The present research project consists of a study of the reception of the French allegorical tradition, particularly Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinages-trilogy by five major English authors of the late Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate and the anonymous Gawain-Poet. Particularly Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de Vie Humaine (Vie) was a highly influential, indeed seminal late medieval poem, widely copied, read, adapted, printed and translated into various European Languages (German, Dutch, Spanish, English and Latin) between 1331 and ca. 1600.
The fundamental insight behind the project is that the Vie was much more than simply a morally didactic late-medieval allegory: it was read as a highly serious philosophical reflection on burning contemporary issues of knowledge, perception and interpretation. The poem may be seen as restoring a ‘traditional’ view originally propagated by Augustine and others, according to whom the physical world was a complex, but ultimately interpretable and transparent sign for the presence of the Divine. The interpretability of the natural world was furthermore mirrored in the interpretability of the biblical scriptures and of biblically inspired spiritual allegory more broadly. This ‘certainty’ concerning the human ability to interpret both ‘world’ and ‘words’ correctly was of central importance for the medieval world-view, but had recently been challenged by the rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings and their commentaries in the thirteenth century. These new Aristotelian materials emphasized the potential divergence, multiplicity and arbitrariness of human acts of interpretation. The Roman de la Rose, possibly the most influential medieval secular text of the Middle Ages, had already begun to play with such ideas to question and subvert such epistemological ‘certainties’ derived from Augustine, and Deguileville explicitly sets out to counter, resist and ‘correct’ the subversive epistemology of the Roman de la Rose with the Vie. Deguileville, believing in the possibility of a ‘truthful’, accurate interpretation of the created world, produces a narrative of the pilgrim’s ‘journey’ that becomes both metaphor and model for a process of apprenticeship and initiation into a particular ‘system’ of reading, deciphering and understanding both the world and allegorical writing.
The overarching question confronted by these two poems is no less than the potential interpretability of the world, and of allegory itself: is the natural world, and with it any form of figurative representation, inherently meaningful, and therefore interpretable, as implied by the Vie? Or do the created world, along with any allegorical representation, only acquire their significance through human acts of attribution of meaning, an idea explored by the Roman de la Rose? Are meaning and order inherent in the cosmos, or are they only inherent in the human mind? All later English poets studied in this project are preoccupied with exactly those questions, and use both the Roman de la Rose and the Vie simultaneously as models for their own allegorical writings, sources for ideas and motifs, and as partner-texts in a dialogue over such fundamental questions of epistemology and hermeneutics.