Gower and Medicine

The crossing over of Gower’s poetics into the realm of the medical is a thread of inquiry of special interest to The Gower Project . The session at the III JGS Congress, expertly chaired by Tess Tavormina, included Pamela Yee (of the University of Rochester) and Will Youngman (of Cornell) both of whom presented stimulating papers dealing with different aspects of medical narration. Pam’s presentation, entitled “Gower’s Tale of Constantine and Sylvester as Narrative Medicine” worked well with Will’s reading on the “Alchemy of Age: De retardatione accidentium senectutis and Book V of the Confessio Amantis.”

Pam argued that “Genius and Amans’ confessor-penitent relationship mirrors the ideal physician-patient relationship as expressed in the tale. This tale’s two medical encounters between physician and patient must be interpreted and evaluated by Constantine. Each of these exchanges. . . illustrates certain ‘narrative features of medicine’—emplotment, intersubjectivity. . . and ethicality—as outlined by Dr. Rita Charon, a leading proponent of modern narrative medicine.”

Will talked about Gower’s identification with Amans “and his recognition of old age in Book VIII” before turning to Book V “where Medea exchanges the age of Eson, Jason’s father, for youth. Tying the magical elements of Medea’s fountain of youth with On Tarrying the Accidents of Age, a pseudo-Baconian treatise found in the so-called Trinity manuscript,” Will argued that the magic of Medea is not as diabolical as typically cast by previous writers. Instead, Medea’s remedy reverses the aging process just as the tale retold by Gower rejuvenates its readers “through writing and reading.”

The liveliness of the Q & A following these presentations indicated a healthy interest in reading—whether of the body or the text—as diagnosis and therapy of one sort or another.  As literary scholars become more attuned to interdisciplinary work that touches upon the medical humanities, these sorts of inquiries are likely to contribute significantly to what we know about premodern writing in general and Gower’s work in particular. We hope to continue the conversation next May in Kalamazoo.

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