B-Sides: Chaucer’s “The House of Fame”

What does it mean to remove both a Confederate statue and its pedestal? Unlikely as it may seem, a medieval English dream about monuments and memory has answers to offer.
For years, and with particular intensity since the 2015 Dylann Roof shooting and 2016 election, we have debated the fate of not only Confederate monuments but ...

For years, and with particular intensity since the 2015 Dylann Roof shooting and 2016 election, we have debated the fate of not only Confederate monuments but also the pedestals on which they stand. To justify toppling Confederate statues is straightforward: distorted historical records, they persist in enabling and ennobling racist terrorism. But the plinths on which those statues once posed often remain. The expense and difficulty of removing them can seem to blunt the force of arguments for doing so. Early on the morning of January 15, 2019, however, Carol Folt, then chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ordered the removal of the pedestal that had until 2018 supported Silent Sam, a statue honoring UNC-affiliated Confederate soldiers.

When bare pedestals remain, they prompt conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, while it remained, Silent Sam’s pedestal acted as “a lightning rod for white supremacists.” On the other hand, some Confederate statue pedestals, like those in Baltimore, have become sites of artistic resistance. Pablo Machioli’s Madre Luz sculpture temporarily replaced Robert E. Lee’s and Stonewall Jackson’s figures there, for example, and another evocatively red-streaked plinth remains in the city, having been splashed with paint before its statue’s removal. Discussing his photographs of empty pedestals, Matthew Shain acknowledges that he “didn’t want them to be nostalgic. But there’s an ambiguity there.” Does the space above bare Confederate pedestals urge contemplation of the racial violence that the statues sanctioned and celebrated? Or does it fuel the desire to restore statues and continue glorifying the Lost Cause?

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame, an aggressively erudite 14th-century English dream vision, addresses such questions and ultimately helps us to understand the importance and urgency of pedestal removal. Unfettered by realist conventions, the poem’s dreamscape presents fantastic memorial artifacts even as it comments on the fallibility of such objects as records of history or truth. By the logic of Chaucer’s poem, it takes both a statue and a pedestal to make a memorial structure: the prop beneath is integral to a memorial’s form and function. In Marx’s Capital, the pedestal becomes a metaphor to describe how systems of dispossession enable and support each other. Chaucer’s insight about pedestals reveals that if we want to change these structures, we must raze the physical plinths. For a Confederate pedestal to cease propping up white supremacy, it must cease to be.

The House of Fame is an early poem—written before The Canterbury Tales—and intriguing in that its narrator, Geffrey, bears some complex relationship to its author, Geoffrey. Geffrey’s dream takes him from a temple made of glass and decorated with the story of the Aeneid to a desert landscape where a giant eagle scoops him up, carrying him skyward while eaglesplaining natural science and philosophy. This bird, a signal of the poem’s ancient and Dantean debts, then guides Geffrey through the further wonders of his dreamscape.

During their peregrinations, the eagle brings Geffrey to the House of Fame, a structure whose features elucidate the nature of fame, memory, and history. Like reputation itself, the building, fashioned of translucent stone, conceals the engines of its own making, a structure “Withouten … joynyngs.” And lining the path to the goddess Fame are the figures of long-dead writers, each of whom “bar upon his shuldres hye” the history he authored, from Hebrew chronicles to accounts of the Trojan War and Theban siege. Geffrey notes that even as these histories are “hevy” for their creators to hoist, the hall appears to expand its space above and around certain authors, suggesting the power of a monument’s momentum to raise and support.

Each author is in turn supported by a “pilere” made of a metal that resonates symbolically with the story he tells: Chaucer’s pedestals. The exegetical literary criticism of the 1960s read these pillars as paralleling the symbolic pillars sustaining the Christian church. But they equally uphold the meanings of what is atop them: the iron of some pedestals is the metal of Mars, its warlike associations reinforcing the violence of the battle stories that their authors—Statius, Homer, Virgil—tell. Statius, who narrates the gruesome story of Oedipus and his family, stands on an iron pillar painted with “tygres blood” to deepen the memorialization of carnage.

In some surprising ways, Chaucer can help us to argue that the Silent Sam pedestal and statue need to stay gone.

In the end, however, The House of Fame encourages us to reject such memorials. The goddess Fame is not only arbitrary but also violent in her decisions about whose histories should be remembered and whose forgotten. When she orders the trumpet blown to condemn some petitioners to oblivion, it sends its sound “As swift as pelet out of gonne / Whan fyr is in the poudre ronne,” when fire lights the gunpowder. The House of Fame leaves Geffrey unimpressed and uninspired. So the eagle takes him to the contrastingly rickety House of Rumor, constructed of “twigges,” whirling disorientingly, and commingling truth and lies. In the final extant lines of the poem, a “man of greet auctoritee” appears; however, the text ends before we hear from him. The House of Fame offers a spectrum of memorial strategies and suggests that we err when we remember (and exalt) only what is most loudly bruited or marmoreally commemorated.

Reading Fame’s pillars and Confederate pedestals through each other helps make the case not merely for examining memorial architecture critically but for eradicating its very impulse to uphold. While the tiger’s blood on Statius’s pillar helps to hold Theban heritage up, what it emblematizes is ambiguous. Is it public self-sacrifice in the theater of Theban civil war? Or the more obscured fates of the Theban women who resist violent tyranny? That ambiguity illuminates another: while a red-streaked Confederate pedestal might acknowledge occluded racist violence, it might equally reinforce old lies about Confederate soldiers’ noble cause and sacrifice in America’s own Civil War.

Omitting the pedestal in memorial architecture can deny systemic oppression a platform. Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, for example, has refused the work of propping up white supremacy by creating their National Memorial for Peace and Justice without the mechanism of a supporting base. Obelisks carved with the names of US counties whose inhabitants performed lynchings appear from afar as pillars rising from the ground. But at close range they reveal themselves to be suspended in the air. While the design outlines the form of hanging, it also opposes the structure and function of the pedestal in memorial architecture. It undoes the formal configurations by which other public spaces uphold racial violence. Alabama’s memorial and accompanying Legacy Museum speak with Chaucer’s House of Rumor across time, together performing an experiment with contingent, unsupported, non-monumental media (twigs for Chaucer; jars of earth for the Legacy Museum) to comment on how history has been transmitted and what we must now hear differently.

I hesitate to use a loud, privileged voice like Chaucer’s to eaglesplain American memorials. And yet, in some surprising ways, Chaucer can help us to argue that the Silent Sam pedestal and statue need to stay gone. I make this argument in light of the strong probability that the university’s leaders will continue to nurture their relations with a wealthy conservative donor class that will often choose to support white supremacy.

In his poem, Chaucer reminds us of the relationship between patronage and the fashioning of monuments to those authoritative institutions that decide whom to reward and punish, whose stories to tell truthfully. Geffrey’s entire journey, the eagle tells him, represents “recompensacioun” by a powerful god for his hard work. The very project of narrating the dream reminds us how difficult it is to exit systems of heritage, order, and power even when one wants, as Geffrey does, to critique their stone and metal markers. We see that dilemma when the eagle squawks to Geffrey to “Awak” even as both remain within the dream. How do we open our eyes to the hidden “joynyngs,” the places where remembrance and power support each other? If Chaucer’s text suggests that question, Silent Sam answers it: to make those structural ligaments visible requires keeping both pedestal and monument invisible. Reinstating, relocating, building a new House of Fame to enshrine Silent Sam and his pedestal—these seemingly illuminating actions all hide the links and supports holding aloft those dispossessing systems that harm so many. Destroy the statue, destroy the pedestal, and let that act be the legacy.


Update: February 16, 2019

Shortly after the publication of this essay, UNC Honor Court charges against Maya Little, prominent anti–Silent Sam activist and PhD student, were dismissed on appeal. Little and other Silent Sam protesters have also faced criminal charges.


This article was commissioned by John Plotz. icon

Featured image: On August 20, 2018, protesters used a contraption made of bamboo and rope to pull down the statue of Silent Sam from its pedestal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Crowds gathered even hours after the event. Photograph by Hameltion / Wikimedia Commons