Chaucer and the Internet: Revisiting the House of Fame

internet—“a network of networks” (Wikipedia)

“network: anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections” (Dr. Johnson; johnsonsdictionaryonline.com)

Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as an innovator who made the first translation of one of his contemporary Petrarch’s sonnets into English, and who may have initiated the now-universal association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love.  He may also, in his poetic dream vision The House of Fame, have given us a premonition of the staggering power and potential for misuse of the modern-day internet.  The narrator/protagonist of this poem, named Geoffrey, is taken to visit the goddess Fame by a giant eagle.  Her palace, which he visits first, is impressive but disappointing, as Geoffrey fails to find what he seeks there.  In the final 250 lines of the poem, he is taken to a nearby structure, which critics at least as far back as George Lyman Kittredge[i] have referred to as the House of Rumor. This is the section of the poem that forecasts the internet as we know it today.

Standard Symbol for the Internet and World Wide Web.

The eagle chides Geoffrey on their first meeting for his introverted habit of coming home every night to spend the evening like a hermit (or scholar during pandemic lockdown) with his books. What Geoffrey needs, and what the eagle has been sent by Jupiter to help him acquire, are “tidings” of what is happening in the world outside. The Middle English word “tidinges” is glossed as “news” in the Norton Chaucer.[ii]  The University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary [iii] suggests a variety of other meanings, including “report,” “information” (both specific and general), “message,” “announcement,” “gossip,” and “rumor.”  All of these taken together seem to sum up the variety of things that people today search for on the internet.

The eagle tells Geoffrey that the House of Fame is located at a point equidistant from earth, sky, and sea, so that any spoken word from any of these locations must travel there. In the grand palace of Fame herself, however, Geoffrey does not find any of the “tidings” he seeks. He is then guided to another nearby structure, the so-called House of Rumor. Geoffrey labels it a “house,” and compares it to the labyrinth built by Daedalus in Greco-Roman mythology, but the term “House of Rumor” is never used in the poem. Critics have identified Chaucer’s source for this image with the house of fame described by Ovid in the 12th book of his Metamorphoses; although Ovid does say that thousands of rumors can be found there (“milia rumorum,” line 12:55), the goddess he places in charge is Fama (Fame), not Rumor.[iv]

 The structure itself is sixty miles long, made of twigs.  The twigs are woven together in a way that suggests baskets or cages to the narrator, and he notices thousands of holes throughout the weave. This presumably circular structure, formed of interlocking strands, is eerily like the visual depictions of the internet that are produced when it is imagined as a visible structure. The very name “internet” suggests such an interlocking construction to the mind. Today, we picture the strands in diagrams of the internet as the pathways along which our information travels, but for Chaucer, it is the holes in between the twigs that allow tidings to escape.

‘The House of Rumor’ as depicted by Edward Burne-Jones in The Kelmscott Chaucer, designed by
William Morris, 1896. Image acquired from ARTSTOR.

The entire structure of this house is constantly spinning, so fast that Geoffrey is unable to enter without the eagle’s assistance, and a loud noise issues from it. The noise the house makes as it spins is described first as resembling the sound of a stone flying from a catapult or that of a strong wind, but from inside come other sounds that Chaucer calls “gigges” and “chirkinges” (lines 1942-43), which Eleanor Parker in “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World” links to “tweets” and “Twitter”—after all, the entire house has already been compared to a bird cage.[v]  The twittering sounds are presumably made by the tidings themselves, which Chaucer does seem to imagine like birds in a cage.  In all, we are presented with a bewildering sense of speed and power associated with the house, coupled with the impression that the tidings, while they may be small, have a life and energy all their own.

The only way for Geoffrey to enter the structure is with the help of the eagle, who acts like a modern search engine. When he drops Geoffrey through a window, the structure stops spinning for a moment and allows his entrance. Inside, Geoffrey finds “tidings” of every sort—news about war and peace, work and leisure, life and death, loss and gain, and even about such things as weather and the prices of goods. All the tidings are being shared from person to person among a great crowd of figures that fills the space; Geoffrey had been told earlier by the eagle that these are embodied figures representing the people who first spoke the tidings down on earth. Like a game of “telephone,” the tidings are passed from ear to ear, growing with each repetition, until when each tiding reaches its full size, it flies through a window to spread itself freely—essentially “going viral.” 

Some of the tidings Geoffrey observes are true, and some are false. Both are being spread with equal enthusiasm. We are not told how Geoffrey is able to tell the difference, but within the dream vision, it is apparently obvious. He also notices that, as they try to escape through the spaces between the twigs, sometimes two tidings will become stuck as they squeeze through the same hole, so that he sees many instances in which a true tiding and a false tiding become stuck together and intermingled so that no one henceforth will be able to separate them again. All of this seems to be a very prescient depiction of the way that information both true and false is spread on today’s internet with incredible speed, growing and changing as it is repeated so that it is very difficult to tell whether much of it is true, false, or a blend of both.

Living and working in London as he does, Geoffrey would already be positioned to hear most of the tidings spreading through his world.  The intervention of Jupiter and his giant eagle seems unnecessary just to bring Geoffrey news, and in fact he never gains any concrete tidings within the confines of the poem. The true gift that he is being given may be this, even temporary, ability to discern the difference between true and false tidings, which those who encounter the tidings after they escape the House of Rumor clearly cannot do. Nor, unfortunately, can many users of the internet in our own day.

Chaucer’s poem, which he left unfinished, does not manage to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.  As Geoffrey is walking around listening for tidings, his attention is drawn by a loud noise in the corner where love tidings are shared. Everyone in the structure rushes to this corner, pushing and straining to hear some important announcement. In the last lines of the poem as we have it, a figure appears that Geoffrey says he cannot identify, except that “he seemed for to be/ A man of gret auctoritee” (“great authority,” lines 2157-58). As soon as a “great authority” appears, someone whose word seems to represent true and reliable information, the entire structure of the House of Rumor apparently collapses—or at least, Chaucer has no more to say about it. For hundreds of years, readers have debated Chaucer’s intended identity of this “great authority.” Users of today’s internet likewise seem unable to identify yet still seek an authoritative source of information that would have the power to quell rumor and uncertainty. If our culture could find such a universally recognized source as an alternative to our current twittering, buzzing, rumor-laden communications, many of our cultural conflicts might even vanish, like a dream in a dream vision poem.

Angela Fulk, Ph.D.
Dept. of English
SUNY Buffalo State


[i] Kittredge, George Lyman. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard UP, 1915.

[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Norton Chaucer. Edited by David Lyman. Norton, 2019. All quotations from Chaucer are taken from this edition.

[iii] Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/>. Accessed 05 May 2021.

[iv] Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Latin Library. thelatinlibrary.com. Accessed 6 May 2021.

[v] Parker, Eleanor. “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World.” History Today. historytoday.com/out-margins/chaucers-post-truth-world. Accessed 6 May 2021.

Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

Internet Trolls: Monsters Haunting the World Wide Web

Wendy and Brian Froud, book cover of ‘Trolls’ (2012).

In continuing our previous conversation surrounding the semantics of trǫll in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, and the evolution of the term in modern English, we turn our attention to contemporary applications of the term, particularly in the context of internet trolls and trolling. The concept of  internet trolls builds on the image of a goblin or a giant stalking and skulking about in the dark and the implication that these people are perhaps ugly. This produces a harmful stereotype of “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as Donald Trump remarked in a 2016 debate, in a diversionary (and rather ironic) attempt to draw attention away from evidence of Russian meddling in his favor during the most recent U.S. presidential election.

Harry Potter (Daniel Jacob Radcliffe) holding his invisibility cloak in Chris Columbus’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

However, the reality is that the online shield of anonymity operates as a cloak of invisibility, not unlike the invisibility cloak worn by Harry Potter as he explores Hogwarts castle at night or the tarnkappe “cloak of concealment” that Sîfrit [Siegfried] receives from a dwarf named Alberich in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Online anonymity often renders one’s physical fitness either irrelevant or artificial anyway, while at the same time it protects the identities of nefarious actors, thereby allowing them to troll the internet unseen or in disguise. Indeed, the ugliness of internet trolls has everything to do with their emotionally pathetic behavior characterized by cowardly hatred and blind rage.

BrittMartin, ‘Internet Troll’ (2014 – 2020).

Considering this semantic range, a trǫll is not much more specific than the general concept of a “monster” that encompasses everything from sorcerers to goblins and giants to dragons. As we have seen, the medieval tradition bears out the vagueness of this term as a category of being. While the giant-trǫll may be one of the most common applications of the term in saga literature, modern representations of trolls suggest far more uniformity than evidence from medieval literature demonstrates.

However, even the modern sense of troll retains some flexibility, for in addition to the giant-trǫll, much smaller goblin-like representations of trolls (manifesting in the modern troll doll phenomenon) also features prominently in modern medievalism from early modern fairy tales, like those in the Grimm brothers‘ and Hans Christian Andersen‘s collections, to contemporary fantasy literature and film.

Allen Douglas, ‘The Brothers Gruff’ (2020).

If a troll is principally a monster lurking in the shadows, then the contemporary use of the term to describe a form of cyber-bullying is especially apt. Not everyone agrees on the precise definition of a modern internet troll, and it seems that—in this sense—the semantic ambiguity of the word endures. For some a troll is specifically someone interested in online agitation for the purposes of entertainment, for others a troll is essentially comparable to a cyber-bully and internet stalker. As with some of their medieval counterparts, internet trolls may hunt in packs or prowl alone, though they no longer hide under bridges and caves but instead lurk in the recesses of the world wide web.

The monstrous vitriol, stalking and harassment in which internet trolls engage is notorious, especially on social media platforms such as Twitter, and has furthered cultural trends in discourse toward antagonism rather than cooperation, leading Melania Trump to launch a campaign as first lady against cyber-bullying and online harassment, in other words against the internet trolls.

Alexander Pavlov, ‘Internet Troll Sitting at the Computer’ Vector Illustrations (2003-2020).

Internet trolls have developed a terrible reputation as being a cowardly group of angry individuals. Bernie Sanders, despite unequivocally disavowing any internet trolls among the ranks of his supporters and calling for a government of compassion and justice, suffered from a lasting stereotype of the “Bernie-bro” during both his presidential campaigns, which characterized his grassroots movement as an army of internet trolls, primarily comprised of angry white men terrorizing Twitter. Although a recent Harvard study revealed that the “Bernie-bro” narrative was a myth and suggested that political trolling occurred by supporters of every Democratic candidate at similar rates, this caricature proved impossible for Sanders to shake as a result of the public disdain for internet trolls.

Steve Sack, ‘Troll Trouble’ Star Tribune (2020).

This Harvard study, however, highlighted a different but related issue—namely how ubiquitous trolling has become and the damage it has wrought upon ethical discussion and political conversations in this country regardless of which candidate one supports or with which party one affiliates.

Although Joe Biden does not have the same online presence as Sanders, and has promised to restore decency, he nevertheless embodied the trollish spirit of combativeness, which permeates social media discourse, in his everyday interactions with voters on the campaign trail. Biden repeatedly told those who disagree with him that they should vote for someone else, and at times getting into near physical altercations with Americans who challenged him on his record and policies. Despite both Democratic candidates’ feisty reputations (or in Sanders’ case the reputation of his supporters), both Bernie and Biden were notably amicable and referred to each other frequently and intentionally as friends during the primary. Sanders‘ recent endorsement of Joe Biden for president as the Democratic nominee then comes as no surprise and underscores a shared sense of party unity with the goal of winning back the White House.

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden hug at February’s debate, Getty Images (2020).

When responding to charges of a “Bernie-bro” culture among his supporters, Sanders has wondered if again, as in 2016, Russian media (especially bots and trolls) might be targeting his campaign, though this claim has been contested. Sanders also noted that in fact some of the most vicious trolling has been aimed at his surrogates and supporters of his campaign and progressive agenda, especially women of color, including his campaign co-chair Nina Turner, and the freshmen congresswomen known as “the squad” three of whom have endorsed Sanders, namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. In making this point, Sanders shifted the spotlight onto some of the most marginalized voices in our government who face some of the most vile and threatening trolls haunting the internet.

US Representatives Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a press conference on July 15, 2019 to address remarks President Donald Trump Twitter attacks on them. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (2019).

In our own field of medieval studies, we have observed a similar phenomenon. Medievalists of color, including junior scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm, Adam Miyashiro, Sierra Lomuto, Seeta Chaganti and others, have become the target of alt-right trolls as a result of their speaking up against white nationalist appropriations of medieval history, literature and culture and raising the issue of racism within the field itself (and not without resistance). Professional internet trolls, like Milo Yiannopoulos, have pursued ad hominem attacks on some of these scholars in the guise of pseudo-academic arguments, and the internet troll forces involved with the alt-right movement have taken up his call to arms against our colleagues of color in the name of white supremacy, masquerading as nationalism (but centered on issues of ethnocentrism and notions of cultural homogeneity). The threat from modern trolls is indeed as serious as encountering a monstrous trǫll in an Old Norse-Icelandic saga.

Ashva, ‘Ugly Internet Troll’ Vector Illustrations (2003-2020).

Many have argued that Donald Trump is a cyber-bullying wizard, and his supporters notoriously seem to follow his lead. This characterization marks the president as essentially the mesta trǫllgreatest troll” capable of dragon-scale destruction via the internet, which renders his wife’s campaign against online harassment profoundly paradoxical. Moreover, whether it’s demonizing undocumented immigrants, insulting the squad, or attempting to rebrand covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” rather than simply calling it the novel coronavirus, the president is infamous for his straightforwardly offensive, racially loaded and politically incorrect tweets, which inflame racial tensions and partisanship. Trump’s relentless trolling of Climate Change activist Greta Thunberg is perhaps his most opprobrious internet feud, surpassing even his decade-long spat with Rosie O’Donnell

Steve Sack, ‘Feeding the Trolls’ (2019).

While it only takes one brief glance at Trump’s Twitter account to recognize his ferocity, dedication and skill in trolling his political opponents, it is important to recognize that he also receives his fair share of troll-attacks. Perhaps as a result of observing Trump’s effective trolling, Democrats and those criticizing the president have resorted to similar tactics, and have been praised for it, especially when Trump’s statements are trafficking in bigotry or misinformation. Indeed, if the Democratic nominee means to best Trump in the general election, and thereby defeat the greatest troll, as it were, it will certainly require strength of character and no small amount of courage.

Photo by Sofya Levina. Images by Drew Angerer/Getty Images (2016).

Perhaps the most infamous subcategory of internet troll, which has come under intense scrutiny as a result of their involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, is the Russian troll. The involvement of Russian trolls (and bots) has received a share of credit for Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hilary Clinton, and the president’s critics have alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which resulted in a special investigation by Robert Mueller centered on whether there was a conspiracy (with Russia) or obstruction of justice on the part of the administration. This produced the famous Mueller Report that indicted 13 Russian nationals linked to tampering with the U.S. election. This Russian strategic operation was organized by the Internet Research Agency, which CNN describes as “a Kremlin-linked Russian troll group, [which] set up a vast network of fake American activist groups and used the stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the U.S. political system.”

Jeffrey Koterba, Omaha World-Herald ‘Russian Trolls’ (2018).

Now in 2020, the U.S. again finds itself in yet another battle against Russian trolls and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Russian trolls seem to be focused on antagonizing and disaffecting groups and individuals thereby turning Americans on Americans, as the Mueller Report outlines a “strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system.” Although Russian virtual propaganda and social media trolling certainly may have fanned the flames, the sad truth is the the fire was already burning. What’s worse, anyone and everyone arguing online becomes a potential Russian troll, providing scapegoats and discrediting of the hard work and dedication of many Americans calling for social, racial, environmental and economic justice, and necessary reform to meet these needs.

As the loudest and most provocative views often receive the most traction and attention, especially on social media, internet trolls—whether an operative from the Internet Research Agency or simply troubled person lashing out online—cast long shadows, effectively silencing all those softer voices and further destabilizing civil discourse.

Bryant Arnold, ‘Internet Troll Under a Bridge’ (2013).

In both medieval literature and modern times, we must fight the trolls and the horrors they bestow upon human society. While I am suggesting a sort of call to action against internet trolls and trolling, it is expressly not a call for tone-policing. Critique, even the sharpest criticism—especially of public officials and elected representatives—must be uncensored so the people may speak freely and in whatever (and whichever) language they choose, whether vulgar or polite in tone. However, I am suggesting that we consider changing our rhetorical strategy as a nation and a world.

Legendary heroes often fight trolls by matching their strength and ferocity, by fighting fire with fire, but I believe a different path might be more efficient. Perhaps it is cliché for a medievalist to suggest a hagiographical approach, but I would contend that we could learn a lesson from St. Juliana’s contest with a demon (267-558) in the Old English Juliana by Cynewulf recorded in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051). As a medieval saint might when facing a devil, I believe that it is often best (and more rhetorically effective) to match vice with virtue, anger with empathy, belligerence with amicability and hate with love in order to transform political conversations in America toward more ethical practices.

Demon attacks hermit in Smithfield Decretals, British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 113v.

This rhetorical strategy, meeting vice with virtue, is the centerpiece of the late classical Christian epic, Prudentius’s Psychomachia, often regarded as the first medieval allegory which establishes the robust tradition which follows. In the Psychomachia, demonic vices fight against saintly virtues in what amounts to a battle for the soul of humanity, a phrase which is repeatedly invoked regarding our current political moment. Although the Psychomachia frames its narrative in reductive notions of good and evil, it nevertheless argues that the strongest way to combat monstrous vices ira “wrath,” superbia “pride,” luxuria “luxury” and avaritia “greed” is with inverse behavior, in other words, the heroic virtues of patientia “patience,” humilitas “humility,” sobrietas “sobriety,” and operatio “service.”

Sobrietas defeats Luxuria, the vice is ultimately caught in the wheels of her own war-chariot and destroyed, British Library, Add MS 24199 f.20v.

Of course, we must continue the constant battle against what can seem like an endless horde of internet trolls, and it is all too tempting, and necessary at times, to get into the proverbial mud and valiantly take the fight to them in their digital lairs (usually located somewhere in the comment section) as heroes often do in saga literature and fantasy novels.

We might also note that in the Hobbit, the grey wizard Gandalf initiates and perpetuates an argument between three stone-trolls in an effort to stall and prevent the monsters from devouring Thorin’s company (ch 2: “Roast Mutton“). Gandalf’s ventriloquism mirrors the trolls‘ level of discourse, and eventually not only does their bickering delay their eating the dwarves, it causes the trolls to forget about the approaching dawn, which turns them to stone. Perhaps there is something of a serendipitous metaphor in the argument between the wizard and the trolls in the Hobbit, which suggests that in order to overcome trolls, one must beat them at their own game and hope they self-destruct.

DonatoArts, ‘Lunch with William, Tom and Bert’ (2018-2020).

Indeed, like Grettir wreaking vengeance upon the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” in Grettis saga (ch. 65), it may be that sometimes the only way to respond to a troll is to retaliate in some form. But there is also another kind of strength, kinder but no less powerful. While it is often impossible to starve trolls by ignoring them, and acknowledging that no single strategy will always prove effective, it may nevertheless be that the most productive way to defeat internet trolls is through sustained civil discourse in the spirit of generosity. In other words, kill them with kindness.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

Texts and Translations

Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales and Stories, translation by H. P. Paull (1872).

Byock, Jesse. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford University Press (2009).

Grimm, Jakob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Household Tales, translation by Margaret Hunt (1884).

Cynewulf. Juliana. In Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, translation by Aaron K. Hostetter. Rutgers University (2007).

Margaret Armour. The Nibelungenlied. In Parentheses Publications (1999).

Mueller, Robert. Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. Special Counsel Office (2019).

Prudentius. Psychomachia. In Prudentius, with an English translation by H.J. Thomson (1949).

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (1997).

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Allen & Unwin (1937).

Further Reading

Ashkenas, Jeremy. “Was It a 400-Pound, 14-Year-Old Hacker, or Russia? Here’s Some of the Evidence.” The New York Times (2017).

Chaganti, Seeta. “Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo.” Medievalists of Color (2018).

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

Grendell, Alexis. “Should We Have a Right to Troll Politicians on Twitter?The Nation (2019).

Hanson, James. “Trolls and Their Impact on Social Media.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2018).

Jones, Brandon G. “Harvard Scientist Analyzes 6.8 Million Tweets, Finds Bernie Sanders Supporters Are NOT More Abusive.” ABC 14 News (2020).

Kim, Dorothy. “White Supremacists Have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time (2019).

—. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

Klempka, Allison and Arielle Stimson. Anonymous Communication on the Internet and Trolling. Concordia University (2017).

Kosoff, Maya. “Why the Right’s Dark-Web Trolls Are Taking Over Youtube.” Vanity Fair (2018).

Lahut, Jake. “Joe Biden Gets Away with Yelling at Voters, and May Even Benefit from It.” Business Insider (2020).

Leigh, Kira. “Fantastic Internet Trolls and How to Fight Them.” Medium (2017).

Lewis, Simon. “Bernie Sanders to Online Trolls: Stop ‘Ugly Personal Attacks.” Reuters (2020).

Lindgren, Émelie Vangen. “Trolls in Your Comment Section and How to Fight Them.” Medium (2017).

Lomuto, Sierra. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Martin, Tess. “Racism 101: Tone Policing.” Medium (2018).

McQuade, Barbara and Joyce White Vance. “These 11 Mueller Report Myth Just Won’t Die. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.” Time (2019).

Miyashiro, Adam. “Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu.” In the Middle (2017).

Noor, Poopy. “Trump’s Troll-in-Chief? Once Again, Nancy Pelosi Bites Back.” The Guardian (2019).

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8Chan Medievalism—and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard (2019).

 Mary. “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies.” History Workshop (2019).

Ray, Alison. “The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book.British Library (2015).

Read, Bridget. “I’m Sorry, What Did Biden Say to This Voter?The Cut (2019).

Roll, Nick, “A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See.” Inside Higher Ed (2017).

Sarsour, Linda. “Yes, Women of Color Support Bernie Sanders. It’s Time to Stop Erasing Our Voices.” Teen Vogue (2019).

Silver, Nate. “Donald Trump is the World’s Greatest Troll.” FiveThirtyEight (2015).

Spencer, Kieth A. “There Is Hard Data That Shows ‘Bernie Bros’ Are a Myth.” Salon (2020).

Sax, David. “‘If You Fight Fire with Fire, Everyone Burns’: How to Catch a Troll Like Trump.” The Guardian (2016).

Sebenius, Alyza. “Russian Trolls Shift Strategy to Disrupt U. S. Election in 2020.” Bloomberg (2020).

Stratton, Erica. “6 Ways to Fight Trolls Instead of Starving Them.” The Airship (2014).

Vinsonhaler, Christine. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus 47 (2016): 1-36.

Waters, Lowenna. “AOC Destroys ‘Misogynist’ Twitter Troll with One Simple Comment: ‘I Don’t Give a Damn.” Indy100 & Independent (2019).