Jenifer Sutherland


Alan of Lille

Parl. of Fowls




Macrobrius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio

Paula Budhlall

Macrobius is a Latin writer and philosopher who flourished at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century. He belongs to a small but important group of polymaths and encyclopedists who attempted to epitomize and present in accessible form the classical liberal arts and classical philosophy (Stahl, 9). He was considered an authority on the interpretation of dreams and cosmology, and is best know for his Saturnalia, a dialogue in seven books, which include the Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. Macrobius appended to his Commentary the text of Scipio’s Dream and is generally credited for keeping alive this dream in its entirety. At the end of this presentation we will learn of Macrobius’ contribution to dream theory, some important aspects of Scipio’s dream and the relevance of Macrobius’ work to our discussion on Chaucer’s House of Fame.<to top>

Macrobius’ Commentary was indeed considered one of the leading dream books of the middle ages, and was popular for its extensive interrogation of philosophy and other moral and doctrinal issues found in medieval literature such as the classification of dreams, the steps by which the soul descends from its celestial origin to human bodies, and the motion and order of the celestial and planetary spheres (Stahl, 40). In book three of his Commentary Macrobius distinguishes five different types of dreams: the enigmatic dream (somnium), the prophetic vision (visio), the oracular dream (oraculum), the nightmare (insomnium), and the apparition (visum) (Stahl, 88). The first three (somnium, visio and oraculum) were of prophetic significance, while the nightmares and the apparitions were fragmented, disconnected and formed as a result of indigestion or the anxieties of the day. Macrobius believes that the apparition comes upon one in the moment between wakefulness and slumber, in what he calls the "first cloud of sleep," while the nightmare is deceitful and false and sent by "departed spirits of the sky" (Stahl, 89).

Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio is based on his interpretation of the closing portion of the sixth book of Cicero’s De republica (Stahl, 69). In Scipio’s dream, his grandfather Scipio Africanus is his guide through the celestial spheres. He shows Macrobius the earth that "appeared to be a small fixed point at the bottom of universe around which a series of nine concentric circle or spheres revolve, with the outermost, the celestial sphere, … confining and containing all the other spheres" (Stahl, 73). In Macrobius’ Commentary we find statements about a spherical earth situated in the exact center of the universe, encircled by the seven planetary spheres, which rotate from west to east, and by the celestial sphere, which rotate from east to west (Stahl, 17).<to top>

Some critics may understandably question Chaucer’s referencing in his poetry, since in the House of Fame Macrobius is the author of The Dream of Scipio, but in the Parliament of Fowls, Cicero is the acknowledged author of the Dream. However, the many images and references to Macrobius in The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Book of the Duchess is undeniable. Chaucer’s House of Fame begins as Cicero’s Dream – after a long journey – and like Macrobius, the dreamer begins his dream with a classification of dreams. Scipio’s grandfather encourages him to fix his "attention on the heavens and contemn what is mortal," also he cautions him not to "expect any fame from men," for he is small compared to the portion allotted to him" (Stahl, 74). Likewise, Macrobius argues in the Commentary that the "purpose of the dream is to teach us that the souls of those who serve well are returned to the heavens after death and there enjoy everlasting blessedness" (Stahl, 92).

Macrobius therefore uses The Dream of Scipio as the touchstone, to expand on his belief that the "most effective way of instilling in man a desire to lead an upright, law-abiding life is by revealing to him the habitation and rewards of departed souls" (Stahl,13). While Macrobius should be given credit for his classification of dreams in chapter 3 of his book, V. H. Hopper argues that he is only using Cicero’s work as an excuse for introducing lengthy discussions in various fields of learning and science (Stahl, 95). <to top>

Even if this is so, we cannot deny that the underlying purpose of Macrobius’ Commentary was to reinforce the belief of Plato and Cicero that there is life beyond the grave. In Scipio’s dream, Scipio with the help of his grandfather was able to see the insignificance of Rome in relation to the universe, and the smallness of a name in relation to the globe. Likewise, Chaucer builds on the basic concepts of Macrobius’ work by including in his dream poetry social/moral allegory and references to contemporary political events unfolding at that time. Thus at a realistic level, The House of Fame is a revisiting of the struggles between English parliamentarians and royalist forces. In this way, the rewards from men seem arbitrary, and the House of Fame is inconsequential since regardless of their accomplishments and nobility men are rewarded not according to their deeds, but in an arbitrary haphazard manner.

Works cited:
Benson, D. Larry (editor). Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987.
Stahl, William, Macrobius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. London: Columbia University Press, 1952.

Macrobius I Alan of Lille I Parliament of Fowles

Alan of Lille: The Plaint of Nature

by Aaron Kimberley

Alain of Lille, or Alanus de Insulus, was a twelfth century French poet and Catholic monk. Lille’s success and impact on history, sadly, can be considered largely an accident and should not be understood to reflect his talents as writer or theologian. Importantly, he was writing at a time in history when Scholasticism flourished, and appeared as an increasing threat to more traditional Catholic belief. And so, Lille’s significance is partially as a not particularly insightful Aristotelian, on the backdrop of the Aristotelian revolution fomenting and about to occur around him.

The purpose, however, of Alain’s De planctu Naturae, is not particularly relevant to its impact. Its significance is certainly not merely as poetry, as poetical criticism has not, in general, been at all kind to Alain. Douglas M. Moffat, in his definitive translation and commentary on the Planctu, describes the poem as "a multitude of words, fluttering over an embarrassing paucity of ideas" (Moffat 2). The intent of the poem is, essentially, to impress the rational basis for the medieval Catholic ideal of love. Alain accomplishes this by illustrating the state of love in grammatical terms. He seems to view grammatical law as akin to natural law and somehow basic to natural understanding of the world. And so he admonishes his reader to look down scornfully on the fact of "subject becoming predicate" and, by implication, man becoming, sexually, woman.
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But this premise, once again, is simply not relevant to Alain’s and the Planctu’s major historical impact. Rather, Lille gains his notoriety from a mere two lines of text, in the authoring of which he had no part. Those lines were authored, rather, two centuries later by Geoffrey Chaucer. In Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Lines 316 and 317 read

And right as Alain, in his Plaint of Kind
Deviseth Nature of such array and face

De planctu Naturae becomes "Plaint of Kind" in Chaucer’s translation. What Chaucer is referring to in "Nature" is the goddess figure around whom Alain’s poem is formed. Alain, like Chaucer, was familiar with the work of Boethius. And so, the Nature goddess who serves to provide the titular plaint/complaint in the work is very much an imitation of the Boethian figure. Beyond Chaucer’s direct reference to the Planctu and the two authors’ sharing of interest in Boethius’ work, the most obvious correlation is in the title of Chaucer’s work itself.

A "Parliament of Foules" is the phenomenon which occupies much of Alain’s writing in the Planctu. When the narrator comes upon the person of "Dame Nature," he is struck by the appearance of her robes:"A garment, woven from silky wool and covered with many colors, was as the virgin's robe of state. Its appearance perpetually changed with many a different color and manifold hue" (11). Most importantly, however he finds "a parliament of of the living creation" and "there, the eagle, first assuming youth, then age, and finally returning to the first, changed from Nestor to Adonis" (11). What follows is the description of a vast array of birds, both real and mythical. The hawk, kite, falcon, heron, ostrich, swan, phoenix" and many others make an appearance, going about their natural business, generally somewhat less metaphorically than did the eagle, but often with hints of anthropomorphism.
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Dante is also known to have read the Planctu, though what degree of influence it might have had on him is not as clear as it is in the case of Chaucer. Chaucer’s poem derives both its title and them from Alain’s work, but Chaucer’s poetry is all his own and Alain’s "embarrassing paucity of ideas" is turned to comic wit.


Alain of Lille. The Complaint of Nature. Trans. Douglas M. Moffat. Hamden: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1972.
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Dr. Sutherland responds (with Aaron's permission):

Aaron has given a very strong, forthright account of a strange work that has no has ever really known what to make of. Certainly I'd rather read Chaucer's Parliament with its "comic wit." There are, however, some points I would like to address. In itself, I think Aaron is quite right to find Alan of Lille's Plaint of Nature rather unimportant, especially since the translator of the edition he consulted seems not to have put Alan in any meaningful context. He's generally considered a neoplatonist of the school of Chartres, for example, not an Aristotelian (beware websites spouting disinformation!). The Plaint is influenced by Plato's Timeus.

As for Alan’s bizarre grammatical argument against homosexuality (or more specifically, sodomy), no wonder Aaron found this stuff weird--it certainly is. I'm not sure that you can say this represents a rationalization of the Catholic ideal of love, or even sex, though. It's just peculiar. Language, and specifically Latin, is, however, solidly linked to God's order in the Middle Ages. We will take a look at this connection in the Romance of the Rose next week. We will also have occasion to consider the way the Chaucer saw the relationship between sex, gender and language in The Canterbury Tales next term.
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Personally, I find contrast not similarity in Alan’s Nature and Boethius’s Philosophy. Look at their gowns—they’re entirely different. Philosophy's is torn and smokey, with the symbols for theory and practice on it. Philosophy's is shimmering and lovely and presents all of the creatures of creation. Philosophy is a nurse and wise woman who leads the prisoner into an understanding of providence and a resignation to death. Nature is the one who is crying in the Plaint! Moreover, she is described by Alan as being sexual rather than aloof: "In her body lay hidden a more blissful aspect to which her face showed the introduction" (Sheridan, p. 75), to quote a milder bit.

Certainly the work is pedantic, most would agree about that. And maybe it does have few ideas. Still, the ideas it contains are part of an influential movement in the history of Western thought. The figure of Nature is extremely important in the twelfth century and beyond. As I said in lecture, it provides an alternative to the contemptus mundi tradition which rejects the physical world and its functions as repulsive and at odds with God’s divinity. Alan’s Nature is a figure of plenitude and order that works with God. The long echphrasis on her gown—in my translation by James J. Sheridan it takes up pp. 85-105—portrays all the animal life of air, earth, and water, naming the creatures and their characteristics as part of the natural order. God sets Nature up to take care of the lower world and lets her have a free hand. This is an important shift in Christian thinking.
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The main problem in the Menippean Satire De Planctu is that Nature gives up her post! Literary critics have been most annoyed by this. In the very influential study by M.D. Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, Chenu’s index entry for Alain is a column long. He’s an important conduit of Neoplatonic thought in the Middle Ages, as well.

Of the revolution in the history of ideas of which Alain of Lille was part, Chenu writes:

the concept of nature acquired an unprecedented sophistication, and the direction even of men’s religious curiosity shifted. It was no longer the extravagant occurences that interested them, those marvels which entranced their forebears and rapt them into a world all the more real in their eyes for its very capriciousness. On the contrary, they were interested in regular and determinate sequences, especially in the area of vital activity. Nature existed—and one must take care to spell the word with a capital letter, for Nature became personified and as such, by a fashionable literary fiction of the time, became a goddess. But the fiction in this case had real philosopical worth. . . Alan developed this alegory in the pedantic imagery of his De planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), the reputation of which would survive the flood tide of Aristotelianism as it would the advance of poetry in the centuries ahead. Its reputation would survive because his literary conceits did not date or render obsolete the genuine comprehension for which they served as vehicle—that wonderment experienced by minds which, as they raised their eyes from the marvels of their bestiaries and lapidaries and moved out of the social and intellectual immaturity of serfdom, discovered life’s ordered energies, its instincts, its laws and freedom, the rhythmic movement of the seasons and the recurrent life-cycles of loving beings:

O Child of God and Mother of things,
Bond of the world, its firm-tied knot,
Jewel set among things of eath, and
mirror to all that passes away,
Morning star of our sphere;

Peace, love, power, regimen and strength,
Order, law, end, pathway, captain and source,
Life, light, glory, beauty and shape,
O Rule of our world.

from Chenu, M.-D. Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1997, pp 18-19

Alan of Lille: The Plaint of Nature. Mediaeval Sources in Translation. James J. Sheridan ed. Vol. 26. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980. <to top>

Macrobius I Alan of Lille I Parliament of Fowles

The Parliament of Fowls and the Marriage of Richard II

by Cher Li

The Parliament of Fowls is an occasional poem whose subject is the marriage negotiations that took place between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. Chaucer’s poem was written to coincide with the beginning of the discussions in 1380, and several figures and incidents in The Parliament of Fowls have direct analogues to the political drama then unfolding. It is therefore useful to possess a brief history of these events in order to arrive at a fuller appreciation of Chaucer’s charming verse narrative.

Richard II was born in 1367 to Edward the Black Prince, then the heir to the English throne. Upon Edward’s death in 1376, the young Richard was named the Prince of Wales. Richard’s quick rise in status continued in 1377 with the death of his grandfather Edward III, an event that transformed the young boy into the King of England. Almost immediately after his ascension to the throne, efforts were made to find Richard a suitably illustrious bride. Chaucer himself was a member of the diplomatic party that attempted to unite Richard and the Princess Marie of France in matrimony. Unfortunately, Marie died in 1378 and Chaucer’s efforts came to naught. <to top>

The next candidate to be advanced was a young noblewoman named Caterina, daughter of the extremely wealthy Lord Bernabo Visconti of Milan. Caterina’s allure lay mainly in her reputed intelligence and wit, as well as the enormous dowry that her father dangled before her various suitors. With the aim of securing that glittering prize, an English embassy (of whom Chaucer was a member) was dispatched to Milan in 1378. Yet, before negotiations could be seriously undertaken, the political climate in Europe suffered a drastic change. In a dispute which has come to be known as the Great Schism, the various nations of Europe were divided over the issue of the papal succession. Not surprisingly, the French lords were convinced that the ideal candidate for the role was Pope Clement in Avignon. The English nobility and the Holy Roman Emperor Wenzel, however, believed that Pope Urban in Rome was the proper man for the position. In light of the developing political tensions, the English were soon of the opinion that a marriage between Richard and Wenzel’s relation Anne of Bohemia would far outweigh in diplomatic value the merely financial benefits of a match with Caterina. <to top>

Upon this realization, the formerly Milan-bound embassy quickly switched courses to Germany. There were, however, certain obstacles to the finalization of a marriage contract between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. First and foremost, Anne was already engaged to a minor German prince, Friedrich of Meissen. As well, there was significant additional competition for Anne in the form of the future Charles VI of France. In desperation to secure this politically advantageous match (Anne was related to virtually all European nobility of note), the English made the unprecedented offer of a dowry to Wenzel for the woman’s hand in marriage. The 20,000 florins as well as an extra loan of 60,000 florins had the expected effect, and Richard II and Anne of Bohemia were joined in holy matrimony in January 1382. The marriage seems to have been genuinely happy, and all available evidence suggests that both partners were sexually faithful to one another for the duration of their union. Sadly, their wedded bliss came to an end in 1394 when Anne succumbed to the plague. Richard himself came to a grisly end in 1400 when he was first deposed as king, and then starved to death as the first casualty of the attractively named dynastic squabble the War of the Roses.

As a conclusion to this brief summary of the immediate historical context of The Parliament of Fowls, it will perhaps be useful to list clearly the various connections between figures and events of the poem and their real-life counterparts. The much-desired formel eagle of the piece is obviously Anne of Bohemia. The royal tercel eagle who is held to be the formel’s most gallant and desirable suitor is Chaucer’s employer and King, Richard II. The humblest tercel eagle (whose main distinction in the marriage sweepstakes is the length of his attachment) is the minor prince Friedrich of Meissen, Anne’s unfortunate discarded fiancée. The third tercel (the newest fowl to make a bid for the formel’s talon in marriage) is Charles VI, who was in fact the last to join the negotiations concerning Anne.


1) Benson, Larry D. "The Occasion of the Parliament of Fowls." In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in honor of Morton Bloomfield. Edited by Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel. Kalmazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982, pp. 123-44.

2) Eckfort, Teresa. "Romantic Couples in History: Richard II and Anne of Bohemia." 8 October 2002. <>

3) Bartholme, Ed. "Richard II." The Encyclopaedia of Chivalry. 8 October 2002. <>
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Macrobius I Alan of Lille I Parliament of Fowles