Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Medieval Aesthetics

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


For a thoroughgoing discussion of medieval aesthetics, read Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-300-04207-8). Eco is known as the author of the encyclopedic medieval murder mystery, The Name of the Rose.

Older but more specifically influential in Chaucer studies is D.W. Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962). Here is a long excerpt on late medieval style.

We have seen in English architecture a tendency to compartmentalize, to prefer a juxtaposition of discrete forms to a lineally integrated whole in the French fashion….

English medieval art simply lacks what Roger Fry once called “the peculiar rhythmic flow and unity” of French art of the same period. But this does not mean that English art deliberately sought such a unity and failed to achieve it. Rather, it is safe to assume that the English preferred a more conservative manner in which the unity of the whole is implied rather than expressed….

This does not mean, of course, that Chaucer had no scheme in mind for arranging his stories. But this arrangement is a matter of implicit thematic development and is not the result of any outwardly established system. The unity of the collection as a whole is left implicit rather than explicit.

The same feature is evident in the allegories, where it has given rise to difficulties in critical interpretation. In The Book of the Duchess, for example, there is no outward connection between the story of Ceys and Alcion and the subsequent dream vision. Again, in The Parliament of Fowls, the connection between the dream of Scipio and the activities of the birds in Nature’s garden is implied rather than stated. In The Legend of Good Women the elaborate prologue seems to be connected with the tales only by the tenuous thread of the “penance” administered by the God of Love, and the stories themselves, aside from the fact that they are about unfortunate women, do not have any apparent unity. In The House of Fame the various parts all concern the same speaker, and they appear in narrative sequence, but otherwise they have little outward connection with one another. We may compare this situation wiht the arrangement of the pages in one of the great East Anglian psalters, where there is no explicit relationship between the marginalia and the initials. In general, Chaucer’s art lacks the formal unity which appears, in various guises, in both French and Italian art, as well as the coherence in space and time which characterizes more modern art. As a result, we have been quick to accuse him of “digressions,” sometimes alleging in support what we are pleased to regard as the principles of medieval rhetoric. The passage on free will in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the long meditation on the same subject in Troilus, Dorigen’s thoughts concerning Providence in the Franklin’s Tale–to cite only a few examples–have been condemned as irrelevancies which interrupt the narratives in which they occur. But the fact that elements such as these retain their surface discreteness may be attributed to a feature of English style. The separateness of the parts does not, however, imply the lack of an underlying unity, any more, let us say, than the separateness of “types” from their “antitypes” in medieval art implies such a lack of unity. Significant juxtapositions were an established technique of Gothic art, and English art particularly during the later Middle Ages exhibits a desire to keep the juxtaposed elements separate. (282-284)