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.
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.
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.
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.