The Medieval Review 11.05.05

Urban, Malte. John Gower, Manuscripts, Readers, Contexts. Disputatio, DISPUT 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. Pp. xii, 242. 60.00 EUR ISBN 978-2-503-52470-2. .

Reviewed by:

Kim Zarins
California State University, Sacramento

The works of late fourteenth-century, trilingual poet John Gower have been gaining popularity in academic research and in the classroom, as attested by the papers delivered at the John Gower Society's First International Congress held in London in 2008, with the second congress to be held this summer in Valladolid, Spain; Gower's recent inclusion in the Norton Anthology; and recent collections of essays by an array of editors, including R. F. Yeager, Siân Echard, and Elisabeth Dutton. Urban's collection will prove a valuable resource to readers of fourteenth-century literature in general and of John Gower in particular. The quality of the essays is consistently strong, written by authors with respected books and substantial articles on Gower. Like most essay collections on John Gower, the individual essays reflect a wide array of inquiries and approaches, with Gower's English poem the Confessio Amantis receiving the majority of attention.

After the brief Introduction by Urban, which provides a history of scholarship on Gower before introducing the sections of the present book, Russell Peck begins the book's first section, "Manuscripts, Materials, and Translation," with his chapter, "John Gower: Reader, Editor, and Geometrician 'for Engelondes Sake'." Peck underscores Gower's active role as an editor bringing past texts to contemporary readers and striking a balance between his priorities as a careful reader with the needs of his readers. Gower is often labeled a compiler, but Peck's assessment of Gower's editorial role seems more complimentary of Gower's mindful craftsmanship. Peck then takes this concept of craftsmanship one step further by assessing the role of the geometrician described in Book 7 of the Confessio. Peck notes that the geometrician's exploration of surface irregularities and scientific calculations is an apt model for good governance and a metaphor for Gower's own craft. The intriguing description of geometrical forms and terms--the circle, triangle, and point--offer a fresh way of seeing how Gower mediates between old books and contemporary readers.

Andrew Galloway's chapter, "Gower's Confessio Amantis, the Prick of Conscience, and the History of the Latin Gloss in Early English Literature," opens with a crux: although fictional characters like Chaucer's pilgrims insist on the pervasive authority of glosses, Latin glosses in Middle English manuscripts are a rarity, unlike vernacular poetry on the Continent. "The puzzle," Galloway writes, "is not only why English poetry did not follow the trajectory of other European vernacular literatures in gaining glosses, but also why English poetry seems to invoke the spectre of Latin glossing, and even to provide the Latin indications in the poetry, while displaying so little of the substance" (45). Galloway investigates this conundrum through Gower's text, whose glosses are abundant but often shallow reductions of the English text, and he explores an alternative history for Latin glosses in English literature with the fourteenth- century anonymous poem, the Prick of Conscience, a text which is heavily and colorfully glossed in some manuscripts with Latin entries that seem to solicit additional glosses from its readers. The Prick of Conscience contains this apparently more vibrant and complex series of glosses because the active readers were engaged in the give-and-take dialogue surrounding confession. Glossing becomes generative rather than a proscriptive statement. The comparison is not only important for readers of Gower to consider but also readers of Chaucer, whose characters describe a power to glossing not attested in most Middle English manuscripts.

The next two essays consider patronage and female readers as prompting the production of Gower's manuscripts. Martha Driver's chapter, "Women Readers and Pierpont Morgan MS M. 126," makes a strong case that MS. M 126 was crafted for the benefit of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. In the process she also makes a strong case for powerful women in the Confessio itself. I especially enjoyed the detailed attention to the illustrations and how these images reflect on gender. For readers familiar only with the manuscript tradition's ubiquitous miniatures featuring respectively Genius and Amans, and Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the statue made of precious metals, Driver's findings are fascinating. She notes that MS M. 126 contains seventy-nine column miniatures, including "sixty-five pictures of women," an extraordinary ratio, though I was not quite sure if that meant sixty-five separate illustrations or if the sixty- five women were featured in a potentially smaller number of images due to groups of women shown in single illustrations (78). Examining the representations of women, and generously including illustrations in the chapter, Driver reveals that the tales' queens not only are central in the illustrations, drawing the eye to them, but also physically larger than the men in the same images. Noting their size, their posed hands suggestive of rhetorical authority, and their lavish dress, Driver argues that the manuscript is crafted for an elite female readership, specifically for Elizabeth Woodville.

In "Translating Women, Translating Texts: Gower's 'Tale of Tereus' and the Castilian and Portuguese Translations of the Confessio Amantis," María Bullón-Fernández explores a different aspect of the Gower manuscript tradition and its female readers through the Castilian and Portuguese translations of the Confessio Amantis. In particular she uses the "Tale of Tereus" to demonstrate how the Castilian version takes more liberties with Gower's text than the Portuguese version does; both, however, recast the tale to underscore the dangers in marrying royal daughters to foreign kings and to underscore a daughters' allegiance to her birth family before her spouse. She then makes the provocative analogy to John of Gaunt's daughters who married into the Portuguese and Castilian royalty, though these marriages to foreign rules did not end with disastrous results like Procne's marriage. Indeed, one fruit of such marriages were the Castilian and Portuguese translations. The Iberian connection to Gower's poem is a new and exciting area in Gower studies; similarly, Bullón-Fernández and Driver both make an intriguing inquiry regarding Gower's aristocratic women readers. What do powerful women see in Gower's poem? They seem to see the relatable power of resourceful, royal women mirrored back at them.

The next three essays are located in the section, "Rhetoric and Authority." J. Allan Mitchell's chapter, "Gower's Confessio Amantis, Natural Morality, and Vernacular Ethics," reveals that while Gower was indebted to his scholastic sources, his position on natural morality was all his own. Mitchell has previously explored Gower's "rhetorical rather than metaphysical...orientation toward ethics," and here expands his analysis to Gower's vernacularization of ethics (137). The word kynde, for example, is a loaded vernacular term: "the poet plays on the word kynde when he wants it to do triple-duty as a simultaneous description of some particular action, its intrinsic nature of species, and finally its relationship to humankind, for example in the droll and apparently circular statement, 'It is al on to say unkinde [i.e., both callous and unnatural] / As thing which don is ayein kinde, / For it with kinde never stod a man to yelden evel for good' (V.4923-5)" (140). Mitchell's comment on Gower's "apparent circularity" is a smart one, because Gower's language often seems simple even when invested in polysemous meaning, an engagement with language mirrored in Mitchell's rhetorical response, "If there is a natural morality...Gower's grasp of it emphatically does not come naturally" (142). Mitchell underscores that Gower knows what he is doing with his vernacular medium, though at first glance the text or underlying logic may seem inconsistent or circular.

Georgiana Donavin's chapter, "Rhetorical Gower," pairs nicely with Mitchell's chapter in her investment in the unity of Gower's poetic work and rhetoric. She argues that Gower's rhetoric is deeply Aristotelian. Her use of Giles of Rome's statement that Intellect and Will must be in accord for Reason to follow was particularly interesting, because she applied it to Genius (Intellect) and Amans (Will) to explain Genius' inconsistent advice to Amans not as a flaw on Gower's part but as a logical result of the disjunction between the Intellect and Will: "Genius, the Intelligence, will not realize what is good and insist on restraints in order to achieve it without a movement of the Will" (172). Her use of rhetoric to explain the growth of Genius and Amans into a mature John Gower strengthens the argument for a unified poem in spite of the Confessio's seeming inconsistencies.

Malte Urban's chapter, "Past and Present: Gower's Use of Old Books in Vox Clamantis," adds some diversity to the parts of the Gower oeuvre considered in the volume by focusing on Gower's great Latin poem. Urban focuses on the statue of Nebuchadnezzar from Book 7, but to frame it he references the angel of history described by Walter Benjamin. Making this comparison allows Urban to note the disconnection between the golden head and clay feet of the statue, much as the current day for Gower is cut off from the golden past. Urban analyzes the dichotomy of head and feet as Gower's particular vision of history, while the missing torso reflects "the absence of the vital connection between past and present," a fascinating comment that made me wonder if Gower later becomes more optimistic concerning his society's link to the past, by the time he writes the Prologue of the Confessio, in which the statue is described again, this time with its torso (182).

The final section of the volume, "London Life and Texts," begins with Craig E. Bertolet's chapter, "'The slyest of alle': The Lombard Problem in John Gower's London," which chronicles the tension between royal authority and London citizens over mercantile regulation and taxation. Replete with murder cases, disputes between king and mayor, and corruption, the essay is fun to share in the classroom. My students and I were very interested to learn why Gower had it in for the Lombards, and how discord between people of different nations was partly to blame on kings, first Edward III and later Richard II, who were seemingly unconcerned about England's trade imbalance. This is also a must-read for anyone interested in Gower's Anglo-Norman poem, the Mirour de l'Omme, which Bertolet demonstrates is a mirror of Gower's frustrated London society.

The volume concludes with Eve Salisbury's chapter, "Promiscuous Contexts: Gower's Wife, Prostitution, and the Confessio Amantis," which like Bertolet's chapter contextualizes Gower's texts through Gower's London, but more specifically explores the complexities surrounding his residence in Southwark, a district known for prostitution and mixed demographics including many immigrants. As she notes, Gower's wife Agnes Groundolf is someone about whom we sadly know little. Potentially a Flemish immigrant who entered into a caste marriage with Gower, Agnes may have secured a better life for herself just as Gower gained assistance in his last years of life. Salisbury makes the additional point that "[m]arriage to a prostitute, or even a woman thought to be a prostitute, was acknowledged as a viable means by which a conscientious man could contribute to the common good" (226). If true such a marriage would complement Gower's willingness as a poet to address topics of sexuality more fully than his famous contemporary Chaucer was inclined to do. Salisbury notes Gower's adaptation of the Apollonius story by adding a prostitute (or the name of a prostitute, Thaise) to the tale, which allows him to elevate common women as teachers and students able to rise from the brothels through education.

In conclusion, this is a book Gower scholars will want to read and medievalists more generally will wish to consult depending upon their disciplinary interests. The main drawback to this volume is that there is no index to help readers conveniently chase down individual tales from the Confessio as they appear in the volume or figures spanning Gower's trilingual corpus. Nevertheless, the accessible essays have brought added contexts to class discussion with my students and will be valuable to anyone interested in the newest research on Gower.