While in college, I did a fascinating research project that has never been published. It’s A Reading of the Parlement of Foules—one of Chaucer’s early dream poems (The Parliament of the Fowls). It taught me many things. I introduced you to Augustine of Hippo from that poem, a few entries back. He “shoved” the dreaming Chaucer into “the Garden.” We planned to return to the Garden, and here we are.
Chaucer says he can see birds and rabbits and squirrels and other animals. There are trees of various kinds with leaves always fresh and green. The air is never too hot or too cold and no one there grows sick or old. What a fabulous changeless scene! One might visualize the “vitality of a garden captured in stone.”
We would not be the first to have such a vision. Emile Mâle, an art historian of the Middle Ages, said “the medieval artist wove a garland of all living things -- plants, animals, beautiful creatures grew under his fingers. . . .Through them the cathedral became a living thing, a gigantic tree full of birds and flowers, less like a work of man than of nature.”
And Goethe, in 1775, said medieval craftsmen captured “vitality in stone and glass and iron in constructing a cathedral—a most sublime wide-arching Tree of God, with a thousand boughs, a million twigs.” If you can picture the cathedral this way, you are in good company.
Where would we find such a garden with an abiding presence of Augustine—in a medieval cathedral? The most prominent cathedral in Chaucer’s day was Notre Dame of Paris, not only because of the magnificence of its structure, but, what is more important, because of its authority. The school of Notre Dame de Paris was the second oldest University in Europe. Vast numbers of popes, intellectuals and royalty were educated there. It was particularly recognized for theology and philosophy. Notre Dame was the most authoritative voice in Paris. And Paris was the most authoritative voice in the Church. Augustine would feel quite at home there, I’m sure.
As I read Chaucer’s lines, he seemed to say that “the Garden” (the cathedral) was on an island! “Odd,” I thought.
A gardyn saw I, ful of blosmy bowes,
Upon a river, in a grene mede,
Not until some time later, when I found an extended view of Notre Dame in Paris, did I see that it is, indeed, on an island in the Seine!