my drem aryght” (Chaucer 527). He compares his mind to a “tresorye” or treasury, in which his dream is “shette”, or locked (524).
The last of the invocations is also notable: “O god of science and of light, / Apollo, thurgh thy grete might / This litel laste book thou gye!” (Chaucer 69).
In studying dreams and gathering dream reports, Hobson notes,
“we emphasize narration because the reports we have read like stories. This is dangerous because the reports are necessarily given in waking and rely entirely on language, whereas the dreams themselves are experienced more like films” (146).
At this point in the story, Chaucer’s narrator calls on Apollo to help him recall the House of Fame that already exists in his mind. He is seeking help to tell a story about something he has already seen. He seeks to translate it into a narrative and write it down. Apollo, both as his guide and the god of light, illuminates the picture in his mind and allows him to write it. Apollo, as noted by the narrator, is also the god of science.
The word “science” in the Middle Ages meant more specifically knowledge and not the studies of the physical world that we most often associate the term with today. Allen makes it clear that the narrator,
“quite simply [asks for] help in achieving his single purpose—to reproduce the picture of the House of Fame which is already an image in his mind” (Allen 401).
These invocations act as an acknowledgement of the lack of reliability that modern day cognitive scientists have found in dream reports because the dreamer’s reports can be distorted and untrue. Chaucer knows this fault and requests the help of the gods to accurately report his dream.