Because Shakespeareans like to shove Shakespeare into everything – the Middle Ages, the eighteenth century, the Victorian period, the present day, the future – of course we managed to get our own panel at the Gower conference, and a very good panel it was, too. Shakespeare has made it easy for scholars to talk about him and Gower in the same breath, by actually implanting “Gower” as a character in his late play Pericles, an adaptation of Gower’s “Apollonius of Tyre.” This is probably why, of the three panel papers at this session, two – mine and the University of Rochester’s Jonathan Baldo’s – discussed Shakespeare’s Pericles. Jonathan Baldo spoke of the importance of memory to the seafaring Pericles, who knocks about the Aegean enduring various hardships (shipwreck, loss of wife and daughter, temporary loss of armor when he tries to swim in it, etc.). Pericles–Shakespeare’s Apollonius–is at the play’s end enjoined to remember all that he has lost in order to reclaim it in a joyous and moving pair of final scenes. Baldo argued that this thematic importance of memory constituted Shakespeare’s argument for remembering England’s medieval past. My paper, also about Pericles, talked about Shakespeare’s championing of the combined genres of medieval tale telling and early modern stagecraft, as he deputizes narrator Gower (Shakespeare must have played Gower!) to draw stage and story together. Kathy Romack of the University of West Florida described how much of the literary work of Shakespeare’s rival Robert Greene not only a.) insulted Shakespeare, but b.) revived the “confessio” form that was so important to Gower. A lively discussion of all these topics was well moderated by Pace University’s Martha Driver. Then we all went out and did our own seafaring, or river-faring, on a barge on the Erie Canal. (“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal . . . .”)
Now that the festivities are over and the heightened intensity of engagement with Gower’s work have been assimilated into the more mundane activities of everyday life (and from the perspective of Gower rehab), I can look back upon the week gone by and offer some reflections on the four-day event. First and foremost, perhaps, is the overall impression that Gowerfest as it has become known on social media was a success, at least if the after-buzz is any indication. And while there are many notable presentations to recount (something we’ll be doing over the next few days), suffice it to say at this juncture that the intellectual exchanges among conferees may have been just as fruitful as those more social and entertaining. Among the highlights were stimulating plenary addresses by Russell Peck, Ardis Butterfield, Helen Cooper, and Derek Pearsall, an incomparable concert of Machaut’s “musical monuments” by Schola Cantorum of the Eastman School of Music, Bruce Holsinger’s reading of excerpts from his novel, A Burnable Book, Sarah Higley’s machinima presentation of three Gowerian tales, and a recorded recitation in three languages of the Confessio Amantis. Gower’s futurism was in evidence in such adaptations and imaginative re-presentations. Add to this brief synopsis a showing of the BBC Pericles with Gower’s prominent narration, an exhibit of manuscripts, editions, and illustrations, even a tour on the Erie Canal all folded into conversations on the relevance of the poet’s work in our own lives and we have an event to be remembered.
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.
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.