To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was’. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.

Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940)

I am finding it​ very hard to write a Chaucer biography. Commissioned an uncomfortably long time ago, I have delayed and fussed, despaired and dithered, and rewritten the first half several times. Paul Strohm, to whom I went for advice early on, has written and published his own in the interim.1 But perhaps at last the mist is clearing. How does one write a literary biography of a figure from the long past? My slowness has been fostered by a jumble of prejudices, defensive poses (instinctive for medievalists), as well as some reasonable qualms about biography as a genre. I had come to the view that biography was dead. The Victorian Lives and Letters model could still be made to work, but only for Victorian and post-Victorian authors, or as a form of popular history. There have been some clever and readable tweaks on the model for earlier writers, by whom I essentially mean Shakespeare (a year in the life of, a day in the life of), but even the most brilliant have served up the same formula: sub-novelistic sentences of high drama follow (unsubstantiated) assertions of scholarly authority, with a dash of murder, intrigue, vivid street life and sex. It’s clearly a successful strategy, but it has been hard to shake off the feeling that popular history is not what I’m trained to write, or the best way of writing about medieval literature, or a representation of the past that I want to endorse.

The following two examples, perhaps, are instructive. One deals with the faintest whiff of intellectual shame involved in enjoying the discovery of a piece of information about the sexual life of an author of impeccable pedigree; the other concerns a vivid makeover of a 14th-century acquaintance of Chaucer. I learned about the first from a New York Times review of Hermione Lee’s 1997 biography of Virginia Woolf. In the midst of Daphne Merkin’s somewhat dutiful praise there erupts a moment of real excitement:

Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf, by Panthea Reid, while not nearly as strong as Ms Lee’s, makes fascinating use of documents that are either unfamiliar or heretofore unpublished. So we fall upon a startlingly sexy note written by Virginia to Leonard a year and a half after their marriage, in which the Mandril [Leonard Woolf’s pet name for Virginia] ‘wishes me to inform you delicately that her flanks and rump are now in finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition’. Virginia when she sizzles sounds very hot indeed!

How deliciously inappropriate it feels to see this side of Woolf laid bare. It is also enjoyable to see this described as a piece of impeccable scholarship. This is not idle speculation, we are assured: the biographer has found ‘unfamiliar or heretofore unpublished’ documents. (‘Documents’, needless to say, are inherently more serious and scientific than love notes.)

The second example is a murder mystery about John Gower by Bruce Holsinger, which takes a different tack.2 Chaucer is glimpsed; he is a calculating and casual character, shallowly obsessed with his literary reputation and erotic conquests. The daring comes partly from making Gower – whose literary image has never quite recovered from being called ‘moral Gower’ by Chaucer – a scheming and envious fixer; but the book’s real selling point is its vividly olfactory and offal-spattered version of medieval London, setting the scene for murder, prostitutes, transvestites and more.

So where is the qualm? Perhaps in the case of the Woolf biography I’m just suffering a pang of Gowerian envy: it’s hard to imagine anyone writing with such relish about sex in a biography of Chaucer. We have no personal letters, and hardly any salacious details. There is a much discussed rape case, but it is now agreed to involve an action whose meaning we can no longer be sure of, and in any case can’t be sure Chaucer committed. So my dark suspicions about the genre of biography may be rather self-serving.

Not all literary biography fits the rubric of popular history. Some of it appeals more to the submerged fantasist, hoarder of dangerous titbits, or amateur detective. Merkin enjoys Panthea Reid’s account of Woolf as a guilty secret: she obviously thinks she should prefer Lee’s account. And I think she does; it’s more that she is also admitting to biography’s gossipy underbelly, and perhaps to its important function as a means of demystifying, of undressing our favourite writers. Holsinger’s novel revels in the guilty secret even more boldly. Why pretend that our patchy knowledge about Gower, or Chaucer, can be turned into a satisfying book? Let us write fiction instead, and not only enjoy the ride, but give shadowy authors the afterlife they never had, in terms they never lived.

But the qualm remains. Suppose one wanted to write a literary biography of Chaucer that chose a different path again. The leisurely capaciousness of a Gesamtkunstwerk like Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings’s recent Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, able to work its way through a mass of letters, reminiscences and anecdotes, is simply impossible without a great weight of material.3 Fiction is a separate decision. So one has to turn either to a different kind of evidence, or to strategies that are not usually part of the genre. Two questions drive my thoughts: how does one write a biography now? How does one write a biography of a medieval author now?

Let’s look more closely at the notion of evidence. One could say that at its simplest the task of the biographer is to fashion a narrative from an archive of material. But the dearth of an archive in the case of Chaucer, for example, questions the simplicity of that aim. Not only archive but narrative seems problematic with a medieval author. One has to resort to the ‘must have beens’, those phrases that force connections between ‘evidence’ and biographical deductions and lay bare the spuriousness of the biographer’s role. No surviving document in the Life-Records – the collection, first published in the 19th century, of five hundred legal documents, warrants and financial records relating to Chaucer the man – mentions Chaucer’s poetry. We know that writings are a treacherous resource for the life, just as life remains obdurately separate from writing.

We are used to gazing on objects from the past that have gained special recognition, but some contemporary artists have turned to the despised piles of stuff that silt up the present. I remember being struck a few years ago by an installation by the artist Mark Dion. Tate Thames Dig presented a Victorian cabinet in which Dion had fastidiously placed bits of plastic, broken china, nameless pieces of cartilage, credit cards, teeth and shells. These were all things washed up by the river, some of great age, some very recent, all buried and semi-obliterated by mud and water and gathered by teams of collectors. What interested me was the tension Dion created between trash and history. The passing of time was shown to have the power to confer value; even as one watched, the trash was accruing historical interest. These pickings from the beaches of Millbank and Bankside have much to say to anyone trying to write about the past. In part they act simply as a reminder that anything might be worth recovering. But Dion also reminds us that the distinction between worthless shards and precious remnants depends on our processes of selection.

Medieval London is an especially elusive physical survival. The Great Fire left vast ash piles that were buried under the streets, and today, after the Blitz and postwar town planning, relatively few structures remain: sections of the city wall, the much rebuilt Guildhall, the Tower of London and several churches. It is scarcely possible to stand anywhere in modern London and see what Chaucer saw. What kind of perspective can we hope to have on London’s ancient spaces? Are we deluding ourselves if we imagine that such spaces can still be there?

Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-40) is the subtlest incarnation of this way of thinking. Repudiating master narrative, it exists simply, but utterly confusingly, as a mass of literary debris, an unwieldy, incomplete and uncompletable pile of citations and fragments in two languages that mimics the free-flowing passage of thoroughfare and experience in the Parisian shopping arcades of the 1830s. It’s a brilliant attempt to present the city as resistant to analysis, to chronological understanding and to narrative; it sees how false it is to impose an overarching narrative onto a city.

This formal resistance to narrative is highly problematic for a biographer. One could simply resist it in turn, but Benjamin’s vision of what he calls his ‘dream city’ is so compelling that I want to search for a way to keep true to it. One way is to consider the context in which he wrote. Benjamin’s debris is of a special kind. He presents broken, piecemeal vistas of a medieval past obliterated by Haussmann. His vision, his citations, his choice of language fragments are steeped in the atmosphere of heavy encumbrance that is characteristic of the 19th century. The overwhelming, deadening pressure of accumulated things is seen ‘embedded in deep, usually violet folds of velvet’, framed by ‘billowing curtains and swollen cushions’, displayed through grimy shop windows. We could shift this vision back to the 14th century (partly because what Benjamin was describing was a 19th-century replacement of a medieval street plan). The passage of five more centuries implies an even greater residue of grime, an even fuller freighting of fabric, an even higher pile of dusty fragments. And this is exactly the way the medieval period is often reimagined: think of Pasolini’s deep shadowy vistas of medieval feasting, sex and public burnings.

The Thames provides a wonderful metonym for the silt of history; another is offered by the streets themselves, as the archives show. The Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls is crammed with complaints about London streets: ‘Also the Celer wyndowes in the Rent som tyme Adam Fraunceys in Irmongerlane, for they stonde to moch vp-on the commune grounde, to gret harme to peple passyng forby, defectif.’ Much annoyance is caused by drays and dunghills: ‘Item William Clauson hath stondyng in þe strete a dray þat is hynderyng to þe Pepill bothe day and nyght. Item þer is a donghill in þe watergatestrete anynst Berelane þe whiche is noyowse to all þe commune people, kasting out in-to þis lane ordour of Prevees and other orrible sitis.’ Such material is a gift to any historical narrative. But there’s nothing specifically medieval about it: similar things could be reported of many later periods in London’s history. In the spirit of Benjamin’s arcades, created in ironic opposition to Haussmann’s sweep through the medieval city, one could create something more subtle. For the point is not so much whether there was actual, tangible muck, as that in imagining the past we overdo things, creating a scene clogged with people, mud, dung and tanners’ stench.

If we imagine the Chaucerian archive as something like Benjamin’s 19th-century Paris, we can think of it, on the one hand, as a version of the city, with the semi-selected detritus from Chaucer’s Life-Records offering glimpses of the overlapping mercantile and courtly worlds in which he earned his annual stipend. Or, on the other hand, we could see the archive as a version of Chaucer’s writing: a huge pile of linguistic remains, scattered yet conserved, providing its own commentary on his life. By looking at the language that surrounded Chaucer in everyday life we can start to understand how he created his own writing style from these ‘raw’ materials. The portraits Chaucer wrote as an introduction to his Canterbury Tales include one of a master mariner, the so-called Shipman, who is also allocated a Tale. He is a West Country man, Chaucer says, from Dartmouth ‘for all I know’. In describing him, Chaucer’s English navigates between various linguistic territories. He begins with some physical, visual details: the Shipman is riding awkwardly, wears a knee-length cloak of Irish cloth, is tanned deep brown and has a dagger tucked under his arm. Then come some professional facts: he has drunk a good deal of wine on the journeys to and from Bordeaux when his merchant client hasn’t been watching, he fights hard and has no scruples about throwing his opponents overboard, and he is a master of every wind, creek and current from Hull to Carthage and every harbour from Gotland to Cape Finisterre, from Brittany to Spain. The sketch of his travels is expressed in equally wide-ranging English. Chaucer juxtaposes the details of the Shipman’s rough appearance with the highly technical vocabulary of his ‘craft’ or profession:

… of his craft to rekene wel his tydes,
His stremes, and his daungers hym besides,
His herberwe, and his moone, his lodemenage,
Ther nas noon swich from Hulle to Cartage.

The sense that words such as ‘tydes’, ‘stremes’ and ‘herberwe’ are technical jargon is created by the little adjective ‘his’: these are the terms used in his profession, and set him apart from seafaring laymen like Chaucer himself. But they are not unusual or specialised. Lodemenage is different: it means ‘navigation’ and rather like modern ‘pilotage’ was not in everyday use. It has a mixed character itself: lod is an Old English word meaning ‘voyage’ but it is married to ménage, which is French, and in official documents such as the Liber Niger Admiralitatis, a book of maritime law, lodemenage appears as an ordinary Anglo-French word.

Chaucer doesn’t seem to be selecting words for their foreignness or because they correspond to locations known to the Shipman. It is rather that English itself has its own layers and registers of words that are old but in the process of being revived, of new coinages, of words that are old in one language but new in another, or that have long been in usage in English or French but are acquiring new meanings. He works with this rich mixture and gives vivid life to it. He takes the dry professional term lodemenage and uses it to help describe the Shipman, along with his dagger and suntanned face.

John Matthews Manly pointed out in Some New Light on Chaucer (1926) that details in several of Chaucer’s portraits correspond with teasing closeness to contemporary facts. For example, three records exist of a ship with the same name as one that Chaucer mentions (‘His barge ycleped was the “Maudelayne”’). That ship’s master, Peter Risshenden, together with the famous pirate John Hawley, captured three ships loaded with wine. Such activity is behind these lines:

Ful many a draughte of wyn had he ydrawe
Fro Burdeux-ward, whil that the chapman sleep.
Of nyce conscience took he no keep.
If that he faught and hadde the hyer hond,
By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.

For Manly this seemed to show the real life behind Chaucer’s work. But this glimpse of history isn’t real in a straightforward sense. It has the allure of a past imagined as present, a picture of two scheming, hardened profiteers standing on the rolling boards of a merchant ship with wine cups in their hands and daggers swinging from their necks. We thicken this picture with as many layers of imaginative colouring as we have encountered, from films, mini-series, Victorian poetry, the Kelmscott Chaucer, candles flickering during medieval-themed feasts, bare ruined choirs and so on. Some of us may think of real medieval survivals: small churches, manuscript illuminations, and the smell and thrill of medieval parchment in a library reading room. And for Chaucer? I suggest it wasn’t real for him either. Like any writer he drew from what he knew and saw, but he combined it with what he knew from books, from poetry and history, in Latin, French and English, all of it mediated by further layers of imaginative recall and invention on the part of those writers. The General Prologue is a particularly artful mixture of fragments of life and language, scraps and pickings ingeniously reconstituted as vivid history.

In a lecture at the Collège de France in 1970, Foucault presented a novel way of navigating the archive. ‘Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère – un cas de parricide au 19ème siècle présenté par Michel Foucault’ drew attention to an obscure, local melodrama. Rivière, after murdering his mother and siblings in a Normandy village in 1835, wrote a memoir from prison recording the gory details of his act as well as giving an autobiographical account of his life before and after his crime. Foucault included the memoir in a book, along with all the legal and medical records, witness statements and newspaper reports on the case, and a set of academic essays (his own lecture among them) that discuss not the moral or emotional aspects of the murder but the ways in which it was reported and recorded. Foucault seemed to see the memoir and the reports on the case as an archive of written detritus, the unfiltered remains of history typical of the 19th century. He wanted to hold this up for inspection rather than subsume it in a larger narrative. It represented a forgotten kind of memory, ignored by history, dusty, lost, inarticulate.

What interests me here is that it is an autobiography that Foucault frames in this book. This raw evidence is a piece of literature in its broadest medieval sense: it is a ‘lettered’ composition, a witness statement which the murderer had apparently planned to write even before the murder. It counts as history rather than literature for Foucault because it’s a personal account, written by a poorly educated man, and hence at some distance from analytical academic discourse. The archival evidence for ‘proper’ history, it seems, is always already doctored, chosen, framed. Even in an archive where Foucault thought he had found an authentic because obscure witness, the memoir turns out to have existed, at least as a conception, before the event it describes; it’s a construction, not a simple, naive statement. Foucault’s privileging of Rivière’s story shows again how strong (and therefore suspect) our desire is to find something ‘authentic’ and that our interpretation of that ‘authentic’ object may be coloured by that desire.

In 1976 René Allio made a film of the Rivière murder, on location in the Normandy village where the crime had happened. Professional actors were brought in for the lawyers and doctors, but untrained locals were used as the main protagonists. Some of those who took part were descendants of villagers who had lived there at the time of the murder. This careful casting means that the film acts not just to commemorate the murder, but to relive it. An extraordinary sequence of history is thus created: a plan to write a memoir of a murder, the murder, the memoir, a film, a re-enactment, a reliving. Foucault and Allio’s radical experiment is one way of making the archive touch the past, not just re-create it. But such commemoration is almost impossible for the medieval period. So once again, we are forced back on turning partial, indirect forms of access to the past into significant but ultimately fake memories.

A passage from Book V of Troilus and Criseyde illustrates some of these archival twists with ghostly closeness. The two lovers, from opposing camps, are separated by a political decision to exchange Criseyde for a Greek military hostage. She promises to return within ten days, but doesn’t succeed. Convinced, delusionally, that she will come back to him, Troilus wanders desperately through Troy reliving their time together. In reality, this is the very recent past: Criseyde has only been gone a few days. But already it feels like the ancient past. Her house is dark and shuttered; its emptiness feels more than a matter of temporary displacement:

Than seide he thus: ‘O paleys desolat,
O hous of houses whilom best ihight,
O paleys empty and disconsolat,
O thow lanterne of which queynt is the light,
O paleys, whilom day, that now art nyght,
Wel oughtestow to falle, and I to dye,
Syn she is went that wont was us to gye!’

He tries to recover this recent past, through letters, through memory, through recalling her with all his senses:

The lettres ek that she of olde tyme
Hadde hym ysent, he wolde allone rede
An hondred sithe atwixen noon and prime,
Refiguryng hire shap, hire wommanhede,
Withinne his herte, and every word or dede
That passed was

Like the hungry biographer, he scours her letters a hundred times over. He refigures her body, her womanliness and every word they exchanged. He rides to places where they had been, together.

Fro thennesforth he rideth up and down,
And every thyng com hym to remembraunce
As he rood forby places of the town
In which he whilom hadde al his plesaunce.
‘Lo, yonder saugh ich last my lady daunce;
And in that temple, with hire eyen cleere,
Me kaughte first my righte lady dere.’

Having tried all these means of re-inventing her, he turns to narrative:

Thanne thoughte he thus: ‘O blisful lord Cupide,
Whan I the proces have in my memorie
How thow me hast wereyed on every syde,
Men myght a book make of it, lik a storie.’

Moving outwards from the physical traces of her absence he now records her story and follows up with a song. He invents an archive for her, in other words, and even seems to leave a place in it for a future analysis of what he is going through in constructing that archive.

How does one get from the archive to the narrative? One way of answering this may be to say that the archive already contains narrative; we don’t have to feel that the two repositories are separate. Another way of thinking about it is suggested by Peter Brooks in his classic discussion of narrative and psychoanalysis, Reading for the Plot, in which he searches for a way of understanding the relationship between the two. Is it a metaphorical relationship? Is one an analogue for the other, or a model? For Brooks, psychoanalysis is indeed a model for literature, and an active one: it is a process rather than a static image, a ‘discovery procedure’. Brooks explains the production of the biographical narrative, via Freud, as a process of transference from the doctor to the patient. Freud described this transference as a ‘new edition or reprint’ of an old text. By piecing together his own narrative version of what the patient has incoherently told him, the doctor creates a space for the patient to regroup and discover the version of his narrative that will start to cure him. Maybe this is what the biographer must do: create a surrogate narrative, create a space in which to look at the object of the biography in every sense – at the person, the writing, the material core, the process by which that person takes shape as a biographical object. And that space will enable the trick of historical perspective that enables the subject to come into the light and point out what we should know.

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