Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Parliament of Fowls'

Seminar Paper, 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages

3. Geoffrey Chaucer’s rhetorical style

4. Rhetoric in The Parliament of Fowls

5. Conclusion

Books of Reference and Further Reading

a) Transcription of Stanza 10 to Stanza 20 of the Gg.4.27 Manuscript
b) Comments on Stanza 10 to Stanza 20 of The Parliament of Fowls
c) Substantial differences in Stanza 10 to Stanza 20 between the edition of The Parliament of Fowls in The Riverside Chaucer and the Gg.4.27 Manuscript

1. Introduction

In the Middle Ages rhetoric played a much more important role than it does nowadays. Replaced by sciences like aesthetics, psychology or stylistics[1] in our time rhetoric was of central interest in scholarly life back then. It was not simply reduced to the science of tropes and figures like it is often done nowadays but there was much more to it in the Middle Ages. Based on the rhetorical tradition of the antiquity rhetoric was the art of speech, which already shows that it was a broad subject. It will therefore be of importance to give a general overview of rhetoric in those days and to look at one author in particular to illustrate how rhetoric was used.

One of the most important and best known authors of the Middle Ages is Geoffrey Chaucer. That is why he will be considered as a representative of the rhetoricians of his time in this term paper.

The following chapters will deal with rhetoric in the Middle Ages in general and with Chaucer as a rhetorician of that time in particular. This term paper will not only summarise what rhetoric was like in those days but, moreover, it will examine the most important features of Chaucer’s poetical style. Finally a closer look at The Parliament of Fowls, one of Chaucer’s minor poems, will make clear how Chaucer used rhetorical devices and other language ornaments to make his works aesthetic and to get his message across. While reading Chaucer it has to be kept in mind that his poems were not published as books to be read but were presented to an audience. That is why it will be of interest to examine the way the oral character is created in Chaucer’s poems.

Rhetorical devices were originally used to make a text or speech aesthetic and persuasive and nowadays they are often used as the starting point for interpretations of a text because it is assumed that there must be a connection between the style and the meaning of a poem. This term paper, however, is not supposed to contribute to the understanding of Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls in the first place or even to provide any interpretations of the poem as a whole but it shall give an insight into Chaucer’s rhetoric and focus on selected examples of this poem. It deals with Chaucer’s poetical style and not with the deeper meaning of his poem. Nevertheless some rhetorical features cannot be explained without looking at certain possible interpretations of them.

2. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages

According to The Oxford Companion to Chaucer rhetoric is the art of persuasion and affection of people, which derived from the ancient world[2], where it had been used in courts (genus iudicale), for political matters (genus deliberativum) or to honour a person (genus demonstrativum)[3]. All in all rhetoric was used to persuade people and thus to have an influence on their way of thinking and their behaviour. The most important rhetoricians in those times were Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.), Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.) and the Roman author Quintilian (35- 100 A.D.).

Rhetoric can be learned and practised because it sticks to certain rules and during the Middle Ages it was taught as one of the seven liberal arts (septem artes liberales), which could be subdivided into the trivium (rhetoric, grammar, dialectic) and the quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, music, geometry). There were three major works that formed the basis for the learning of rhetoric and provided learners with its basic rules: Cicero’s De inventione, Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was also attributed to Cicero in the Middle Ages, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria[4]. Cicero’s works provided rhetoricians with general instructions like the five steps needed to prepare a speech. These are inventio (the finding of arguments that support the topic), dispositio (the arrangement of arguments), elocutio (the choice of appropriate and aesthetic words to convey the message and the inclusion of tropes and figures), memoria (to learn the text or speech by heart) and pronuntiatio (to give the speech effectively to the audience)[5]. In the process of inventio the arguments, evidences and ideas, which were used to persuade the audience, could be found in so-called loci communes or commonplaces , which are collections of arguments for certain topics. The arguments were subdivided into natural arguments (probationes inartificiales), which are based on facts, and artificial arguments (probationes artificiales), which are examples or arguments that refer to the emotions of the audience, are non-factual and depend on the experiences of the speaker[6]. Commonplaces are motifs, which are based on the topoi that derived from the antiquity. They are generally valid and are not bound to a certain subject. By knowing these commonplaces the speaker was independent from inventing new motifs but could choose suitable arguments systematically from those that already existed and thus refer to generally accepted knowledge[7]. Commonplaces such as “ […] ‘all must die’, the ‘world upside down’, and ‘life as a pilgrimage’” (Gray, p.415) for instance were often used. As Neumann points out, they were closely related to the knowledge of society and thus open to interpretation[8].

An effective speech has to be structured and, as already mentioned, this is called

dispositio. According to Cicero the speech has to be subdivided into three parts: the introduction, the main part and the conclusion. In the introduction the audience has to be addressed (exordium). In the main part the topic needs to be introduced (propositio) and a narration should be included (narratio). Then the speaker should comment on the topic (argumentatio) by supporting the own point of view (probationes) and refusing the opposing one (refutatio). Finally, in the third part, a persuasive conclusion needs to be drawn (conclusio)[9].

To make a text more persuasive and aesthetic language-ornaments like figures of diction (such as anaphora) and tropes (such as metonymy) that were chosen in the process of elocutio were used. Neumann mentions that, besides the inclusion of language-ornaments (ornatus), a text or speech should be understandable and appropriate with regard to the audience (perspicuitas and aptum), the language should be correct (puritas, latinitas) and the text or speech should only be as long as necessary (brevitas). Rhetoric was supposed to teach (docere), please (delectare) or affect (movere) people[10] and it was used for the exegesis of the bible, the art of preaching (ars praedicandi), the composition of letters (ars dictaminis) or the creation of poetical texts (ars versificandi)[11]. The latter one shows that this was the time when rhetoric found its way into literature and got strongly connected with poetry. The main connection between literature and rhetoric, however, was created via grammar, which dealt with tropes and figures and the interpretations of poets[12].

3. Geoffrey Chaucer’s rhetorical style

Chaucer was a very skilled rhetorician whose knowledge of rhetoric is supposed to have their origins in “ […] the imitation of other authors, whom he had read […] and [which] was developed by practice and writing” (Gray, p.416). It is also possible that he had studied some manuals on rhetoric at school or that he had got to know tropes and figures, which he used in his poems, while learning Latin grammar, because there was a connection between grammar and rhetoric in the Middle Ages as both belonged to the trivium[13].

One of Chaucer’s greatest achievements was the combination of literacy with orality. Due to the fact that his poems were rather intended to be told to an audience than to be read by a single reader, an oral manner plays an important role in his writings.

Nevertheless his poems have also features of literacy.

One of the major features of Chaucer’s poems is his creation of a narrator or storyteller, who addresses an implied audience directly. In Troilus and Criseyde for instance the narrator uses phrases like “And wel ye woot” which show that he or she is speaking to an audience[14]. These references are typical devices of oral storytelling and make the poems appear like speeches. Furthermore Chaucer included many familiar phrases or proverbs, which establish a connection between the narrator and the audience as they are based on the fact that the audience and the narrator share the same knowledge as far as such phrases are concerned. They allow the audience to relate to what the narrator tells and are often used in the beginning of a poem and “[…] re-create for us the world of the oral poet, in close and intimate contact with his audience and its values” (Brewer: 1986, p.228). Such phrases occur several times in his poems and are more or less fixed. In other words many of them often appear in similar arrangements within different poems. Brewer gives the example of the word lady, which usually is followed by bright, dere or swete. He also states that Chaucer often used the same phrases several times to refer to the same concept. As an example he gives a quotation from the Knight’s Tale: “for pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” (Knight’s Tale in Chaucer, p.63/ l. 903) which can also be found slightly different in the Merchant’s Tale, the Squire’s Tale or the Legend of Good Women[15]. Chaucer’s phrases are traditional and collective instead of individual. They are based on “[…] the collective wisdom of society […]” (Brewer: 1986, p.230). Thus everybody can relate to them and they cause attention and sympathy. The use of such set phrases can also be described as sententious style, which means that the society considers a particular formula to be generally true. In most cases such expressions are proverbs and are used to summarise or comment on a certain situation. By using these proverbs Chaucer avoided long explanations but gave a compact, metaphorical expression, which is clear in meaning for the audience as they were also used in everyday speech[16]. To sum up, Chaucer’s poems are full of proverbs and familiar expressions, which are common features of orality. They allow the audience to find access to Chaucer’s writings because they are familiar to them and thus create a connection between the narrator, her/his topic and the audience.

Another stylistic feature that is quite common in Chaucer’s works is redundancy and his use of repetitions. In other words Chaucer used many words or varied repetitions and described many details to convey a simple message. Thus an important fact is emphasised and made more powerful and it makes sure that the audience understands it, recognises its importance and has the chance to think about it. Brewer illustrates this fact by giving the example of the Canterbury Tales, in which a long passage of the General Prologue, full of details and descriptions, is only used to convey the message that human beings are restless in spring[17].

The detailed descriptions are strongly related to the way the action of Chaucer’s works proceed, namely by addition. Events are not analysed or explained but, according to Brewer, simply added, which is also a characteristic feature of traditional stories. This technique leads to the occurrence of simple structured sentences and a huge number of and s and but s that connect events or facts. Thus everything is of equal prominence within the text as for example in the lists of birds in The Parliament of Fowls. Brewer gives another example for this by mentioning a passage of the fight in the bedroom in the Reeve’s Tale, where simple but familiar verbs and many nouns but only a few simple adjectives form simple sentences that create a powerful sequence of actions and events[18].

Chaucer also used rhetorical devices most of which are significant for oral speech. He used metaphors, but only in short forms like proverbs. Furthermore he included metonymies in his texts, which should cause associations and additions of the audience but depend on the social and intellectual background of the audience. Examples for this are the birds in The Parliament of Fowls. Another device that is quite common in Chaucer’s works is hyperbole. His descriptions are exaggerated, for instance in Troilus and Criseyde where Chaucer used a “ […] hyperbole of emotion […]” (Brewer: 1986, p.236). This enlarges the emotional impact and makes the action more dramatic for the audience.


[1] www.teachsam.de/deutsch/d_rhetorik/rhe_2_1.htm

[2] Gray, p.415

[3] Neumann, p.229

[4] Angermann, p.794

[5] www.culturitalia.uibk.ac.at

[6] Ueding & Steinbrink, p.233 ff.

[7] Neumann, p.226

[8] Neumann, p.226

[9] www.culturitalia.uibk.ac.at

[10] Neumann, p. 227

[11] Neumann, p. 221

[12] Ueding & Steinbrink, p.66/67

[13] Gray, p.416

[14] Brewer: 1986, p. 228

[15] Brewer: 1986, p.230

[16] Brewer: 1986, p. 230 ff.

[17] Brewer: 1986, p. 232 ff.

[18] Brewer: 1986, p. 235

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Parliament of Fowls'
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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Rhetoric, Middle, Ages, Geoffrey, Chaucer, Parliament, Fowls
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Antje Bernstein (Author), 2006, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Parliament of Fowls', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/71331


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