Allegorical Buildings in Mediaeval Literature

By Mann, Jill | Medium Aevum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Allegorical Buildings in Mediaeval Literature


Mann, Jill, Medium Aevum


The landscape of mediaeval allegory is rich in architecture -- edifices such as the Tower of Truth, the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, the House of Fame, the Castle of Perseverance. What particularly interests me about the allegorical building is the problem it poses to mediaeval writer and twentieth-century critic alike: the problem of its static quality. In recent times, writers on allegory such as Rosemond Tuve or Morton Bloomfield have insisted that the complexity and originality of allegory lie in narative action rather than in the figures or objects which appear in that action -- in other words, that its metaphorical strength lies not in the noun but in the verb.(1) The allegorical building seems to resist this line of approach, to exemplify in classic form the static and tautological nature of allegory as older and less sympathetic critics conceived it.(2) It is not just that the building does not do anything of itself, but that it seems difficult for the writer to do anything with it, other than to attach labels to its various parts which will identify them with appropriate abstract qualities (the foundations are made of Humility, the walls of Ghostly Strength, and so on). In this paper I propose to look at some examples of allegorical buildings in mediaeval literature to see in what ways the static quality of the building-image is or is not a problem, and what it is that writers can do with it.

The field of mediaeval examples is vast and I shall perforce limit myself to a corner of it.(3) I can, for example, do no more than mention the rich tradition which leads from Ovid's House of Fame to Chaucer's, simply in order to remark that one way of dealing with the problem of the static quality of the image is to invent fantastic buildings which defy the notion of stability in every possible way -- buildings which threaten to slide down mountain slopes or collapse in on themselves, which are built on foundations of ice or are suspended in mid-air, which have no solid walls or a thousand doorways, all open, or which constantly whirl round and round. Ovid's House of Fame has 'a thousand apertures, but no doors to close them' (Metamorphoses, XII.44--5). The House of Fortune in Alain de Lille's Anticlaudianus clings to a sheer rock from which it threatens every minute to slide off; one part of it glitters with gold, silver and jewels, the other part is built of rubble. One half has a lofty roof, the other 'a gaping cleft' (VIII. 1--18). Chaucer's House of Rumour is built of twigs which leave 'a thousand holes', and it whirls about continually (House of Fame, 1924--85). In such descriptions, the static quality of the buildings, so far from creatin boredom and claustrophobia, becomes something desirable precisely because it is withheld; their anarchic instability creates an impulse towards statsis and closure as a necessary counterweight.

The particular line of tradition to which I want to devote most attention, however, is one that has its origins in the Bible rather than in classical antiquity; almost all the examples I shall look at will come from religious literature. The building is an important symbol of achievement and aspiration in both the Old and the New Testament; there is the temple of Solomon, built as a resting-place for the Ark of God (I Kings vi--vii); there is Ezekiel's imaginary re-creation of the Solomonic temple in vision, after it had been destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezekiel xl--xliv);(4) and there is the description of the heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation (xxi). These latter two descriptions of visionary buildings are an important influence on many of the texts I shall discuss.

Ezekiel's vision begins with the appearance of a man with a measuring-reed who measures out the dimensions of the building with meticulous precision and relentless thoroughness:

And behold a wall on the outside of the house round about, and in the man's hand a measuring reed of six cubits long by the cubit and an hand breadth: so he measured the breadth of the building, one reed; and the height, one reed. …

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