Gower and Science at ICMS 2014

Extending well beyond the early work of George G. Fox in his study, The Mediaeval Sciences in the Work of John Gower, this session investigated motion and its relation to invention in the Confessio amantis (Steele Nowlin) as well as the effects of encyclopedic knowledge and ways of reading (Tamara O’Callaghan).  In the former, Nowlin considered the “relationship between medieval ideas of physical motion and the way in which the Confessio Amantis metaphorically describes the process of its own invention.” He looked to the act of rejuvenating “a world of inherited motion, of old movements still playing out. . . . Gower’s project is in part an effort to generate new movements, productive motions that can, at least potentially, suggest how cultural rejuvenation might work on a larger scale.” Recasting Medea in more positive terms, remedying her reputation as a ‘schizophrenic witch,’ Nowlin argued that Medea’s tale generates a “sense of affect—that is, the sensation of the potential for new movement—by aligning representations of motion and invention. Through Medea’s technically precise rituals—which, though magical, are grounded in the physical world and the physics of motion—Gower externalizes and thematizes the affective movement that empowers the tale’s sense of narrative progression.” The presentation prompted a protracted discussion with audience members, one of whom was a mathematician interested in the history of science (and Tolkien).

Tamara O’Callaghan then turned to the Confessio, which she identified as an encyclopedic compilation to be read in a number of ways and not always in a linear order. She suggested that by reading Book VII first (or at the very least including it with the rest of the CA), we get a better sense of the scientific universe, “the landscape of a field of jewels, stars, and herbs” in which Gower moved with great facility. Illustrations from MS Pierpont Morgan 126 showed in vivid color and detail the luminous environment of the poem and the expansive poetic imagination. Late medieval encyclopedias function as important sources often overlooked in favor of an emphasis on the Confessio‘s love trope. Clearly there’s a universe of learning in Gower’s work that begs to be explored anew. O’Callaghan has provided an intriguing map of rediscovery. Medieval-Science-2

Medieval Science

The meaning of “science” was different in the Middle Ages than it is now. The Latin term scientia was more broadly conceived as knowledge that could combine philosophy and theology as readily as medicine and astronomy. Unlike modern science with its protocols and procedures, its disciplinary boundaries and regulations, medieval science (and its scientists) experimented with the intermingling of otherwise diverse categories of things, often to startling effects. Rational thought and scholastic initiatives brought the macrocosm (that vast place beyond planet earth) and the microcosm (the material human body) into sharper focus, integrating virtual explorations of the outer spheres of the universe with an empirical knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Inventions such as eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, blast furnaces, windmills, agricultural implements, engineering and building equipment, astrolabes and compasses, to name a few, contributed to the advancement of scientific thought long before 1543, the date traditionally cited as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Observation, experimentation, and the premodern shaping of scientific methodologies made possible a more comprehensive understanding of the natural world. Medical treatises, herbals, lapidaries, encyclopedias, health books, diagrams and charts enabled pragmatic diagnoses and treatments of psychological-physiological disjunctions, traumatic injuries, illnesses, and pain.

What do Gower’s poetics (or any other premodern literary work, for that matter) have to do with medieval science? After all, he didn’t write a Treatise on the Astrolabe or any overtly scientific study as some of his contemporaries did. To answer that question, Gower scholars have begun to revisit early studies such as The Medieval Sciences in the Work of John Gower (1966) by George G. Fox, to map out the sciences noted above in conjunction with those “other” sciences—astrology, alchemy, dreams, and magic—more difficult for a twenty-first century audience to accept. An updated rediscovery of the scientific past—one that includes literature as part of the equation—promises to take us places we’ve never gone before. Two sessions sponsored by The Gower Project—one at ICMS in Kalamazoo (Gower and Science) and one at the III JGS conference in Rochester (Gower and Medicine)—anticipate the launching of such an enterprise.   2012-04-workshop-medieval-divination-grafik