All posts by evesalisbury

Gower in China!

Will Rogers’ previous post—“Where in the World is John Gower?”—seems prophetic in a way that Gower himself is likely to have applauded. Just a few weeks ago Candace Barrington, co-director of Global Chaucers, told me of a Chinese scholar who had published a book—An Anthology of Medieval English Poetry (in Chinese Translation)—that included an excerpt from Gower’s Confessio Amantis (see below).* Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued by this information and contacted the person who had done this. What I soon discovered was a scholar (Shen Hong) who had written over forty books and over 100 articles (mostly in Chinese) in addition to translating selections from the Canterbury Tales, Langland’s Piers Plowman, Lawman’s Brut, and poems such as “Pearl,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” and “Sir Orfeo.” Having studied with medieval and Renaissance scholars such as Derek Pearsall, Bruce Mitchell, Daniel Donaghue, J. A. Burrow, and Ad Putter years ago, Professor Shen returned to China to teach early English poetry in departments of English at Peking and Zhejiang universities as well as Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

The Gowerian tale that appears in Shen’s anthology is from Book 4 on Sloth, which begins with Genius’s questions to Amans about whether he is guilty of this particular sin. In a dialogue that includes Amans’ comical disclosure of what he does to express his love—escorting his lady to the chapel, playing with her puppies and pet birds, and giving her a leg up into her saddle—Genius presents the Tale of Rosiphelee as an example of why it’s not wise to wait too long to engage in Love’s activities. As many readers of the Confessio Amantis will recall, the story relates how Rosiphelee, the daughter of the King of Armenia, thwarts courtly expectations for a future marriage by being indifferent to love. Described as “lusti,” a term that suggests readiness even when there is no evidence of the lady’s desire, Rosiphelee rejects Love’s call until one spring day she has an experience that prompts a change of heart. While walking in a “park” replete with soft grass and a “gret rivere,” she decides to send her ladies away in order to be alone for awhile. This is the point at which the king’s reluctant daughter observes the mating of “the buck, the do, the hert, the hinde,” a sight that sparks doubts about her decision—“And so began ther a querele / Betwen love and hir oghne herte / From which sche couthe noght asterte (ll. 1302–04). Suddenly several ladies riding sidesaddle on resplendently appointed horses emerge from the woods. Both awestruck and fearful, Rosiphelee hides behind a bush to watch this uncanny procession, noting astutely that one of the ladies is clothed differently than the others and rides a horse “al lene and galled on the back” (ll.1343–44). Described in terms similar to those used for Rosiphelee, the lady appears in a torn dress carrying “a riche bridel” with “twenty score of horse haltres” around her waist. When Rosiphelee asks her about the circumstances of her pitiful state, the lady responds:

“Ma dame, whilom I was on / That to mi fader hadde a king; / Bot I was slow, and for nothing / Me liste noght to love obeie, / And that I now ful sore abeie. / For I whilom no love hadde, / Min hors is now so fieble and badde, / And al totore in myn arai, / And every yeer this freisshe Maii / These lusti ladis ryde aboute, / And I mot nedes suie here route / In this manere as ye now se, / And trusse here haltres forth with me, / And am bot as here horse knave.” (ll. 1386–99)

We soon learn that the lady died before experiencing love’s effects, and she is now being punished by having to carry the bridles, like a “horse knave,” for those who were more willing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is the scene that appears in MS Morgan 126, F. 74v.

rosiphelee

When I asked Professor Shen why he had selected this particular Gowerian tale for inclusion in his anthology, he said that for him it was a carpe diem lesson that recalled another poem close to his heart—Queen Elizabeth I’s “When I was Fair and Young.” Certainly the regret expressed by Gower’s Rosiphelee is eerily similar to that pronounced by the Queen of England nearly two centuries later. But what is especially significant about Shen’s association of Gower’s Tale with Queen Elizabeth’s poem, it seems to me, is not only that both narratives acknowledge an issue of great concern to actual noblewomen, but that both speak to the debilitating effects of growing old, a theme that resonates throughout the Confessio Amantis. Clearly there is much more to be said about the provocative correspondence between John Gower and Elizabeth I, and we can thank Professor Shen for opening the door to further exploration.

*Here is the link to his translation of the Tale of Rosiphelee: translation

Eve Salisbury

Where in the World is John Gower?

What in the world does Gower have to do with the global, and what might we mean by “global Gower”?  With Gower’s intense interest in the politics of his day and the inscription of what might be local for him onto his texts, failing to see him as a global author is certainly a danger. Unlike Chaucer, Gower’s poetry perhaps isn’t global in its reach—I’m not sure when (if ever) we’ll see Confessio Amantis, Mirour de l’Omme, or Vox Clamantis translated into a range of modern languages. Indeed, as recent scholarship on Gower often demonstrates, even medievalists might not know or have read Gower beyond the English works. And yet, I think it’s hard to argue against the poet’s global nature. He seems to have considered himself an author of more than just English, a true trilingual poet, fluent in Latin and French as well as English.

 

willgower

(Here I am posing with Gower’s effigy in Southwark during a research trip to London in 2011)

Take, for example, the figure of Gower in what is now Southwark Cathedral. Gower—pictured on the right—rests for all eternity on his books. His reputation and fame, and the support for his head—is supported by works in the three languages he knew and used.  And, of course, all his works seem invested in not only the contemporary events of his day, but also in events of the past and future, and here, I think, is where we might look to the role that Gower might have in the globe (or Globe). For Confessio Amantis, Gower’s great English poem, confession is central to the kinds of worlds Confessio creates. Confession seems to allow a person to enter into a conversation and a relationship beyond the self, while nevertheless foregrounding that self. Thus, Amans, the penitent, can move from his own sins and life to those of the past, to exempla of a kind of shared existence. And appropriately, before I get to those worlds, I have a bit of a confession to make. Like Amans, I have tarried too long and failed to get the blog done early enough. It was meant to showcase a response to a panel organized by The Gower Project for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2016. But, like Amans, I have not waited in vain. Indeed, because the world went on spinning as I waited, events unfolded which made the papers for that session—by Shyama Rajendran, Seth Strickland, and Eve Salisbury—all the more timely, bringing Gower and what is medieval into conversation with the postmedieval.

“IF YOU BREXIT, YOU BUY IT!”—I saw this somewhere on Twitter, and seemingly everywhere on protest signs in London in early July. Brexit, the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, was both an exit and the sundering of a certain kind of global relationship. England and the UK, it appeared, wanted out of the EU, and the rewards for that break have either not materialized or have simply proven untrue: Nigel Farage claimed leaving would save immense amounts of money, a claim that he himself will not (and cannot) prove.  Across the Atlantic, over the summer, America dealt (and deals) with its own move away from the globe, and this is more than fear about the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP seems to present real challenges for specific countries, and its effect on American workers is uncertain at best. No, I’m thinking of the Wall. Donald J. Trump’s proposed wall to block Mexico (literally) from the United States has proven something of a fantasy: a certain segment of American voters seems unwilling to give up the notion of a United States, united physically by walls, set against a larger world. But Mexico refuses to pay for it, and the costs of isolationism can far outpace the initial investment.

As large portions of the West appear to turn away from the global, how might medievalists respond? David Wallace, of course, did so quite eloquently. And, without repeating what’s already been said, seeing Gower as global as Chaucer, as invested in world-making, as interested in the world behind his local environs, might give us tools to think about and respond to shortsighted attempts to divorce ourselves from the world.

Indeed, Gower can help. His texts continue to the site of innovative work, as line and verse, in all three languages in which he writes, themselves eternally generative of thought and interpretation.

74290

(London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A. IV)

Above, Gower shoots at the globe: this very famous image might be a good place to consider the three papers for “Global Gower” and their readings of Gower and the globe, as this image shows Gower with bow ready. He hasn’t, of course, shot at his target and maybe he’s just pointing. The pose is locked forever in time as an attempt, and perhaps that’s the best kind of opening to consider these papers as each deals individually with what might be called a kind of globe-making in Gower. For Shyama Rajendran, this globe-making turns on the polyvocality of Gower’s Vox Clamantis and animacy: for Seth Strickland, it’s about the globes of Confessio and Pericles and how we might think of these two worlds being read together, and finally, for Eve Salisbury, the globe takes on a dynamic meaning—shuttling between the Globe as theatrical space and the world as space for making theatrical globes.

In “Going Feral: Uncontrollable Languages in the Vox Clamantis,” Shyama rightly fleshes out the nature of vernacular tongues, reading in the multitude of linguistic creations in the Vox and Gower’s own trilingual existence, a kind of premodern globalization, if we might use that clunky (and over-used formulation). In her own words, in tracing the animalistic speech of Vox Clamantis, one can rethink the Latinity of the poem, moving to a complicating (in good ways) view of Latin, French, and English as more equal—Latin as another vernacular, as living as English, which too often seems triumphant and dominant in histories of the fourteenth century. Shyama’s willingness to read the globe of Gower in relation to our own, to draw contrasts between the multilingual experience of Gower in his sphere, and the monolingual experience so intertwined with the American political context reinforces the power of Gower to uphold a global understanding not only of his texts but of the past’s influence on what we do in the present. What is particularly resonant is the global nature of language and speech in Shyama’s reading of Vox Clamantis, as she imagines not only the disruption of Latin and its meter by the naming of monstrous dogs with English names, but also the cacophony of nature and the earth: the poem in this reading is feral in its overabundance of sounds, voices, and languages, which, even if Gower might read darkly, modern readers are free to read more positively: perhaps these feral languages can be seen as a recuperation of a moment when different languages existed together, even if uneasily. Gower doesn’t construct walls between languages, nor does he pretend that linguistic cohabitation is easy.

Next Seth, in “Spheres of Intercourse: Incest, Revelation, and Authorial Influence in Pericles and Confessio Amantis,” explores the textual worlds of Gower: both the one he creates and the one that creates him (and tellingly, this formulation describes Confessio and Pericles respectively, and Confessio and Confessio).  Seth, I think, like Gower and Shakespeare, has breathed new life into an old subject and set before us the global nature of texts. Many medievalists have written about or thought through Gower’s agency in Pericles—I know I have—and yet, in really innovative ways Seth shows how in “ignoring the ashy medieval Ghost” of Gower, Shakespeare’s play actually deeply involves that ghost. And I’m intrigued by the formulation that the play doesn’t speak about or of Gower, but rather with Gower. Gower, I think, and I hope I’m not reading too much or too violently what Seth is arguing here, becomes part of the globe that Pericles traverses, in part because both Pericles and Marina share something with Gower: “the reversal of sexual aberrance to familial generation and resulting self knowledge.” So, for both Pericles and Gower/Amans, avoiding the wrong kind of love is facilitated by finding the right kind of self. Connecting the worlds then of Confessio Amantis and Pericles, Seth illustrates how the play both “is and is like relating a story: the reader cannot change the story while he retells an identical story, but changes in emphasis are not only impossible, but unavoidable.” Translation and retelling are complicated by Seth’s critical voicing here, but, like Shyama, he balances the costs of living in and among different worlds with the rewards, which far outweigh the former. Nigel Farage, are you listening?

It seems appropriate that Eve’s paper ended our session, following Seth’s, which itself brought Gower more forcefully into Shakespeare’s present. What I found so intriguing about Eve’s discussion of the globe and the Globe (world first, theater second) is the slipperiness of the world globe and the idea of stage—both as a stage of life and stage upon which that life is performed. Ultimately, I heard and saw Eve working through how Gower can be handled dynamically, globally, and how changes to the performances of that choral role bring the original slippage between Shakespeare’s Globe (as theater) and Gower’s globe (as world) to life. At this year’s Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I heard different speakers talk about the importance and relevancy of the Middle Ages, and here we might see how, by resurrecting Gower, Pericles reenacts in each performance, globally, what we try to do with the Middle Ages: “Over time and successive performances of Shakespeare’s Pericles in various venues around the world Gower becomes more than a dead poet interred in Southwark’s cathedral; rather, he becomes a cipher of change who can be played in ways that reach well beyond the Globe’s stage.” Like Pericles‘s Gower, who moves from the Globe’s stage to a global stage, we as medievalists refuse to bury the Middle Ages. With each performance and resurrection of the poet, Pericles then shows the dynamic nature of the literature, history, language, and culture we study. And by forcing modern readers, scholars, and students to live in worlds apart and worlds close by, medievalists can use the texts and materials we study, especially Gower, to reinforce what we know to be true. You can’t escape the world.

And what Gower knows perhaps, and what we can learn from him, is that the world cannot be made perfect. Global greatness might rely on the individual who immerses herself in the world, and this is the most honest campaign slogan we can imagine. Make Gower great again!

Will Rogers

University of Louisiana, Monroe

Gower’s Social Poetics: A Thought Experiment

Lately, I’ve been concerned wit604px-DeathWatTylerFullh the social. In fact, I think it’s a fair assessment (or just fair) to say that we’ve all been concerned with the social—whether the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Syrian refugee crisis, or the always-shifting, never-ending war on terror with its most recent manifestation in San Bernardino, CA. My moments of introspection about these matters have led me to consider how what I do as a medievalist speaks to such moments of social unrest, upheaval, etc. For example, can we compare moments of social unrest in medieval England, such as the Rebellion of 1381, to the current wave of protests in the US and abroad? Aren’t the economic situations and class stratification eerily similar?

And, inevitably, in this process I turn to John Gower.

Immediately, though, some readers will wonder why I would turn to Gower. We who work on this poet constantly must answer this question (see the titles of the previous two blog posts). However, my goal in this post is not to defend Gower. Rather, I write from the premise that it is only Gower who allows us to find something of ourselves in the tales that he spun over five hundred years ago. As Lynn Arner notes in her recent post, “The end of Confessio stages a miraculous transformation of Amans into Gower’s ideal reader: the narcissistic, apathetic lover becomes an enlightened reader who understands the need for social change and who abandons amorous pursuits to reflect on societal strife and to pursue the common good” (par. 10). Rather than consider Gower’s specific goal for change, however, I want to consider how Gower envisions the social.

As Shyama Rajendran quite astutely points out in her recent post, “we should take seriously the forcefulness of [Gower’s] critique of social systems” (par.9). But then I pause on the word “social” again.

Does Gower understand the social in the same way as we do?

I quote Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social at length here in order to query this term, social:

A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative—it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical, natural—and some positive—it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order. Once this domain had been defined, no matter how vaguely, it could then be used to shed some light on specifically social phenomena—the social could explain the social—and to provide a certain type of explanation for what the other domains could not account for—an appeal to ‘social factors’ could explain the ‘social aspects’ of non-social phenomena (3).

This definition of the social typically guides our analyses and considerations of Gower’s work in relation to the systems of late feudalism in fourteenth-century England. We, as Gower scholars, have spilled an enormous amount of ink on how Gower’s poetry addresses a number of social phenomena. In so doing, we have tacitly declared that the social is defined, understood, agreed upon, and, even in the tumultuous fourteenth century, somewhat stable.

My point here is not to claim that all of this scholarship (including my own) is wrong and/or faulty. Instead, I want us to consider how, borrowing from Latour’s title, we might reassemble our conception of “social” to bring about new insights about the social in Gower’s poetry and, in so doing, find connections to networks and systems in our society today.

Latour redefines the social in his work as “the tracing of associations,” and continues, “in this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves “social” (5). We eliminate the ambiguous framework that we refer to as social and replace it with a system of networks made up of the interactions among the individual components. In this new formulation of the social, the only way to discuss such phenomena is through observing, describing, and critiquing the exchanges between independent entities.

And isn’t this exactly what Gower does? The entire tale-telling process in Confessio Amantis is about the social. Through these tales, Gower examines interactions between individuals, entities, things, etc. We tend to assimilate these individual tales into the larger picture of the work as a whole—one that supports the traditional notion of society as always existing infrastructure—yet in their conception as tales they are aimed toward individual associations, first among the characters within the tales and then moving outward between Amans and the glosses Genius provides. The act of reading itself, too, becomes social in this understanding of the idea of social because, as Latour discusses above, it is a way of connecting—associating—ourselves with the text and its component parts. (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Of course, rereading Confessio from this perspective seems counter to the text’s own professed aim. Gower, so it goes, espouses unity and (conservative) establishment throughout Confessio. However, Gower’s understanding of how such unity may be accomplished does not always follow. For instance, in the Commons section of the Prologue, Gower writes that there is “defalte non” in God and “So moste it stonde upon ousselve” (Pr. 524-25). We must not be divided within ourselves, then, because “man is cause of that schal falle” (Pr. 528). In other words, what is yet to come will be the result of humankind’s actions. Gower is not necessarily arguing here that humans (the commoners, in any case) adhere to established order; rather, he points out that we cannot succeed in our interactions if we ourselves are internally divided.

Internal division problmatizes both agency and intention, which leads inevitably to a failure of the social in this reconsideration. The fault is not the human to accept a preexisting order—it is our inability to associate externally as a result of what we might consider internal dissociation. This theme of internal division continues throughout this section of the Prologue, and we see the clearest exposition of this situation when the narrator states: And thus stant al the worldes werk / After the disposicioun / Of man and his condicioun (Pr. 942-44).

The world’s division results from the internal division of humankind. The social has broken down because the individual components within the network of associations have broken down.

Reading Gower’s Confessio is a necessarily social act in Latour’s understanding of the social. As we examine the connections between the individual pieces—estates, humans, animals, boats, nations—we examine ourselves in connection to these same pieces and to the larger tales in which they occur. Some critics may consider this relationship to be didactic, but I would instead offer this association as simply another connection to examine as we reassemble our understandings and definitions of the social.

To return to the question I posed earlier: Does Gower understand the social in the same way that we do? I do not know for certain, but I think Confessio‘s representation of social differs markedly from traditional modern conceptions. Gower offers a social poetics that engages the reader in a co-creation of interpersonal connections and relationship. As a result, the reader, whether premodern or modern, is always a part of the social contexts of the text. The text speaks to us, and we speak to the text. This ongoing textual conversation does not just allow for coeval comparisons—it creates them. As readers bring themselves to the text, they bring their contexts, too, to bear on it, thus automatically making associations, comparisons, and networks of ongoing communication.

Gower’s social poetics, then, speak to the questions and answers provided by Arner’s and Rajendran’s previous posts. Whether we “like” Chaucer more than Gower, as Arner acknowledges, depends on our tastes for narrative. Gower makes us read and, therefore, think in a way fundamentally differently from Chaucer. Whereas Chaucer provides explicit depictions of types, Gower provides only associations. With Gower’s social poetics that often lack narrative depiction, then, we find the coeval that Rajendran suggests. We may insert ourselves—perhaps even must insert ourselves—into these associations, and in so doing, we may discover how to bring such associative relationships into our present discourses. In essence, we create opportunities for coevalisms in any reading of Gower’s Confessio because we enter as a component in an ever-expanding network. We may also, then, serve as a conduit between our present environment and Gower’s in order to increase our understanding of both in a newly formed context.

This latter point is especially disorienting to those of us who have lived under the impression that society exists independently from its various components as a historically situated context. But by reading Gower, as I hope this entry has at least begun to show, we find a way to question such monolithic structures through reasserting that they do not exist outside of the interactions of their component parts. We, like Gower, must consider how our networks of associations create, rather than are created by, the social. Following Gower’s lead in Confessio, we, too, can productively query our present assemblage of the social in order to change it. We can create coeval networks that connect the premodern past and the present in ways that alter our understanding of both.

Jeff Stoyanoff
Spring Hill College

 

Why Do We Read Gower?

I’d like to begin by sharing a story about my experiences teaching Gower’s Confessio Amantis in an undergrad medieval literature class in Fall 2014. After successfully teaching Book I of Gower’s Latin Vox Clamantis earlier that week in which Gower details an apocalyptic dream vision generally read to be an allegory of the Rising of 1381, I was filled with enthusiasm. For the second part of this Gower week, I had the students read part of the Prologue to the Confessio, the “Tale of Constance” (since we had read Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale) and part of Book 8. I assigned these particular readings thinking that this way students would be able to see the differences between the two recensions and would then be able to compare Gower’s Constance story with Chaucer’s version. This was going to be great! I thought.

Nope. That class was probably the most uncomfortable seventy-five minutes of my life. My students were pretty hostile—Gower, after all, isn’t interesting, they said. His characters weren’t compelling. The story was boring.

I looked back on why this experience was such a failure, and I realized that it didn’t work because I had tried to teach Gower in the way that I teach Chaucer.

I asked myself why I find Gower so compelling (my scholarship is largely about him, after all). By modern standards, Gower’s characters seem flat and his stories seem underdeveloped; narrative in itself does not appear to be his primary interest. Gower does not seem to set out to craft compelling stories driven by life-like dialogue. Such features are, of course, the reasons that people find Chaucer so much more interesting.

What Gower does care about are systems—social systems, relationships of power, and the idea that humanity’s internal state is reflected by the state of the larger world. Gower expounds upon these particular topics at length in all three of his major works. He believes in upholding the structure of the socioeconomic system that exists in his historical moment, but considers it to be fundamentally broken. People are corrupt, sin is rampant, and basically almost everything is terrible, according to Gower. He is a systems theorist, as we see through his view of a world made up of complex but interrelated and interdependent parts.

This teaching experience is why I was compelled to respond to Lynn Arner’s thought-provoking blog post, “Why Do We Care More About Chaucer Than Gower?” (see previous post.) Arner writes eloquently about the values that modern scholars ascribe to Chaucer and the way in which those values colour scholarly perceptions of Gower. (Gower, for example, is a gentry elitist whose politics potentially make modern scholars uncomfortable.) However, here are my fundamental questions about the entire conversation around comparing Gower to Chaucer: Can we avoid creating a false equivalence between these two writers? What gets lost when we continuously cast Gower as a foil to Chaucer? While the two writers had a friendship and certainly cite each other, why must Chaucer continue to be the standard for how we read Gower? Reading Gower and Chaucer in the same way, as if they have the same goals as writers, doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Arner writes that Gower’s political investments are what make scholars perceive him as “dull” and “uninteresting.” I would argue that those investments are exactly what make him incredibly compelling. This being said, those interests seem less glamorous when we attempt to interrogate Gower’s work with the premise that narrative and character development are what matter. We, as literature scholars, tend to find storytelling interesting, which predisposes us to be attracted to Chaucer.  However, starting with Chaucer colours our reading of other writers who don’t do the same kind of work. Chaucer, for a host of historical reasons, has become our access point to medieval English literature, and thus we fall into a tautological trap thanks to his labeling of Gower—Gower is “moral” because he’s not Chaucer, and he’s not Chaucer because he’s moral.

So how does the entire conversation change when Gower, rather than Chaucer, becomes our entry point into medieval English writing?

Arner writes that Chaucer also “creates the illusion of an inclusive world” and that his poetry “offers a complex multiple address capable of speaking to numerous groups.” This is absolutely true. However, I would argue that in a decade where more and more conversations have arisen about structural oppression across the board—from Occupy Wall Street, to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, to the conversation about women in STEM, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to the crisis of academic adjuncts—Gower’s interest in the urgent reform of systems and his earnest approach to ethics has never been more relevant. Arner observes that “Gower occupies a recognizable position on the socioeconomic ladder and promotes ideologies that work to preserve his privileged place in society,” but even if Gower’s political stances don’t align with the sensibilities of modern-day academics, we should take seriously the forcefulness of his critique of social systems. Moreover, we in medieval literature studies have been thinking about systems as well. There have been amazing and valuable contributions to postcolonial, queer, ecocritical, and disability studies by medieval literary scholars. However, even those of us who do read Gower have largely not attended to the ways in which the poet offers us a vocabulary to address these fields. By giving ourselves permission to read Gower as Gower, we might arrive at a critical social awareness—one that is coeval with the concerns of the present and not solely bounded as historically medieval.

Thinking beyond Chaucerian frameworks doesn’t mean that we have to stop caring about Chaucer, but it might open up a whole new world of how we read Gower as Gower.

Shyama Rajendran

The George Washington University

Why Do We Care More About Chaucer Than Gower?

In his posting in May 2014 to The New Chaucer Society’s website, Mark Miller asks “Why do we Care about Chaucer?” Miller argues, “Chaucer’s poetry, particularly the Canterbury Tales, is exceptionally well-suited to the material and ideological conditions of higher education.” “Chaucer, unlike Langland,” Miller remarks, “wrote in a way that the institutional structures of 20th-century higher education ended up finding convenient.” Miller provides good reasons for Chaucer’s appeal in higher education. I wish to add to Miller’s insights. Reasons for Chaucer’s appeal in contemporary American classrooms become more evident when his poetry is placed alongside the writings of John Gower, a poet who usually receives short shrift in literature courses.

Part of the lure of the Canterbury Tales is encapsulated by the phrase “Diverse folk diversely they seyde” (Reeve’s Prologue, l. 3857). In this era when academe promulgates a neoliberal rhetoric of inclusion, a text that appears to offer diversity is particularly compelling. In English departments, syllabi often feature writings, both literary and theoretical, by a range of authors from different ethnicities, races, socioeconomic positions, and sexualities, a range seldom matched by the demographics of bodies in university classrooms. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is populated with characters from an ostensibly wide range of occupations and socioeconomic strata, and within this motley crew, more differences abound: the pilgrimage features religious and secular figures, a seemingly protofeminist character, a differently gendered character (the Pardoner), and even a same-sex couple (the Pardoner and Summoner). Moreover, fictive Jews and Muslims appear in the “Prioress’s Tale” and the “Man of Law’s Tale.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales creates the illusion of an inclusive world, where knights, merchants, lawyers, millers, artisans, plowmen, and high- and low-ranking religious figures, male and female, can all sit at the same table and conduct a grand conversation about the world, a fiction inflecting William Caxton’s image of the pilgrims seated around a large table, an engraving in his second edition of the Canterbury Tales in 1484 (see fig. 1).Canterbury_Tales The persuasiveness of Chaucer’s execution of this illusion was encapsulated in the now discarded assumption that Alison, the weaver from Bath, somehow represents the interests of late fourteenth-century Englishwomen and offers a window into their subjectivities.

The Canterbury Tales creates this illusion of diversity in other ways as well. In addition to offering a wide range of genres and poetic forms, Chaucerian poetry, as Miller points out, is rich in signification and seems capable of perpetually generating fresh insights. This endless proliferation of meaning is valued in an educational system structured by an ideology of individualism, where readers are encouraged to invent their own innovative readings, a multiplicity that acts as proof of each student’s own unique talents and capacities. Such endless possibilities for meaning create the impression that Chaucer’s poetry offers a complex multiple address capable of speaking to numerous groups, that there is something for (almost) everyone in Chaucer’s poetry.

Just as Chaucer’s narrational layering prevents any easy stabilization of meaning, these levels of mediation thwart a stabilization of politics. Chaucer is notoriously difficult to pin down regarding any particular stance, which makes him ideal for a humanist literary practice that understands politics to be outside poetry’s domain. As Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron have argued, the study of Art in educational institutions promotes the celebration and appreciation of bourgeois aesthetics, where, by implication, discussions of Art in relation to economics and politics are dismissed as naïve, reductive, or even boorish. Chaucerian poetry disavows any relation to power struggles beyond the text, as the staging of Cupid’s complaint in the Legend of Good Women indicates. Cupid complains that Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde makes men trust women less and that Chaucer’s translation of the Roman de la Rose deters would-be suitors from joining the court of love. In short, Cupid’s lament insists that poetry shapes a reader’s consciousness and affects such behaviors. Yet the bulk of the Legend argues that whoever asks poetry to be held accountable for its politics lacks a true understanding of how to read and appreciate poetry, as the example of stupid Cupid attests. Furthermore, the Legend insists that authors who explicitly attempt to produce socially responsible poetry generate dull, sterile art. Through such logic, the Legend critiques an approach to poetry that, at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer aligns with Gower.

The near impossibility of determining Chaucer’s own stances and the unlocatability of his political interests make him an ideal figure to celebrate in humanist approaches to authorship. Chaucer seems to speak from no position in particular but seems to stand above the fray; he appears to occupy a position outside social conflict in his day, providing a neutral, enlightened vision of society. Chaucer’s poetry helped carve out this humanist position for an author at the founding moments of the transmission of a Greco-Roman literary tradition into the English vernacular in the late fourteenth century.

From among the medieval English poets, Chaucer is an obvious choice to honor in contemporary American academe because he worked for a living: as a court page, ambassador, comptroller of customs, justice of the peace, keeper of the king’s works, and poet. Current sensibilities generally find it more palatable to honor a poet who worked in secular occupations than one who lead either a life of leisure as an aristocrat or a life of devotion as a religious cleric. Socioeconomically, compared to many other medieval poets, Chaucer is thought to resemble more closely the majority of scholars in contemporary English departments, so much so that Chaucer is recurrently misidentified as middle class rather than as a member of the proto-bourgeoisie, whose family members belonged to the wealthy mercantile elite and owned substantial property in London.

Chaucer is an ideal author because his ironic tone resembles one celebrated in conventional English literary studies. As Bourdieu and Passeron explain, bourgeois students typically possess mannered elegance, ironic casualness, and grace, and are therefore seen as naturally gifted and talented. Such ironic casualness is highly prized in contemporary academe. By contrast, students whose habits reveal the work and effort that they dedicate to their studies are routinely devalued, interpreted as lacking the gift. Presenting cultural pastimes as a game, Chaucer’s tone is self-assured, demonstrating a commanding ease. Chaucer’s poetry seems effortless, a model to emulate for those who aspire to the types of bourgeois characteristics and aesthetics rewarded in our educational system.

On many of these counts Gower stands as a model not to emulate. Compared to Chaucer’s ease, the stilted learnedness of Gower’s writings bespeaks a poet who expended considerable effort and labor to create his art and hence betrays a poet who must not have been that talented. Likewise, composed in multiple languages, unlike Chaucer’s poetry, Gower’s oeuvre requires hard work and effort to master. Gower’s writings are conventionally seen as didactic and plodding. His poetry is not thickly layered with levels of narration and, although impressive, is seemingly not as productive of new meanings as the work of Chaucer. Moreover, Gower’s fictional narrators do not produce an illusion of diversity: Amans, for example, is a wealthy heterosexual man of leisure, moreover, who is elderly in the end. Gower’s Confessio and Vox Clamantis offer little pretense within the narrative frame of having truck with people from different walks of life. Moreover, unlike the Canterbury Tales, Gower’s poetic style creates no formalist illusions of diversity, since his poetic form is not highly varied. To many, Gower’s work seems dull.

Worse, Gower is rather heavy-handed and upfront about his politics in most of his writings. The stances he promotes, such as insisting that the members of the social body must bow to the ruling classes, are often considered embarrassing. A leisured member of the landed gentry (i.e., the lower levels of the aristocracy) and an investor in mercantile ventures in wool, Gower occupies a recognizable position on the socioeconomic ladder and promotes ideologies that work to preserve his privileged place in society. His aristocratic status does not generally sit well with current English scholars, as commonplace attempts to recast Gower as middle class attest. Similarly, Gower’s defense of the socioeconomic hierarchy is unsettling, as the frequent defenses by Gower scholars of his stance on class indicate: the ubiquitousness in Gower studies of the iconic image of this poet shooting his arrow at a world divided into the three estates acts as such a disavowal mechanism, implying that Gower does not defend the ruling classes but judiciously critiques the faults of the various socioeconomic groups in late fourteenth-century England (see fig. 2).John_Gower_world_Vox_Clamantis

Gower understands—and explicitly operates on the assumption—that poetry shapes consciousness and affects lives, a stance that many late medieval authors held, such as William Langland and writers of saints’ lives. However, such an understanding of poetry is not hegemonically endorsed in current medieval English literary studies, and, when it is endorsed, scholars generally prefer poetry that participates in subtle ways in shaping consciousness and the political terrain rather than poetry that is explicitly didactic, especially when a text promotes a conservative agenda.

With its more casual tone and amorous short tales, Gower’s final tome, the Confessio Amantis, seems to echo Chaucerian poetry. Seeing the audiences that his colleague garnered with his amusing tales, often of love, the senior poet attempted, in his final major work, to win the widest audience possible, as his linguistic shift from Anglo-Norman and Latin to English attests. In the Confessio, Amans stands as a specter of a type of reader that Gower attempted to recruit: a leisured person who is eager to hear and speak at length of love, a figure who demonstrates apathy toward society, a reader to whom Chaucer’s amorous poetry is addressed. The end of the Confessio stages a miraculous transformation of Amans into Gower’s ideal reader: the narcissistic, apathetic lover becomes an enlightened reader who understands the need for social change and who abandons amorous pursuits to reflect on societal strife and to pursue the common good. The Confessio enacts a fantasy of recruiting Chaucerian audiences to a more politicized version of literature with readers ultimately acting in more socially conscious ways as a result. The Confessio stages this recruitment fantasy not just about Chaucer’s readers but about Chaucer himself, a fantasy articulated rather baldly at the end of the Ricardian Confessio, where Venus requests that Chaucer write more like Gower.

In a few ways, Gower is conventionally considered as appealing, sometimes more so, than Chaucer. Like Chaucer, Gower’s transmission of Greco-Roman riches into English and his invitation to readers to enter the treasure trove of cultural riches enshrined in the Confessio attracts contemporary scholars and students alike. Similarly, a mastery of Gower’s oeuvre offers impressive cultural capital, even more than a mastery of Chaucer’s works. Like his colleague, Gower helps carve out for English literature the locus of the humanist author, the visionary who stands outside his society and who offers a disinterested view. Of course, Gower’s promotion of the illusion of the neutral observer contradicts his rather stark statements about the social order. Despite the contradiction, however, some medieval English literary scholars prefer the type of poet that Gower represents compared to Chaucer: namely, a poet who is less dissembling about his politics—regardless how problematic—over those authors who disingenuously disavow that poetry shapes readers’ understandings of themselves, others, and the world around them, even while proceeding under the knowledge that literature does exactly that.

Lynn Arner
Brock University

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.

The Gower Project and New Media

This session brought together some exciting new ways to study and think about Gower’s poetry (as well as other medieval writers). Beginning with an introduction to the newest additions to The Gower Project websites, including the latest versions of our online bibliography, links to a diverse array of resources, the translation Wiki, and digitized texts and manuscripts, session presenters demonstrated creative new ways of teaching and assimilating an expansive Gowerian cosmology. In “Virtual(ly) Gower: The Confessio Amantis in Hyperprint,” Tamara O’Callaghan and Andrea Harbin showed us how “a collaborative digital humanities tool” they are developing with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities promises to engage undergraduate students “in a manner that helps them read the Middle English text and enhances their understanding of the literary work and its historical period.” Their hypertext edition of Gower’s English poem “uses a combination of the printed page and e-devices (such as iPhone, iPad, android tablets, etc.) to provide textual, audio, graphical, and Augmented Reality enhancements to the literary work.” Their demonstration of Augmented Reality sparked the audience’s interest and at the suggestion of the presenters prompted them to seek out the app on their own e-devices. Needless to say, the conversation was lively and remarkably interactive, making O’Callaghan and Harbin’s claim for the intensity of student engagement apparent to everyone in the room.

Serina Patterson sustained that audience energy as she proceeded to unveil the digital application she is currently developing at the University of British Columbia. Called 7Planets 3D–The Medieval Universe, this is an app that “charts the stars, the planets, constellations, and celestial bodies in our galaxy through the writings of medieval poets and thinkers.” Focusing on Book 7 of the Confessio Amantis, Patterson showed us how such an app has the capacity to enhance our appreciation of Gower’s “distillation of various sources,”  including Brunetto Latini’s Tresor and Fulgentius’ Mythologicon. We can now position ourselves at any given spot (maybe even Southwark Cathedral) and look to the stars as Gower “charts a course from the earth outwards, through the planets, zodiac, and fifteen other constellations.” The possibilities for this new app are mind-boggling and many of us left the room contemplating the future of medieval studies. All in all the session fulfilled its promise, bringing cutting-edge technologies to the attention of a forward-looking group of medievalists.crab_hubble