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  • Unlocked Doors:Geoffrey Chaucer's Writing-Rooms and Elizabeth Chaucer's Nunnery
  • Marion Turner

In a room of one's own, Virginia Woolf asserts that "a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself" as part of her powerful argument that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."1 Literal physical separation from others is connected with mental independence. Demonstrating a similar understanding of the parallels between the self and the room, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that "container" metaphors are ontological. They write that people are "bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skin" and that "Rooms and houses are obvious containers. Moving from room to room is moving from one container to another."2 But all of these twentieth-century authors make certain assumptions both about the material conditions in which people live and about how personal space, privacy, and indeed the body and mind themselves are conceptualized. Our skin does not actually separate us from the world; through its openings and through our senses it connects us with the world.3 People do not always live in rooms and houses, and if they do, those rooms are sometimes not private spaces or are divided from other spaces by curtains rather than locks. The metaphors we live by are not the same in all places or times. As Matthew Boyd Goldie writes in his introduction to this essay cluster, "in other times and places, space itself can be different."4 An exploration of the rooms that [End Page 423] Chaucer imagined and of the structures his daughter inhabited illustrates the openness and flexibility of the spaces of later medieval London.

Issues relating to privacy came under particular pressure at precisely the time that Chaucer lived and wrote. Architectural and lifestyle changes across the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries point to increased interest in private and semi-private spaces; at the same time comments about these changes reveal widespread anxiety.5 Woolf quotes James Austen-Leigh's comment that Jane Austen's achievements were particularly surprising, for "she had no separate study to repair to" and instead had to write in the general sitting room.6 But Austen-Leigh and Woolf's implication—that spatial privacy is a vital condition for creative freedom—is historically contingent. Post-Enlightenment understandings of creativity, originality, and genius are very different from earlier ideas about authorship and the process of poetic making. In the later fourteenth century, the privacy afforded by a study was not necessarily seen as desirable or creatively productive. Chaucer, in fact, is particularly interested in porous, open, interconnected images of the self.7 Investigating various London spaces encourages an understanding of rooms and institutions that were at once semi-public and semi-private, threshold spaces that eschewed both complete openness and locked-in privacy. Such spaces were somewhat similar to the Italian loggia or portico in the later medieval period, "structures intermediate between domestic and public space."8 In this short essay, I will explore later medieval London living by looking both at some scenes of reading and writing from [End Page 424] Chaucer's poems and at some of the London spaces that Chaucer knew, especially the rooms that his daughter Elizabeth inhabited between 1377 and 1381.

A Room of One's Own

When Chaucer returned to London in 1374 to take up his job at the customs house, he returned to a building site. As London recovered after the second wave of the plague in the late 1360s, it entered into a period of redevelopment. In particular, people were building up, adding stories to their houses to increase and vary their living space, and thus adding to the crowded feeling of London's narrow streets.9 The interiors of these houses meanwhile offered more opportunities for demarcating space and for private or semi-private chambers, part of a general trend toward living in less communal or public ways: a trend that continued to develop in the fifteenth century.10 Urban dwellers, such as merchants, were increasingly interested in domesticity and interior design; they bought cushions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 423-434
Launched on MUSE
2018-12-22
Open Access
No
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