Gower and the Sciences

The presentation of medieval scientific ideas and concepts in Gower’s literature and its thematic importance to his overall poetic was strongly and energetically represented at the III JGS Congress 2014. The ‘Gower and the Sciences’ session consisted of Gabrielle Parkin from the University of Delaware and Clare Fletcher from Trinity College Dublin and was moderated by Tess Tavormina, Professor of English Emerita at Michigan State University. Both papers discussed two very different aspects of science in the Confessio Amantis but despite these disparities the two papers had, in fact, a great synergy between them and even wonderfully overlapped in places.

Gabrielle’s paper was entitled ‘Hidden Substance and Dynamic Matter in the Confessio Amantis‘ and primarily focused on the “Tale of Albinus and Rosemund” in Book One. She illustrated the dynamic nature of matter in the late middle ages by following the movement of a cup fashioned from a defeated king’s (Gurmond’s) skull as it is transformed from body part to drinking vessel. (She provided a fantastic picture of an actual skull cup which proved to be very popular and garnered much gory interest!). She argued that this cup teaches us that the original physical matter from which it was crafted affects the purposing of the object and those who utilize it. She further argued that Albinus forces his subjects and Rosemund to misread the object by obscuring and concealing the skull. This, in turn, allows Gower to provide a warning against the misinterpretation of such objects through non-governance of the senses which may not only endanger the body but could equally cause a misunderstanding of God thereby endangering the soul.

Clare’s paper was entitled ‘”The Science of Himself is Trewe”: Alchemical Analogy and Metaphor in the Confessio Amantis‘ and traced Gower’s exposition on alchemy linguistically and thematically throughout Book IV and the Prologue. She highlighted the dominant moral language of ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’ in this alchemical passage and argued that the post-lapsarian decay of the world, the elements, and virtue in man directly contributes to the lack of success of modern alchemists. She also linked the metallurgic language of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the Prologue to Gower’s alchemical section noting that the declining value of the metals is alchemy in reverse. She further argued that the alchemical blueprint of extracting the vice and retaining the virtue provides Gower with a conceptual moral model for the alchemy of the individual self as seen in Gower’s treatment of ‘Gentillesse’ in Book IV.

The scientific subject matter of the two papers was indeed very popular and the ensuing Q&A was well attended and fostered interesting and thought-provoking questions as well as animated conversations. Overall, this session was a great success and served to show the sustained and continuing interest in Gower and his significant relationship to the sciences.

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