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Gianni Guastella, Word of Mouth: Fama and its Personifications in Art and Literature from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages
by Adin Lears

Gianni Guastella, Word of Mouth: Fama and its Personifications in Art and Literature from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages. Oxford: University Press. 2017. 440 pp.

This monograph offers a useful survey of the twin semantic branches of fama — rumour and renown — examining how each informed the development of fama’s variety of figural forms as it was increasingly represented and personified into the late Middle Ages. The book is wide-ranging and erudite. It substantively covers conceptions of fame (and semantic cousins such as rumor, gloria and more) in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, early Christianity, humanist Italy and late-medieval England. The strength of this book lies in its encyclopedic overview and gestures toward an intellectual genealogy for fama rather than in any new critical or conceptual apparatus for understanding it (though its surveys of critical literature on fama, gossip and related concepts are useful in guiding further reading). 

Though this reader would have appreciated a firmer hand in laying out and justifying the order of chapters, the book is loosely organised as follows: in chapters one to three, Guastella surveys the conceptual origins of fama in ancient sources, discussing first its poetic antecedent in the Homeric notion of the ‘winged word’ (chapter one), then turning to the semantic connection proposed by many ancient thinkers between fama and the Latin words fari (‘to speak’) and fas (‘divine law,’ chapter two) and finally examining how fama played a role in the legal domain, especially as court testimony (chapter three).  Next, Guastella transitions into further discussion of fama in its dual semantic senses with an overview of sociological and literary theory on gossip from the past few decades (chapter four), making the overall point that it is useful to place the contemporary and ancient theories in conversation.

After these first four chapters, Guastella directs attention to fama in its semantic capacity as ‘rumour,’ discussing it first in relation to the concept of auctoritas (chapter five), and then moving through a history of personifications and quasi-personifications of terms related to hearsay (chapter six), each of which shows ties to the various qualities he has outlined as particular to fame (e.g. lack of identifiable source, circuit-like transmission, etc.). In the next two chapters, Guastella turns to examine fama in its semantic capacity as ‘renown’. He begins by tracing fama’s links to the concept of gloria in antiquity and the Middle Ages (chapter seven) and highlights how gloria was ‘true’ if derived from virtue and ‘false’ if derived from reputation alone. Guastella notes that this distinction preoccupied Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages and shows the crucial role played by Bocaccio and especially Petrarch in redeeming the concept of fama-as-glory, secularising it by aligning fama-gloria with the reputation of the authoritative laureated poet as opposed to the words of the vulgar masses. In the next chapter he extends this argument to examine how the iconography of fama-gloria was established (chapter eight), again with an emphasis on images accompanying manuscripts of Petrarch’s work, which Guastella argues depict Fama using secularised religious iconography.

In the final two chapters, Guastella shows how these two aspects of fama worked in cooperation and interplay in pictorial and literary representations from a range of European sources from roughly the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. He continues his survey of medieval and early modern iconography of fame by showing the ‘contamination’ of representations of fama-renown by fama-rumour, and vice-versa, focusing on images from texts, but also touching on dramatic representations (chapter nine).  Finally, he identifies Chaucer’s dream vision The House of Fame as a work which systematically draws on the variegated earlier traditions of fama-renown and fama-rumour that he has already discussed, emphasising the ‘fertile relationship’ (356) between these two semantic branches (chapter ten).

Taken as a whole, this book does not come together to offer a new conceptual approach for understanding the idea of fama. This is perhaps most evident in the sections of the book where Guastella reviews contemporary theory and criticism and frequently points out conceptual overlap between ancient and contemporary theory, but does not treat them in dynamic tension, using ancient theory to put pressure on contemporary theory or the reverse. Chapter one, for example, examines the ancient Homeric notion of ‘winged words’ set against contemporary media studies in the wake of Marshall McLuhan. Guastella tells us that the study of fama can historicise and inform scholarship on contemporary media and information networks, yet he does not demonstrate how, or use ancient conceptions of fama to carve out a new angle for understanding the globalisation of information.

Where Guastella really shines is in tracing suggestive connections which might well form the basis of further scholarly investigations. The first chapter’s move to locate the origins of fama in the Homeric concept of ‘winged words’ draws on scholarship that outlines how ancient thinkers imagined space not cartographically, but hodologically (i.e., not visually, but in terms of the kinesthetic experience of movement through that space). Guastella suggests that, for ancient thinkers, flight was an idealised abstraction available only to divine winged messengers. He notes that understanding the metaphor of ‘winged words’ in terms of words’s movement through air gestures toward several important characteristics of fama: its spontaneous origin, rapid circulation in a ‘chain’ of relays, uncontainable nature, disorderly movement. To extend Guastella’s logic slightly farther, it also highlights the numinous import of ‘winged words’ —  and, perhaps fama as well — and their associations with divine message.

In another fascinating and suggestive gesture, chapter five shows how fama in its capacity as rumour is frequently without an identifiable source. It therefore lacks a certus auctor but instead is tied to a kind of composite authorship: the myriad of speakers who adapt and relate the information. The absences of a singular author for fama explains how the term was frequently used in impersonal descriptions that begin to personify the concept (along the lines of the current idiom ‘rumour has it’).  Eventually, these quasi-personifications were given a body (in Virgil) and later a structure (in Ovid). Guastella makes the fascinating point that Ovid’s (and later Chaucer’s) choices to represent fama architecturally rather than biomorphically effectively adapts the ‘body’ metaphor from Virgil into a different figure—a building—that better accommodates the polyvocality and composite authorship he has identified with fama.

Many of Guastella’s suggestive connections might productively inform the study of other areas of literature, particularly that of late-medieval England, and Chaucer especially. Chapter three uses Quintillian to show how fama was alternately interpreted in court to be either false ‘slander’ or ‘common report’ with some truth to it. Ancient thinkers never understood fama as a whole or transparent truth because they noted that hearsay was diluted at each stage of transmission. Thus, it was not taken on its own as truthful evidence to support a legal complaint or defence. Nevertheless, it could be manipulated as testimony by skilled rhetoricians. Guastella turns to Tertullian who emphasises mechanisms of distortion and dilution of fama, rather than its capacity to carry news, noting that in the Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville uses Tertullian’s assertion that fama ‘lives, as long as it is not put to the test’ (uiuit, quamdiu non probat, 86). The fact that fama changes into something else (i.e. genuine information) when it is tested underscores its distance from information that is absolutely known and highlights an early Christian emphasis on experiential proof as a precondition of true or real knowledge. This chapter thus offers a compelling backdrop to Chaucer’s House of Fame, which clearly takes up the idea that fama is an amalgam of ‘fals and soth compouned’ (l. 2108) yet, in my reading, makes a subtle shift to suggest that fama-rumour or ‘tydynges’ offers the best avenue to a kind of knowledge-by-experience associated with the laity.

Indeed, other treatments of fama—especially fama-as-rumour—in this book lend themselves to understanding how medieval thinkers imagined lay knowledge and expression. Chapter two offers an overview of fama’s etymology with a fascinating discussion of the linguist Émile Benveniste’s treatment of the semantic connection established by ancient thinkers between fari and fas. Guastella highlights Benveniste’s point that fama has a more specialised meaning than its root fari: while fari refers to individualised human speech, fama refers to depersonalised speech. This distinction begins to explain why words that overlap semantically with fama in other languages are so often words for noise, a kind of depersonalised sound (e.g. French bruit, which refers broadly to ‘noise,’ but is also used in the expression le bruit court que or ‘a rumour is current’). Guastella does not take up this semantic confluence between fama and noise (though it recurs in several of his quotations over the course of the book), instead stressing fama’s associations with depersonalised voice. Yet the fact that depersonalised and/or composite voice is linguistically represented as noise strikes me as crucially important in understanding all of the places in Middle English literature that represent lay voices as noise, a trope that is widespread throughout the literature of late-medieval England. Among the most noteworthy examples are John Gower’s account of the peasant’s revolt of 1381, which transmutes the historical narrative of actual events into a kind of nightmarish beast fable, in which the rebels-as-animals conspire and execute their plans with voices incapable of more than brutish noise. In the space of a few lines, Gower refers to the voices of the rebels as ‘the shrill voices of monsters’ (monstrorum vocibus altis) and compares them to a series of animal sounds: the moos (mugitus) of a cow and the barks (latratus) of a dog, for example (ll. 797-805). The trope of the peasant (and rebel) voice as noise occurs again in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, when Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest compares the barnyard hubbub resulting when the fox absconds with Chanticleer to the cries of a supposed leader of the peasant’s revolt and his henchmen. After enumerating the ‘berkyng of the dogges’, the ‘shoutyng of the men and wommen’, and other voices in the fray, the Nun’s Priest concludes the chaotic scene with the claim that this barnyard noise was so ‘hydous’ that it surpassed the shouts of ‘Jakke Straw and his meynee’ (ll. 3385-97). With this hyperbolic comparison between two agrarian choruses Chaucer joins Gower in characterising lay voices as noise.

Guastella’s discussion of fama in relation to ‘authority’ is eminently relevant here. As I discussed above, chapter five highlights how the very essence of fama, with its impossibility of identifying a singular source or auctor, situates it outside of authority. Some of the most interesting and important discussion of this chapter is when Guastella notes that, though the source of fama (in its sense of rumor, report, or news) resists pinpointing, it is not without auctores.  Rather, he observes, ‘there is often reference to the presence of one or more auctores within the circuit that disseminates this type of news: it is just that there are never certi auctores’ (131). Though Guastella does not take it up, this emphasis on composite and collaborative authorship strikes me as a powerful way to imagine how agency is distributed through the vox populi in a way that broadens what it means to be an authority and accommodates a polyvocal rather than singularly dogmatic perspective.

This book joins the growing body of scholarship on the concept of fama in antiquity and the Middle Ages. These include, most recently Philip Hardie’s monograph Rumour and Renown: Representations of Fama in Western Literature (2012) and Isabel Davis and Catherine Nall’s edited collection Chaucer and Fame: Reputation and Reception (2015), whose treatment of fama is more focused on medieval British literature. As Guastella discusses at some length in chapter one, the ancient concept of fama tells us about the ways that pre-modern cultures conceptualised pathways and networks of communication and can inform our understanding of the increasingly rapid globalisation and dissemination of information made possible by the communication technologies of the last few centuries. The most recent formation of information pathways — social networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and others — have created whole new categories of fame as everyday people try, and sometimes succeed, in becoming ‘Instagram-famous’, using social media to build a personal brand with large-scale recognition and a paycheck. The vox populi has turned from noise into Twitter. The rich semantic networks around fama that Guastella traces in this book offer a wealth of material from which we can begin not only to historicise, but also to theorise our current culture of fame.   


Adin Lears

Virginia Commonwealth University


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Cite as:

Adin Lears, "Gianni Guastella, Word of Mouth: Fama and its Personifications in Art and Literature from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages," Spenser Review 49.2.9 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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