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Chaucer and the Human Condition


As an example of how differently the mediaeval mind thought about concepts like mental activity and emotion — and yet produced insights and remained true to its observations — let’s take a look at Geoffrey Chaucer’s great love story Troilus and Criseyde.

Written in the 1380s this long poem uses the classical notion of love as a sickness which comes from outside the individual and leaves him or her wounded. The God of Love punishes Troilus for his making fun of lovers. On first seeing Criseyde, Troilus is, ‘Right with hire look thorugh-shoten and thorugh-darted’ (I, 325), an image which draws upon the neo-Platonic convention that vision led straight to the heart. The heart is then made to ‘sprede and rise’ (I, 278), affecting Troilus’ affections and compelling him to manifest the symptoms of an illness: he weeps, he sighs, he swoons, he feels melancholy and goes into a physical decline. Just like a disease, Love is shown as remorseless and heading towards a kind of death.

Later in the poem Troilus is separated from and betrayed by Criseyde. He grows depressed, characterised by swoons, nightmares, withdrawal from and abandonment of life, until he finally dwindles away to a shadow of his former self — he walks with a crutch, and becomes physically unrecognisable, complaining of heart pain.

But Chaucer makes Troilus a poet: he creates songs, in which love is first seen as a vision of cosmic harmony and a source of moral excellence. The mediaeval world view, it is easy for us to forget, was built on the fundamental notion that reality was stable, ordered and harmonious — unlike our own world vision, which is based on cosmic entropy, disorder and chaos.

Memory is used in the poem in the mediaeval sense, as a machine used to make images: from Criseyde’s letters, Troilus reconstructs, ‘refigures’ ‘hire shap, hire wommanhede, / Withinne his herte’ (V, 473–74). The ‘proces’ by which he has come to know and interact with his love is ‘lik a storie’ in his memory (V, 583–85). Chaucer depicts the workings of the mind undergoing anguish and grief, stuck in the loop of re-figuring the past, listening to inner voices — a surprisingly modern insight into the operations of the human mind, but seen very much in different terms.

Elsewhere in Chaucer the bodily illness caused by love is described too: in The Knight’s Tale, Arcite’s love is an illness of the brain, ‘Engendered of humour malencolik / Biforen in his celle fantastik’ (1375–76). Here Chaucer was drawing on the medical ideas contained in the work of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, translated into English by John of Trevisa which describe how passion can lead to melancholy through the ‘celle fantastik’, the front ventricle of the brain or ‘phantasia’, containing the sensus communis and imaginatio (temporary memory). These control imagination and judgement in the middle ventricle. Melancholy causes a subject to loses his or her ability to judge and reason; the imagination cannot perceive new images but becomes fixated upon the beloved.

All of human reason and emotion are in Chaucer, but described in a different language, one which would evolve over centuries and be particularly affected by major shifts in thought such as occurred in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, until, in the nineteenth century, science caught up with the internal world of human beings and re-invented the whole subject.

As writers, we can make use of both world views to communicate our understanding of the human condition.

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