This project investigated the nexus of conceptions of household management and theories of imagination in the modeling of literary authorship in late-medieval and early modern British literature.


In particular, the project focused on late fourteenth- to early sixteenth-century British dream visions, which are privileged sites for the concomitant negotiation of poetological and epistemological questions. Dream visions have long been acknowledged to represent the protagonists’ journeys through the mental apparatus, that is, through the brain ventricles of imagination, logic, and memory, responsible for receiving, judging, evaluating, and storing information, respectively. Such journeys award the persona with glimpses of fundamental truths and the achievement of spiritual enlightenment; inter alia, the dream journey effects a harmonious relationship between and collaboration of the ventricles. The project studied in particular the way in which the respective ventricles are managed, that is, how discourses of actual household management are reflected in and transformed by dream visions. The cognitive (mis-)management of the ventricles, which are frequently depicted as households (temples, castles, churches), has hitherto received little critical attention, even though it is an important aspect of the making of literary authorship, especially regarding literary innovation. The modus operandi of early and high medieval dream visions is traditional household management based on classical (Aristotelian) conceptions of oikonomia. Late fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth-century British dream poetry, however, portrays the dissolution of oikonomia, insofar as the mental households are characterized by ‘economic’ strategies Aristotle sees as opposed to oikonomia, by chrematistikē. These poems respond to an actual economic shift, as traditional modes of household management cherished by the court (proportional reciprocity, stable allocations of value, moderation) increasingly came under pressure by the dynamics of the marketplace (monetary and relational valuations, increase, usury)—a shift that also raised questions vis-à-vis the place of the poet. Late medieval and early modern dream visions do not simply reflect this shift, though, but advances models of authorship and literary innovation derived from the mechanisms of the market/finance that are legitimated by means of a transformation of the underlying cognitive framework, thus affecting actual discourses of household management.

Source Material

The sketched research agenda was pursued chronologically, starting with Geoffrey Chaucer’s late fourteenth-century dream visions, esp. the House of Fame (Keller 2015b, 2016a) and the Legend of Good Women (Keller 2014a). Chaucer’s allegorical and poetological dream visions negotiate the place of the poet within courtly worlds that operate on the precepts of traditional household management, but offer merely the illusion of proportional reciprocity. The depicted mental households/ventricles are actually characterized by arbitrary valuations and usurious increase effecting literary innovation that is legitimated—by means of a positive valuation of a ‘usurious’ imagination that infiltrates the entire cognitive apparatus—as the mainstay of a Chaucerian poetics. Subsequent vernacular dream visions, most of which take Chaucerian dream poetry as a reference point, likewise negotiate the opposition of oikonomia and chrematistikē with a view to the place of poets poised between courtly and commercial worlds. At a first glance, subsequent dream visions seem to impose harmony onto Chaucer’s cacophonous mental economies. For example, John Lydgate’s early fifteenth-century the Temple of Glass (c. 1420s) excessively emphasizes harmony, reciprocity, and moderation, eventually reinforcing the usurious replication of (products of the) imagination, while clipping completely the ventricle of memory. A circular movement ensues, in which the products of the imagination endlessly fall back on themselves, without ever being allocated any stable values and meaning (Keller 2015a). A similar self-mirroring of the imagination occurs also in Gavin Douglas’s early sixteenth-century Palice of Honour. This Scottish dream vision likewise emphasizes harmony and represents courtly worlds, which operate on (the illusion of) proportional reciprocity. The poet, however, is excluded from systems of reciprocity, living in a world of usurious imaginative increase, in which allegorical dream poetry and its representation of ventricular households itself becomes a matter of infinite regress, marking the end of a House of Fame tradition and calling into question the efficacy of either oikonomia or chrematistikē as viable models for figuring literary authorship in a world increasingly driven by the marketplace (Keller 2015c, 2017, 2017a).

Talks and presentations at international conferences
Keller, Wolfram R. (2017a).  “Mental Household Management: The Economics of the Imagination in Late Medieval English Dream Visions.”  Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, King’s College London, 21 Mar 2017, London, UK
Keller, Wolfram R. (2015c).  “Medievalizing the Oikos: Mental Household Management in The Kingis Quair and the Palice of Honour.”  To speik off science, craft or sapience: Knowledge and Temporalitiy in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland. SFB Episteme in Bewegung, 3./4 . September 2015, Berlin, Germany
Keller, Wolfram R. (2015b).  “Eingebildetes Wissen: Antike Imaginationstheorie im Spannungsfeld von Haushalt und Kommerz.”  Vom Wert und Erwerb der Bildung: Humanistische Ökonomien des Wissens. Romanistentag, 26-29 July 2015, Mannheim, Germany (read in absentia)
Keller, Wolfram R. (2015a).  “Re-Medievalizing Dreams: The Economics of Imagination in Post-Chaucerian Dream Visions.”  Renaissance Society of America, Annual Conference, 26-28 Mar. 2015, Berlin, Germany.