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Illegible Welcomes: Hospitality and Allegory in The Faerie Queene
by Archie Cornish


In an essay on the idea of the sacred building, Lukas Feireiss asserts that it is ‘permissible to speak of a language of religious architecture’.[1] Sacred buildings, for Feireiss, ought to communicate through symbolism: their ‘language’ is a set of ‘constructed symbols of the content they embody’. To put it another way, they should be allegorical – and to slip so blithely from symbol to allegory is not the heretical fudge it might seem, because when architectural historians and theorists use the term ‘allegory’ they tend to mean ‘allegorical reification’, where an abstraction takes on the material form of a place or person; they tend to use ‘allegory’ in this sense interchangeably with ‘symbol’. We can distinguish (though not fundamentally) reification from another sense of allegory, familiar to all contemporary readers of Spenser, where the text communicates an Other meaning, through a metaphor that conceals its tenor. For Feireiss, a good sacred building is allegorical in that it achieves – without heavy-handed insistence – clarity of meaning, manifesting the doctrinal or devotional truths which it is built to witness. Rhetoricians call this clarity enargeia, the effect of being the thing itself, an ideal kind of embodiment; it’s as a species of enargeia that Renaissance and classical writers on rhetoric almost always treat personification, one of the principal versions of allegorical reification. Feireiss is right to observe a natural affinity in architecture between sacred functions and allegorical meanings, as anyone who has stood in a beautiful Gothic cathedral can attest. Yet if the many allegorical buildings dotting the terrain of Fairyland have one thing in common, it’s that they don’t manifest clearly their abstract meanings. They don’t achieve the enargeia associated with allegorical reification, or else that enargeia changes from clarity to something like bedazzlement.

This might be because not all of them are sacred buildings, though some of them are. But it’s also because the concepts the buildings of Fairyland reify are clouded by the narrative events that occur inside and around them. The Faerie Queene’s narrative does not stop when its questing figures themselves pause at the poem’s buildings. (This isn’t wholly to discard the critical tradition of ‘allegorical centres’, but to question the inverse relation posited by some of its most schematic inheritors between narrative and allegory, as if things cease to happen whenever the poem’s questing figures stop moving.[2]) While the buildings and their dwellers embody ethical concepts, they also engage in spatial practices. By spatial practice, I mean the incorporation of architectural space into human behaviour, though Lefebvrians would draw a distinction between passive engagements with space and ritualistic or ‘representational’ engagements which reconfigure that space’s meaning.[3] One such engagement, variously passive and ritualistic, is hospitality, and here I want to argue that hospitality in The Faerie Queene obscures the clarity of allegorical reification. Specifically, it makes the concepts embodied by Fairyland’s buildings illegible to those who approach, visit and stay in them. Yet this illegibility, I’ll also propose, has an allegorical or ‘meta-allegorical’ suggestiveness of its own.

Spenser’s Fairyland is an antique world which has forgotten how to do classic hospitality. Given the number of architectural locations in the poem, it’s remarkable how few of them offer authentic welcomes. Time and again, a questing hero arrives at a door which remains stubbornly locked. Such frustration occurs not only at buildings which represent vices of hoarding or enclosure, like Orgoglio’s castle of monstrous pride, whose gates Arthur finds ‘fast shutt’ (I.viii.3.3), or Malbecco’s jealous castle where Paridell is told by the disingenuous porter that the keys have been ‘conuayd’ to his master; knights also meet locked doors at places of refuge, such as the House of Temperance in Book II, whose gates Guyon and Arthur find ‘fast barred long ere night’ (II.ix.10.8).[4] The image of a benign character denied access is so often repeated that some readers have invented their own versions of it. Wordsworth’s ‘Epistle to George Howland Beaumont’ (1811) compares a ‘Curate’s Dog’ (131) to a ‘gaunt shaggy Porter forced to wait / In days of old romance at Archimago’s gate’ (152-3).[5] Elsewhere, when hospitality is forthcoming, it tends to be deceptive, which is to say that rest, refreshment and refuge are offered not in support of a knight’s quest, but as an attempt to ensnare the knight in a dubious mental state. Spenser’s images of defective and deceptive welcome dramatise what was perceived by his own society as hospitality’s worrying decline: as Felicity Heal has taught us, religious and economic change, along with the rise of cultural fashions such as private retreat and coterie friendship, converged to give many in sixteenth-century England the impression that they had lost a tradition of hospitality previously prized as a national trait. Spenser’s images of bad hospitality also reflect, and reflect on, shifts in Tudor architecture. During Spenser’s lifetime, as Paula Henderson demonstrates, gatehouses became gradually more ‘decorative’, designed not to filter access to a house but to frame its image. In some houses, such as Montacute built for Sir Edward Phelips at the turn of the seventeenth century, the gatehouse splits in two.[6] Even decorative gatehouses that stayed together often lost their porter.

Yet a tidy taxonomy of hospitality, along distinctions of good and bad, defective and deceptive, implies a lofty readerly perspective very far from that of a weary traveller. I’ve argued so far that hospitality in The Faerie Queene renders enigmatic and illegible the concepts reified by the poem’s buildings. The illegibility results not only, however, from hospitality’s defective or deceptive character in the poem, but also from hospitality’s inherent tendency to confound interpretation. In Book IV, Scudamour arrives with Glauce at the House of Care, full of jealous rage and thoughts of ‘dire reuenge’ (IV.v.31.9) against Britomart, who at a tournament has just denied him access to Amoret. Nightfall brings a ‘cloudie storme and bitter showre’ (32.2), the weather catching up with Scudamour’s inner temperament, and the two travellers desperately look for somewhere to ‘hide their heads in quiet rest’ (32.6). They find a ‘little cottage’ (32.9), from which comes the sound of ‘yron hammers’ (33.7) beating away. Inside the travellers meet a giant blacksmith with sunken cheeks, ‘busily vnto his worke ybent’ (34.2), helped by six servants ‘prest / about the Andvile’ (36.1-2). Scudamour doesn’t know who they are, but John Steadman does, identifying them decades ago as Vulcan’s six hammerers or ‘malleatores, each stronger than his predecessor’. Steadman notes deftly the simultaneous resonance of ‘a contemporary Italian idiom which described jealousy metaphorically as “martello” or “martello d’amore”’, thus forging a link between Scudamour’s anxious care and the state of jealousy hinted at by the description of his rage – and also, therefore, between Care’s cottage and the castle of Malbecco, an ostensibly rich place that conceals the ethical poverty, and anxiety, of jealousy.[7] The smiths don’t seem to mind Scudamour and Glauce, who lie down and try to sleep.

If we’ve read the text more than once, we know that Scudamour endures a restless night, molested by the sound of the hammers and by anxious fantasies of Amoret’s infidelity, eventually nipped in the side with ‘redwhot yron tongs’ (44.2) by the ‘maister Smith’ (44.1) himself. Knowing that this is Care, the embodiment of several intertwined mental states (anxiety, jealousy, industry), we can also, thanks to Steadman, index Care and his assistants to their iconographical meaning. Reading backwards, we can confidently identify Care’s apparent tolerance of the travellers as obviously wicked, an instance of hospitality both deceptive and defective. We might also note the typological relation of Care’s house to the ‘lowly Hermitage’ where Archimago deceives Redcrosse at the start of Book I, placed like Care’s cottage far from society and next to trees and water (I.i.34); the brook that passes Care’s cottage is stinking and ‘muddie’ (I.iv.33.4), as if the true nature of the ‘Christall streame’ (I.i.34.8) passing Archimago’s house has been unveiled. 

But Scudamour is a traveller, not a reader, and to make this observation is not to commit the anachronistic error of understanding The Faerie Queene’s figures as realist characters. From the perspective of Scudamour, who hasn’t visited what Harry Berger would have called ‘Archimago’s’, the blacksmith appears as a potential host, not a personification; providing shelter from the storm, he offers hospitality of the most passive kind. Early modern travellers in strange lands, or in remote ‘countries’ of England, were used to basic sleeping quarters. Contrary to nostalgic myths of English hospitality, it was not the country house that served as what Heal calls the ‘primary grid of accommodation’, but the inn – and, as John Hare has shown, where inns from the late fifteenth century became centres of comfort and commercial exchange as well as accommodation, humbler places of refuge like the alehouse persisted.[8] Hospitality here has more to do with refuge than with manners, and the usefulness of places to stay, however uncomfortable, is compounded in Fairyland whose landscape is devoid of particular co-ordinates; a ‘little cottage’ guarantees not only an escape from the menacing night, but also that you haven’t been going in circles. 

Disentangling Scudamour’s perspective from the reader’s restores the hospitality of this episode, however defective and deceptive it turns out to be. The blacksmith’s provision of shelter makes illegible his true identity: Scudamour does not read him as Care, but sees him as a host, whose ‘worke’ (38.2) he admires. As Elizabeth Leach has recently argued, the malleatores also pervert the Pythagorean image of the harmonious blacksmith, emphasising that Care’s malice cannot neatly be separated, to the eye of the travelling Scudamour, from his apparently admirable or hospitable qualities.[9] To return to the principle of architectural allegory, the manifestation of allegorical meaning in emblematic details (the ‘crooked sallows’ (33.5) of the lover and the overhanging cliff, as well as the hammers) is obscured by another kind of ‘meaning’ in a sense closer to architectural function. Hospitality prevents Scudamour from knowing Care when he sees it. From his perspective, the blacksmith’s cottage does not communicate in the architectural ‘language’ Lukas Feireiss attributes to allegorical buildings. Yet the cottage’s illegibility, its obscuring of an allegorical reification’s theoretical clarity, might itself have meta-allegorical resonance. Hospitality makes the embodiment of Care obscure to those suffering it, which suggests the impossibility of comprehending or mastering mental states without experiencing them. This reading relates in a complex manner to the critical tradition of interpreting The Faerie Queene’s allegorical reifications as instances of quasi-Freudian projection. On the one hand, this episode resists that view: as I’ve argued, Scudamour and Glauce find refuge in Care’s cottage not because one of them is consumed by it, but because it seems mercifully foreign to what they are suffering – because Care’s apparent offer of hospitality obscures the meaning of his house. On the other hand, the blacksmith’s accommodation of Scudamour blinds him to the fact that his anxiety does, in part, lie within, and cannot be escaped. Hospitality constructs a false binary of inside and outside, refuge and wilderness; it’s an inversion of the equally distorting binary underscoring the logic of allegorical reification, where a concept is, nominally, concentrated and neatly bounded in a single place. That these binaries should continually prove misleading provides a meta-allegorical suggestion of the ubiquity of mental states in The Faerie Queene, across thresholds of place and person. When Scudamour wakes up he finds ‘pearly dew sprinkling the morning grasse’ (45.5), a skilfully ambiguous suggestion that the blacksmith and his cottage were just bad dreams.

Hospitality renders allegorical reifications illegible, in a manner that has its own allegorical suggestiveness. But hospitality is itself hard to decode in The Faerie Queene, especially when it comes to be understood under the category of manners. When Calidore leaves Briana’s castle at the end of Book VI’s first canto, he has killed Maleffort and defeated Crudor, Briana’s beloved, in battle. Crudor had bound up the nameless squire on whom Calidore chanced, in order to drag his lady to the castle to shave her head. Calidore seems to have taught Briana and Crudor some manners, including the art of deliberate hospitality: Briana, struck by Calidore’s ‘exceeding courtesie’ (45.3), ‘most ioyfully… them did entertaine’ (46.2) with ‘glee and feast’ (3). She freely offers Calidore her castle, which he awards to the squire. Justice is done, with a new flexibility in this book that leaves Briana and Crudor alive, repentant and reformed rather than smashed to bits by the less accommodating universality of Book V. The narrator believes that Briana and Crudor’s apologetic hospitality is genuine, ascribing it gushingly to ‘infinite affect’ (45.2) and ‘inward deepe effect’ (4) within three lines. Should we believe the narrator? Briana and Crudor pledge themselves to Calidore three times using the metaphor of a bond, with Crudor ‘bynding himself’ (44.2) to refraining from barbarity while Briana ‘her selfe acknowledg’d bound’ (45.8) and, in the next stanza, ‘her selfe bound to him for evermore’ (46.8). These effusive repetitions seem insincere, the speech of young people reading their first conduct book and laying it on thick. As Book VI unfolds, we learn to doubt the finality of any virtuous binding. Already in the canto, meanwhile, Calidore has concealed his feelings with contrary words: after Briana upbraids him for murdering Maleffort and the castle’s ‘Porter’ (23.9) in the porch, he feels ‘much… abashed’ (26.1), but instead, covered in blood, lectures her for her lack of ‘mild curt’sie’ (27.3).

Hospitality comes into focus in Book VI as a species of courtesy. At the same time, Book VI is less overtly allegorical than what precedes it, with reifications like the House of Care rarer in Book VI’s landscape.[10] The waxing of courteous hospitality and the waning of allegorical reification, I want to suggest, are related. A polite host not only fulfils a basic duty to the traveller, passively providing shelter like Care, but also, like Briana, expresses gentle civility in the rituals of ‘glee and feast’. Hospitality as good manners thus risks becoming mannered, imitated cynically by those skilful, like Calidore, at performing outwardly what they do not feel. Among Elizabethan writers on hospitality, even those outside the conduct book tradition admit this problem. Lawrence Humphrey’s treatise The Nobles (1563) exalts hospitality above a mere social grace, portraying it as a theological virtue based in Paul’s admonition to ‘entertaine, and love strangers’.[11] Yet seeking also to essentialise – and mystify – the behaviour of aristocrats, Humphrey must also contend with hospitality’s inexorably social nature, its way of instating the very hierarchies it appears to suspend. However noble, courteous hospitality remains a social performance, whose sincerity is impossible to detect: in Humphrey’s example Caesar, bearer of original civility to primitive northern Europe, finds in the Germans genuine hospitality and in the ancient British its insincere simulation: ‘for they ayded [also] the frenchmen, his enemies, and succoured them with frendly and commodious harborough’.[12]

To return to Briana’s castle in this light, from Book IV to Book VI the interaction of hospitality with allegorical reification has shifted. At the House of Care the provision of hospitality rendered illegible the jealous anxiety embodied by the blacksmith and his cottage. In Briana’s castle, hospitality and its lack do not conceal reification, but replace it. Courtesy is only visible here as a social, outward performance which is itself illegible, recognisable not through informed interpretation but embodied, unreliable perception. Furthermore, the meaning of social behaviour in Book VI acquires a new subjectivity, becoming a matter of perspective. Charles Ross has explored how Spenser adapts the romance motif of the ‘custom of the castle’, finding in it ‘an archetype of the problem of moral uncertainty’.[13] Castles in Fairyland such as Briana’s, governed by warped and arbitrary rules, also dramatise what Heal sees as hospitality’s fragmentation into diverse practices as it shifts from a public to a private virtue. Calidore is here to replace custom with civility, but only if civility is courteous. Yet if courtesy has at least something to do with courtliness, it must partake of custom’s arbitrariness. What’s more, Calidore imposes civility with the same rude brutality he condemns. Briana is right to ask, as he scatters her household like flies, who has the better manners.

Spenserians often describe The Faerie Queene’s questing heroes as figurative readers, an interpretive model stemming in part from the logocentric approaches to the poem which appeared in deconstruction’s wake.[14] But reading, I’ve suggested here, is not a useful model for understanding how Spenser’s knights encounter Fairyland’s buildings. Consumed with anxious jealousy, Scudamour is drawn into the generative centre of that state – the House of Care itself – not because he fails to read it, but because a basic form of hospitality renders the place’s meaning illegible. One knight who does seem able to read a building, however, is Britomart. After a long journey through a forest of fickle desire, she arrives at Castle Ioyous and rescues Redcrosse from the six knights at its gate. Unlike Scudamour, she isn’t taken in by the promise of refuge: she enters the castle not to rest, but to avenge Redcrosse – to ‘wreake your wronges’, as she tersely tells one of the six knights, ‘wrought to this knight alone’ (III.i.28.5). Yet this resolve, born of an accurate judgment about the building, gradually ebbs away. Britomart lets down her guard as she goes to bed: ‘she gan her selfe despoile / and safe commit to her soft fethered nest’ (58.6-7), only for Malecasta to intrude on that sanctuary – and, in the ensuing fight, for Gardante to wound Britomart with a glancing arrow. The meta-allegorical implication for which I’ve argued in this paper begins to apply here too: it’s difficult to figure out or overcome an adverse mental state without becoming taken in, or contaminated, by it. 

What erodes Britomart’s moral resolve, her clear perception of the castle’s interior as the origin of the cruel licentiousness outside it, is hospitality. Unlike Care, whose accommodation of Scudamour is begrudgingly passive, the castle welcomes its visitors in a deliberate, ritualistic manner, with ‘curteous’


And comely glee of many gratious

Faire Ladies, and of many a gentle knight.



‘Courteous’ and ‘gratious’, making a bold and imperfect rhyming pair, both tumble into the next line without Spenser’s usual syntactic or punctuational pause. Metrically over-eager, the lines perhaps, as A.C. Hamilton supposes in his New Critical notes, ‘emphasize excessive courtliness’.[15] Given what is actually happening, however, it seems more likely that the tumbling rhythm imitates the overwhelming sensation of looking and walking down the ‘Chamber long and spacious’, the castle’s long gallery.[16] Malecasta is kept from sight, to add curious anticipation to this stimulated wonder. For all their allure, such visions, which also include the tapestry in which Venus seduces Adonis, can be dismissed, left in their fixed places by a ‘scornefull eye’ (40.7) passing them over. Yet ‘sweete Musicke’ (40.1) also fills the air, recalling Leach’s focus on the dissonant noise of Care’s hammers; Britomart, unless she stops her ears, cannot isolate herself from insidious sound as she can, initially, from sight.


Hospitality of this choreographed kind depletes even as it refreshes: the delight it provides is a tonic for a visitor tired of travelling, but is itself tiring. The coercion latent or potential in all expressions of hospitality depends here on the tiredness of the guest. However initially clear-sighted about the castle’s meaning, by nightfall Britomart needs a place to stay, and must disarm. The castle’s hospitable delight plays compounds her tiredness, clouding her judgment. Tiredness is a key concept in understanding the dynamics of hospitality, because hospitality turns on the exposure of what its guests lack or need. Yet Britomart’s experience at Castle Ioyous, which makes itself ever more illegible as it wearies her with its welcome, suggests that tiredness is equally central in the dynamics of Spenserian allegory. How are we to construe the inexorable waxing and waning of the body’s rhythms in a landscape where all mental states, however ideally constant, are externalised in the form of embodiment?


Archie Cornish


[1] Lukas Feireiss, ‘On the Language of Religious Architecture’, in Closer to God: Religious Architecture and Sacred Spaces, ed. by Feireiss and Robert Klanten (Berlin: Gestalten, 2010), pp. 4-8, p. 4.

[2] On the tendency to this dichotomy, see Judith H. Anderson, Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 7.

[3] When such behaviour becomes a ritualistic attempt to alter or reconfigure a space’s meaning, in Lefebvrian terms it passes from ‘spatial practice’ into the realm of ‘representational space’, only to be conceived again, top-down, by ‘representations of space’, the third term in his influential spatial triad. See Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’Espace [1974], trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

[4] All references to The Faerie Queene are to A.C. Hamilton’s 2007 Longman edition, referred to here as ‘FQ’.

[5] William Wordsworth, ‘Epistle to George Howland Beaumont’, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. by Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, vol. 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 147.

[6] Paula Henderson, The Tudor House and Garden: Architecture and Landscape in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 35.

[7] John M. Steadman, ‘Spenser’s House of Care: A Reinterpretation’, Studies in the Renaissance 7 (1960), 207-224, 208.

[8] Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 202. See John Hare, ‘Inns, Innkeepers and the Society of Later Medieval England, 1350-1600’, Journal of Medieval History 39, 477-497. 

[9] Elizabeth Leach, ‘The Unquiet Thoughts of Edmund Spenser’s Scudamour and John Dowland’s First Booke of Songes’, in Uno Gentile et Subtile Ingenio: Studies in Renaissance Music in Honour of Bonnie Blackburn, ed. by Gioia Filocamo and M. Jennifer Bloxam (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), pp. 513-20. The author has also made available a revised version on her website, for ease of access: ‘Unquiet Thoughts: Spenser, Scudamour and John Dowland’s First Book of Songes’,

[10] This is often overstated: Kenneth Boris aptly observes that ‘assumptions of the general decline’ of allegory from around 1600 are read back into The Faerie Queene’s own trajectory. Restricted to its specific sense of reification (personifications and places), however, allegory does fade from Spenser’s final book. See Kenneth Borris, Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 145.

[11] Lawrence Humphrey, Optimates, Siue De Nobilitate [1560], The Nobles or of Nobilitye (London, 1563), II, fol. P5v.

[12] Humphrey, fol. P5r.

[13] Charles Ross, The Custom of the Castle (London: University of California Press, 1997), p.5.

[14] See, among many others, Jonathan Goldberg, Endlesse Work: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

[15] FQ, p. 294.

[16] For a definitive analysis of the early modern long gallery and its material traces in The Faerie Queene, see Christopher Burlinson, Allegory, Space and the Material World in the Writings of Edmund Spenser (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006).


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Cite as:

Archie Cornish, "Illegible Welcomes: Hospitality and Allegory in The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 52.2.6 (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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