Chaucer’s Choices

Through the looking-glass of medieval imagery

by Katarzyna Stadnik (Author)
©2015 Monographs 222 Pages
Series: Łódź Studies in Language, Volume 38


The monograph discusses the relation between language and visual culture, focusing on two Chaucerian narratives, «Knight’s Tale» and «Troilus and Criseyde». The study highlights the significance of the continuity of imagery in language and material culture for cultural transmission, providing insights into the relation between Chaucer’s linguistic usage and the late medieval symbolic tradition. Undertaken within the Cognitive Linguistic framework, the research indicates the usefulness of adopting a panchronic perspective on the development of language and culture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Sociocultural situatedness of the language user and the constraints of embodiment
  • 1.1 Situated cognition
  • 1.2 Distributed cognition
  • 2. Idiosyncrasy of human cognition
  • 2.1 Idiosyncrasy of human perception
  • 2.2 Mind-sharing and meaning negotiation via external representations
  • 2.3 Idiosyncrasy of human memory
  • 3. Panchrony: Towards extended humanity
  • 3.1 Sharing minds in panchrony
  • 3.2 Situatedness as the source of conceptual usage patterns
  • 3.3 Caravaggio’s selected paintings
  • 4. Language as a memory medium
  • 4.1 Linguistic subjectivity
  • 4.2 Grammaticalisation of modality
  • 4.3 The development of must: From OE mot-to ME mot- (nedes)
  • 5. Imagery of necessite in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale
  • 5.1 The role of the visual in the Middle Ages
  • 5.2 Necessite through the late medieval lens
  • 5.3 The world of necessite in Chaucer’s KT and TRC
  • Conclusion
  • References


In her essay Inne obrazy (Other images), Maria Poprzęcka (2009a) reflects on the image and the human eye from the perspective of an art historian interested in the intricate relation between of human perception and memory. Highlighting the omnipresence of images in culture, and how this affects our powers of reflective observation, the scholar notes that we deal not only with images in the outside world, but that mental images permeate the human mind as well. Poprzęcka warns against favouring mental imagery over images in the external world. Such physical carriers of images support our memory and shape our imagination.

As our theoretical background falls within the framework of broadly defined Cognitive Linguistics (henceforth CL) (cf. Geeraerts and Cuyckens 2007), we concur with the experientialist view of the human mind in that humans do not have direct access to the external reality (Kövecses 2006), and the world as we see it is, in this sense, a projected reality. Since in CL linguistic meaning is equated with conceptualisation, and since concepts derive from percepts, our major research focus concerns the human mind in context, and how the idiosyncrasy of human cognition, understood as universal cognitive constraints, such as colour vision, that is, derived from the very nature of human cognitive capacities, and those that can specific to the individual, such as fallible memory, may affect linguistic usage. Specifically, we are interested in the interaction between the individual and the sociocultural world. Since this implies meaning negotiation within the realm of intersubjectivity, it entails the continuity of culture and language.

In the monograph, we investigate the issue of imagery in language and visual culture. In particular, we address the question of whether the image as a carrier of perceptual information may play a role in cultural transmission via language and visual culture. As suggested, the image may be both internal and external in nature. It is a characteristic of the image that is of profound importance for our study, for linguistic and visual resources may be seen as repositories of the community’s shared imagery, albeit each in a different manner. Simultaneously, both linguistic and visual resources may be regarded as instrumental in negotiating the contents of the community’s memory, encompassing the intricate interplay of collective remembrance and individual memories. As research into the culture of memory shows, language and resources from visual culture often serve the function of vehicles for disputed contents of collective memory. ← 7 | 8 →

To the extent that perception plays a role in conceptual knowledge, elucidating the issue of how cognitive activity gives rise to mental images may shed light onto the question of how language and visual culture foster cumulative knowledge and cumulative cultural evolution. However, the image, whether conjured up via linguistic or visual means, seems an imperfect medium for memory. Often the images we see with the eye of the mind may not correspond to the perceptual input available in the external reality. As Poprzęcka (2009a) notes, images behind closed eyes, as we remember them, are frequently distorted to the extent that we begin to wonder whether we have perceived them truthfully in the first place. In addressing this problem, we will concentrate on the idiosyncrasy of human perception and memory, or the cognitive constraints that can affect how we perceive and remember our experiences.

The general issue of the image as a source of perceptually-based knowledge in cultural transmission prompts a reconsideration of the relation between language, visual culture, and time. Since cultural evolution is cumulative, the accrual of knowledge gathered by community members in their experience can be encapsulated by memory carriers, whether linguistic or visual. Both can act as vehicles for imagery shared by the community. Each of them mediates imagery that accumulates, creating a palimpsest of intertwined images that sustains the community’s symbolic tradition. Thus, we will point at the continuity of the community’s imagery that motivates interpretational conventions. To the extent that conventionality results from negotiating meaning in human interaction, it becomes derivative of human cognition, both collective and individual.

In the monograph, we address selected aspects of imagery in Geoffrey Chaucer’s (ca. 1340–1400) Knight’s Tale (KT) and Troilus and Criseyde (TRC) (both, ca. 1380–1387). As indicated, the human capacity for visualising, or externalising mental images in various physical forms of representation, is regarded as conducive to human interaction that extends beyond the boundaries of the present. Frequently, the mental images may be seen as vestiges of human perceptual experience, which implies human cognitive activity situated in a specific sociocultural context. In the analysis of the historical data, we will investigate specific occurrences of the Middle English verb *moten used in the sense ‘must’, and relate these instances of usage to the problem of the representation of abstract concepts. In our study, we concentrate primarily on the notion of NECESSITY in Chaucer’s TRC and KT. Since it current state of research in cognitive science it is argued that abstract concepts might be represented indirectly via situations, we will point to the idea of simulation as a possible explanation behind the capacity of language to conjure up mental images we see with the mind’s eye. We will ← 8 | 9 → indicate situational patterns in the Chaucerian imagery that may be related to the abstract concept of NECESSITY, and indicate how they correlate with the poet’s use of *moten, which as Traugott and Dasher (2001) argue, may have been developing the sense of epistemic necessity during the broadly defined period of the Middle Ages. The situational imagery in the works will be argued to offer access to the memory of the cultural community of the late medieval Christian world.

Since we investigate the issue of language as a medium of cultural transmission, capable of retaining images from the past, our selection of the two Chaucerian works is guided by the widely held assumption that one of the major sources of inspiration behind both narratives is Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (ca. 524). Relative to the Boethian text, a philosophical work celebrated in the Middle Ages, we address the question of how language can ensure the transmission of the abstract value-system of the community. In this respect, one prominent issue is that of the pagan imagery used by Chaucer to conjure up the heathen world, with its religious and intellectual ideas. What gains priority is not only the capacity of language to evoke mental images in the minds of language users, but also the use of language combined with the perceptual input from embodied experience stored in the minds of the audiences. In TRC and KT, imagery appears to play a two-fold role, for mental images conjured up by language result from participation in the cultural common ground shared within the community. Since the scope of the study is delineated by our consideration of Chaucer’s sociocultural situatedness, some related conceptions cannot be given fuller treatment due to the constraints imposed on the study in the form of monograph. For this reason, both the choice of material, as well as the range of topics discussed are motivated by the intent to explore of issues inherently germane to this study. Where possible, we have included references that may indicate a broader background to the problems discussed in the monograph.

Overall, exploring the imagery of the two narratives, KT and TRC, may help us envisage the world according to the medieval mindset, and facilitate our understanding of the human mind in context. It is also hoped that this investigation will contribute to the research into the culture of memory, informing the discussion about how the image in language and visual culture can foster cultural transmission. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

1. Sociocultural situatedness of the language user and the constraints of embodiment

Although human cognition is frequently argued to be fundamentally social, humans immersed in the social world inhabit the material world as well. As Kiefer and Barsalou (2012) point out, cognitive activity is grounded in modality-specific systems, the body and action, the social environment, and the physical environment. Thus, a question arises how internal processes of the human mind and external resources from the surrounding cultural environment may affect human cognition situated in the context of the social world and the physical environment. Since the monograph address the issue of continuity of language and culture, implying notions of cumulative cultural evolution and cumulative knowledge, we view culture as a cognitive system encompassing the community’s conceptual order such that the continuity of language may facilitate cultural transmission. Language is considered as one type of repository of cultural community’s cumulative knowledge gathered across generations. In a sense, language serves the purpose of collective memory bank (cf. Sharifian 2009). If language stores the cultural community’s conceptual order, its evolution should be correlated with cumulative cultural evolution (Tomasello 2014). The cumulative nature of changes in the way humans make sense of the world derives from ratchet-effect, which means accumulation of existing patterns in culture without the necessity to create culture from scratch by each new generation of language users (Hohol 2013, p. 329; Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsh 2000, p. 178; Tomasello 2014, p. 83).

Since, broadly speaking, human knowledge may have perceptual and linguistic origins (Boroditsky and Prinz 2008), in the later parts of the monograph we address the role of visual culture relative to the involvement of language as one source of conceptual knowledge. It will be argued language is not only a repository of community’s memory, but also that language can convey and store memorable images, being a repository of the community’s shared imagery. This means the necessity to tackle the question of the role of external resources in maintaining the cumulative cultural evolution.

Vigliocco, Perniss, and Vinson (2014) advocate the view that language should be seen as a multimodal phenomenon. The scholars observe that current theories and research into language have been based on the assumption that regarded language primarily as speech or text. This has resulted in the disregard for context and multimodal information channels such as co-speech gesture, ← 11 | 12 → and prosody, which, as will be shown to be the case with ironic utterances, might facilitate meaning construction (p. 1). This approach, clearly dovetails with the insights presented later in the monograph, including the fundamental claim that the human body itself is a vehicle for sense-making (cf. Hougaard and Hougaard 2009). We thus follow Vigliocco, Perniss, and Vinson (2014) in saying,

Perhaps the most compelling argument for pursuing a multimodal approach to language, including multiple concomitant channels of expression (i.e. gesture, prosody, facial expression and body movement), is that to understand language, the object of study needs to be brought into line with its predominant manifestation as a system of communication in face-to-face interaction. It is in this manifestation that language is learnt by children and it is in this form that it has evolved. (p. 4)

We concur with this proposal, emphasising the ephemeral nature of the “multiple concomitant channels of expression (i.e. gesture, prosody, facial expression and body movement)” (p. 4). As the scholars rightly observe, “[i]f the multimodal nature of language is recognized, then iconicity becomes visible across all languages as expressed in different channels” (p. 5). Face perception may thus be crucial, as shown in the McGurk effect, where “lip movements that are inconsistent with auditory speech can cause hearing errors” (Haxby, Hoffman, and Gobbini 2002, p. 63; cf. also MacDonald 2007). Furthermore, Vigliocco, Perniss, and Vinson (2014) review evidence from both signed and spoken languages indicating that “iconicity plays a role in language processing and development and that language processing obligatorily integrates information from context and visual channels of expression” (p. 3). For instance, the scholars report recent evidence concerning language processing,


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
human cognition visual culture cultural transmission
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Stadnik (Author)

Katarzyna Stadnik is a lecturer in the Department of Cultural Linguistics at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Her research interests include issues such as the role of language as an aid to cultural transmission, the sociocultural situatedness of the language user, and late medieval visual culture.


Title: Chaucer’s Choices