Book Review–Chaucer and the Making of Optical Space

Peter Brown, Chaucer and the Making of Optical Space. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007. 377pp. $79.95.

Peter Brown is a well-established Chaucerian working at the University of Kent, so some readers of his recent monograph Chaucer and the Making of Optical Space may be surprised to learn that the project is based on his doctoral thesis, written 25 years before the book was first published in 2007. What Brown has produced in revisiting his thesis, however, is not some warmed-over, lightly copyedited revision. Rather, it is a seasoned scholar’s retrospective re-conception of the entire project in light of a lifetime of reading Chaucer as well as some intervening developments in literary theory, especially those addressing the poetics and politics of narrative space. From the first page, Brown establishes a clarity and directness of argument that continues throughout the entire work, plainly stating the study’s twofold purpose:  first, as a contribution to “the links between Chaucer’s writings and the medieval science of optics, or perspectiva,” with his main emphasis  on “space as an optical phenomenon,” and secondly, as a study of how Chaucer creates a sense of space in his poetry and “what might in general terms be called his politics of space” (13). In the eleven short chapters that follow this introduction, Brown thoroughly proves his case that “Chaucer’s representation of space was affected by optical ideas available to him in a wide range of texts, including theological, scientific, encyclopedic, homiletic and literary” (21). If Brown’s close readings of Chaucer’s poetry through the lens of medieval optical theory sometimes leave something to be desired, it is perhaps only because these readings rarely depart significantly from received interpretations of the texts. In other words, Brown’s use of the understudied science of perspectiva more often tends to confirm rather than challenge the ways that Chaucer’s poetry has traditionally been read: we can hardly call this a major fault, but the result is a book more innovative in its methodology than its conclusions.

Brown’s first chapter is the most likely to hold some broader interest for medievalists not working primarily on Chaucer, as it provides a useful survey of the major critical works on space and medieval literature at large. In the book’s later chapters, Brown largely restricts the theory to the background, although his guiding text remains Henri Lefebvre’s La production de l’espace (1974, English trans. 1991), with occasional references to the work of historians Jacques le Goff and Paul Zumthor, who are discussed at greatest length in the opening chapter. In short, reference to the perspectives of Lefebvre and others help Brown articulate and examine a concept of “space” that is at once perceptual and conceptual, giving the book a kind of dual focus. In his initial survey of the theory and other scholarship, Brown highlights those points most relevant to his argument about Chaucer, yet this multidisciplinary overview can stand alone as a resource for any medievalist interested in working with perspectiva and/or medieval conceptions of space. Similarly, chapters 2 and 3 consist of more generalist discussions of the primary material with which Brown will subsequently work: Grosseteste, Alhacen, Roger Bacon, encyclopedias, homiletic exempla, and others. The latter types of texts become especially helpful in validating Brown’s crucial point that optical studies were not only popular in the schools, but also available to a wider audience. Since other writers and readers besides Chaucer would have been exposed to this same body of material, Brown’s project has many potential implications and applications beyond Chaucer studies.

Brown’s close readings of Chaucer’s poetry in light of perspectiva begin in earnest only in the fourth chapter, which begins with a survey of other scholarly works arguing for the influence of optics on the poet’s work, such as Linda Tarte Holley’s Chaucer’s Measuring Eye (1990). Brown opens his own treatment of Chaucer’s corpus with a brief discussion of the Squire’s Tale — a natural starting place, as the tale refers directly to Alhacen’s ideas. Brown judges it an early work originating in a stage in Chaucer’s literary career when the poet had recognized the potential literary utility of optical ideas, but had not yet assimilated them fully to his art. A more adventurous reading of visual error in the Reeve’s Tale follows, and Brown identifies several parallels between the fabliaus’ dimly lit climactic scene and optical texts like Alhacen’s, emphasizing their similar documentation of the eye’s proneness to error; for Brown this is a major feature of optical theory that Chaucer invokes throughout his works. The fifth chapter moves on to examine even more potential conduits for Chaucer’s understanding of optical theory, but this time the suspects constitute a more familiar rogue’s gallery of Continental poets such as Jean de Meun, Dante, and Boccaccio. For example, Brown argues that Chaucer’s sophisticated themes of blindness in the Merchant’s Tale were inspired by a favorite passage on optics from the Roman de la Rose. Although here as elsewhere Brown displays wide learning and deep research, his interpretations of the tale’s spatial dynamics may strike a reader well-versed in Chaucerian criticism as traditional arguments reframed in the terms of optical theory. Likewise, when Brown reads Dante alongside the House of Fame, the basic comparative maneuver is simply so familiar that it obscures the originality of the argument about Chaucer’s use of optics, developed much more compellingly elsewhere in the monograph.

The remaining chapters cover only four works but in much greater depth: the Book of the Duchess, the Knight’s Tale, the Miller’s Tale, and Troilus and Criseyde, the latter of which represents for Brown “Chaucer’s most complex account of space” (20), and accordingly earns two full chapters. Brown’s analysis of dream-space in the Book of the Duchess is founded on some particularly fine close readings, which lead him to rewrite the narrator’s central problem as one of spatial understanding in an inextricably social context: “The retrieval of a sense of personal space, and with it a reassertion of his identity, is therefore a process of negotiation between the spatial constructions made by the individual, and those made by others, within the context of the pre-existing arrangements of the natural world” (180). Of course, when developing more specific connections between the text and the optical source material, Brown is sometimes forced to make admissions like the following: “It is conceivable that Chaucer was not alluding to the theory of species in this scene, but it seems unlikely; and even if he was not, some members of his audience would have placed the scene within the context of contemporary debates about optical theory” (191). For this reason, Brown tends to use the diplomatic word “catalyst” rather than “source” when describing the place of optical theory in relation to Chaucer’s creative works.

In the first paragraph of his chapter on the Knight’s Tale, Brown auspiciously observes that “[i]nsofar as space is a shared medium of social communication it has potential to become contentious, politicized, as rival individuals or groups jostle for its control, decorously or otherwise” (209), and yet his reading of the tale suffers precisely to the extent that it fails to engage with the specific social and political contexts of Chaucer’s own time. The analysis of Theseus’ role in both defining and being circumscribed by a chivalric order based on social space remains largely abstract, and could have benefitted from a closer engagement with the concepts of chivalry and power available to Chaucer, not simply the concepts of space available to him. Moreover, this chapter is followed by a reading of the Miller’s Tale that largely restates traditional accounts of the Miller’s “quiting” of the Knight in optical and/or spatial terms: “while pointing to basic similarities between the spatial structures and politics of Athens and Oxford, [the tale] also develops a critique of the chivalric scheme by insisting on space as primarily a material and optical, not a symbolic, commodity” (236). In part because Brown backgrounds the modern spatial theory during these closer readings of texts, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the precise nature of the connections between optical theory and the construction of social space that he wishes to ascribe to Chaucer. Accordingly, of Brown’s individual readings of Chaucer’s works, I expect that the two chapters on Troilus will attract the most attention: Brown reads the poem as specifically dramatizing a clash between Alhacen’s view of optical space as one produced by the individual and “fraught with error and misconception,” and Grosseteste’s view of light as “the informing principle of God’s creation” (266). Occasionally, Brown restates familiar points in spatial terms, such as the observation that Pandarus is an expert manipulator of space in particular rather than simply an expert manipulator all around.  However, much of what Brown finds in Troilus indeed requires the framework of optics to uncover, as we see in his incisive tracking of sight-lines in the poem. In these two chapters, more than any of the others, Brown has clearly discovered previously unidentified intertexts governing Chaucer’s construction of narrative space.

A short conclusion suggests directions for future work in the areas of optics and medieval spatial poetics, including further examination of the codependence of the spatial and the memorial for Chaucer and other authors. Indeed, Brown had noted early on that “the work done on Chaucer’s use of space is localized and fragmentary” (37), but even his own sizable tome does not exhaust the possibilities for examining space in Chaucer, as it considers only a handful of the Tales closely and through the single lens of optics. Of course, at this late date in Chaucer studies, it should surprise no one that the key to Chaucer’s poetry would not be found in optical theory alone — nor, for that matter, in any one field of discourse. Brown’s valuable contribution to Chaucer studies, however, should encourage further work on Chaucer and the sciences generally, arriving as it does at a time when the conjunction of “literature and science” is becoming an increasingly popular area of inquiry in other historical fields: Chaucer and the Making of Optical Space demonstrates the importance of studying how literary works engage with the science of their day, even in the supposedly “pre-scientific” Middle Ages.

Timothy S. Miller

Timothy S. Miller is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, where he is completing a dissertation titled “Closing the Book on Chaucer: Medieval Theories of Ending and the Ends of Chaucerian Narrative.” His articles on subjects Chaucerian and otherwise have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as ‘The Chaucer Review,’ ‘Style,’ ‘The Year’s Work in Medievalism,’ and ‘Science Fiction Studies.’ 

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Book Review–Chaucer and the Making of Optical Space by Timothy S. Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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