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Durham University

Department of English Studies


Academic Staff

Publication details for Professor Neil Cartlidge

Cartlidge, Neil (2017). Ripples on the Water? The Acoustics of Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame and the Influence of Robert Holcot. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 39(1): 57-98.

Author(s) from Durham


Focusing on the Eagle's discussion of the principles of acoustics in lines 729–822 of The House of Fame, this essay offers a reconsideration of the nature of Chaucer's engagement with fourteenth-century physics. In particular, it offers a new interpretation of the sources for the Eagle's explanation of the mechanisms of sound in terms of an analogy with the ripples on the surface of a body of water. This passage is typically seen as an illustration of the extent to which Chaucer's thinking on natural science is highly traditional, wholly shaped by such venerable authorities as Aristotle, Macrobius, Boethius, and Vincent of Beauvais; but here it is argued that Chaucer was probably most directly influenced at this point in The House of Fame by a passage in the widely circulated Wisdom-commentary of the Dominican friar Robert Holcot (d. 1349). Even if Chaucer is unlikely to have been familiar with "cutting-edge" thinkers such as Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253), Walter Burley (d. 1344 or after), and the Oxford Calculators, Holcot himself certainly had direct access to the work of all of them. Perhaps more significantly, he may well have shown Chaucer how specifically "scientific" motifs could be turned to literary effect even in contexts that are otherwise predominantly moral and/or allegorical.

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