Conrad van Dyk

title.none: Yeager, ed., On John Gower (Conrad van Dyk)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.017 08.10.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Conrad van Dyk, Concordia University College of Alberta,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Yeager, R.F. On John Gower: Essays at the Millennium. Studies in Medieval Culture XLVI. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. Pp. x, 241. 978-1-58044-098-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.17

Yeager, R.F. On John Gower: Essays at the Millennium. Studies in Medieval Culture XLVI. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. Pp. x, 241. 978-1-58044-098-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Conrad van Dyk
Concordia University College of Alberta

On John Gower is the third collection of essays to result from the annual sessions sponsored by the John Gower Society at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (at Kalamazoo). While the book's subtitle, Essays at the Millenium may sound somewhat belated (given the 2007 publication date), the essays in fact began as session papers offered between 1999 and 2003. In their revised and expanded form they present a diverse series of new perspectives on Gower, and together they demonstrate, as the editor, R. F. Yeager, rightly points out, "the vibrancy of the field today" (vii).

The opening essay is Steven Kruger's "Gower's Mediterranean." Kruger suggests that Gower uses the geopolitical space of the Mediterranean to "think through questions of mercantilism and religious identity" (8). The Tale of Constance, for instance, opens with an account of Constance converting foreign merchants, an exchange which demonstrates that mercantile activity furthers, rather than blocks, spiritual progress. However, this fantasy of a perfect Christian mercantilism is undercut by the violent exchanges between Roman Christianity and its Barbar other. Kruger thus demonstrates the clear connection between mercantilism and religion, although this reviewer was somewhat underwhelmed by the actual application of this thesis to the Confessio Amantis, particularly after the initial lengthy (and extremely interesting) introduction to the medieval debate of whether a Christian betrays his faith if he is a merchant.

From the Mediterranean, it is a logical next step to Winthrop Wetherbee's "Rome, Troy, and Culture in the Confessio Amantis." Wetherbee posits that Gower's "primary theme in the Confessio Amantis is culture" (20), a concept Gower understood in social rather than religious terms. In Gower's cultural landscape the two "landmarks" (22) that bring his ideals into focus are Troy and Rome. Whereas Troy symbolizes the world of chivalry, and all its materialism and individualism, Rome "is associated with wise government...and stable institutions" (24). In support of this thesis, Wetherbee provides a masterful close reading of Gower's Roman and Trojan tales (such as The Tale of the False Bachelor, The Tale of Orestes, and the Tale of Jason and Medea).

At the same time, it may be questioned whether there is not a danger of occasional stereotyping. For instance, when Menestheus intervenes at the trial of Orestes he is said to cut off the judicial proceedings, so that "chivalric prerogative has triumphed over civil justice" (28). Actually, the situation is slightly more complicated, for Menestheus tells parliament, "'I wole it with my bodi prove' [that Orestes acted rightfully]/And therupon he caste his glove" (2153-54). Contemporary use of the appeal's process shows that such an action at the very least has a judicial ring. [1]

In other words, even in a tale about Troy there is a concern to redeem chivalry by supporting it with at least a quasi-legal justification (a strand that runs throughout the tale, as Kobayashi's later essay demonstrates). The same complication arises in a Roman story like the Tale of the False Bachelor, where perhaps we should not be so quick as to separate "Roman" and "Knight" without seeing how a chivalric exploit and a concern for justice can coalesce. Ultimately, while Wetherbee's binary reading will hold-and for good reason--it may be wondered whether the paradigm creates a slightly simplified picture of the humanist Gower who abhors war and the abuses of chivalry.

Craig E. Bertolet's essay, "Fraud, Division, and Lies: John Gower and London" is in many ways a companion piece to Steven Kruger's "Gower's Mediterranean." Bertolet brings a wide array of cultural documents (such as the London Letter-Books and various guild documents) to bear on Gower's references to civic life. Bertolet covers a great deal of territory in a surprising amount of detail. In the process, we learn about Gower's thoughts on deceptive trading, usury, foreign merchants, mob unrest, dangerous speech, and other related topics.

Bertolet does not straight-jacket his material into a single thesis, but sometimes he does push the historical reading a little hard. Particularly the account of the Brembre-Northampton episode (a conflict between two London mayors that created a fair amount of civic unrest in the 1380s) seems too specific for the general references that Bertolet finds in the Confessio and the Vox Clamantis, references relating to the effects of the mob and the dangers of divisive speech and false rhetoric. Bertolet's conclusion, on the other hand, lacks some of the nuances of his detailed readings. For instance, whereas in the body of the essay he calls Gower "reactionary and xenophobic" (53) on the subject of foreign traders, in the conclusion we read that throughout his career Gower "demonstrates a sympathetic understanding of the people with whom he shares his city" (62). Minor inconsistencies aside, this is a very fine piece of scholarship, and will certainly be essential background reading for anyone interested in Gower's urban culture, a subject that appears to be drawing an increasing amount of attention in recent years. [2]

It is a feature of all these essays that they move comfortably through all of Gower's major works, and here Yoshiko Kobayashi's "Principis Umbra: Kingship, Justice, and Pity in John Gower's Poetry" is no exception. Kobayashi demonstrates that Gower's understanding of justice and pity becomes "increasingly complex and ambiguous in his later poems" (72). The problem is that there is both a good kind of pity (clementia, or rationally justifiable gentleness) and a bad form (misericordia, or the emotional and irrational reaction to others' suffering). The result of this Senecan distinction is that Pity often comes to mean a zeal for justice rather than a concern for mercy.

Already in the Vox Clamantis, Gower's "perception of impietas as the driving force behind the peasants' rebellion...leads him to seek a remedy...not in the form of merciful government that he expounded in the Mirour [de l'Omme], but in a strong, effective leadership capable of rendering swift and ruthless justice" (81). The depiction of the peasants as savage, irrational beasts obviates the need to practice charity to sinners, a strategic move that Kobayashi insightfully links to Aquinas's penological thought. Yet, in the Confessio Amantis-- particularly in the Tale of Orestes, and in some of the stories about Alexander--Gower reveals his disquiet about how the king might misuse his prerogative powers. Gower (though not always Genius), shows how the king must take into account "both positive and natural laws as well as his obligation to respect certain legal rights of his subjects" (97). The broad constitutional reading Kobayashi offers is generally persuasive, and while it is by no means exhaustive (Book 7 of the Confessio, for instance, receives scant attention), it presents a satisfying diachronic view of Gower's political commentary.

Joyce Coleman, in "'A bok for king Richardes sake': Royal Patronage, the Confessio, and the Legend of Good Women," takes the concept of diachrony a step further and examines how the editorial choice to divide the Confessio manuscript into three recensions, and to privilege the last over the first, has unduly de- emphasized Richard II's patronage of Gower's work in favour of his later support of Henry IV. Coleman rightly points out that later revisions to the first recension were minor and that there is no reason to question the authenticity of Gower's story of meeting Richard on the Thames.

Further support for the importance of the first recension lies in the courtly allegory within the text itself. Coleman compares Chaucer's depiction of Alceste and Cupid in the Legend of Good Women (where they stand for Richard and Anne) with Gower's similar portrayal of Cupid and Venus. Along with other parallels and allusions, the impression one gets is of Gower and Chaucer as "comrades in fulfilling a commission from Richard" (114). Coleman concludes with some productive speculation about the possibility that Richard had the idea of promoting a cult of the Flower and the Leaf by which he sought to compliment his queen. She also asks a very probing question: why are historians and literary critics so eager to de-emphasize Richard's role in the Confessio? Is it perhaps because of a certain anxiety that Anne's cultural authority (as Venus and as patron) would threaten the poet's masculine independence?

Where Coleman aims to recuperate the first recension, Eve Salisbury attempts to exonerate the Vox Clamantis from criticism that it is exceedingly wearisome, unoriginal, and inartistic. Her essay, "Violence and the Sacrificial Poet: Gower, the Vox, and the Critics" is self-consciously styled after Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," and she provides some rather interesting parallels between Beowulf and the Vox to demonstrate the critical challenges both works pose. Salisbury's reevaluation of Gower's achievement looks at how the poet "unveils the mechanisms of sacrificial violence" (125), particularly in his depiction of the Peasants' Revolt.

Gower's practice of writing cento--which creates a kind of palimpsest where the original context of a borrowed passage is still somewhat visible--allows him to differentiate one form of violence from another. Such an analysis of passages ranging from Peter Riga's Aurora to Ovid's Tristia assumes that Gower could have expected a well-educated audience. Salisbury anticipates this objection by arguing that it is precisely the well-read clergymen whom Gower is attempting to reach, for he wishes to demonstrate their complicity in the events of 1381.

While Salisbury makes a persuasive argument for the artistry and social commentary that the Vox undoubtedly provides, her arguments do raise some questions. For instance, if Gower means to criticize the Caesarian Clergy by using the Archbishop Simon Sudbury's sacrificial death as a "negative exempl[um] of paternal responsibility" (137), then why, to quote Kobayashi, does Gower portray him in the text as a "paragon of virtue" (78)? Sometimes Salisbury's usage of "sacrifice" also becomes somewhat nebulous. Take for instance Gower's casting himself as John the Baptist, which Salisbury interprets as a form of sacrifice (139). It seems difficult to speak of "sacrifice" when he is merely donning someone else's mantel, and Gower still wishes to drawn attention to his own name and identity, fragmented though it may be. [3] These questions aside, Salisbury's analyses of (gendered) violence, punishment, and sacrifice--in this essay and elsewhere--fruitfully make one rethink how our own cultural paradigms affect our understanding and appreciation of Gower's work.

The connection between Salisbury's essay and Kim Zarins's piece, "From Head to Foot: Syllabic Play and Metamorphosis in Book I of Gower's Vox Clamantis" hardly needs to be spelt out. Zarins demonstrates how the Visio section of the Vox, with its focus on the metamorphoses of the rebels into animals, is modeled less after Ovid than after a tradition of Latin grammatical play made popular by rhetoricians such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Alan of Lille. Zarins expertly guides the reader through the linguistic games and puzzles of the Vox to show how the various metamorphoses are predicated on syllabic play (e.g., a word's first syllable resembles its head). The interplay between the agency of the self- metamorphosing peasants (who are masters at syllabic play) and the frightened narrator is nicely delineated, although perhaps more could be made of Gower's agency in demonizing the peasants, whose transformation is surely not always, or only, voluntary.

In the same way that Zarins directs our attention away from Ovid, so Michael P. Kuczynski, in "Gower's Virgil," suggests that while Virgil appears to be much less important a source for Gower than Ovid, Gower's work betrays a sensibility that is in many ways Virgilian, at least in the way that the Middle Ages understood Virgil. From the national character of the Confessio's Prologue to Gower's habit in the Cronica Tripertia of calling Henry pius (Virgil's epithet for Aeneas), Gower embraces an epic conception of literature and identity. Kuczynski ends by reflecting on how Gower's Virgilian stance compares to Chaucer's. He argues that it is quite possible that "Chaucer might have arrived at his anti-Virgilianism [especially in the House of Fame] in conscious opposition to emergent epic tendencies he detected in Gower's personality and poetry" (181). Kuczynski's essay is as wide-ranging and compendious as Gower, and should provide a stimulus for further study of medieval and classical authors (like Dante, for instance) whose spirit inhabits the body of Gower's work.

In "Holy Fear and Poetics in John Gower's Confessio Amantis, Book I," Claire Banchich provides a nuanced reading of the meaning of timor dei within the theological and amorous framework of Book I of the Confessio. Holy dread is an aspect of Humility, which is a remedy for Pride. It is thus also opposed to a vainglorious or seductive poetics, a theme Gower explores for instance in the Tale of Ulysses and the Sirens. Banchich's way of entering Book I by the backdoor (i.e., the virtues opposed to Pride) allows her to interrogate finally whether Gower is consistent in his depiction of holy fear. Peronelle's humble dread in the Tale of the Three Questions makes us wonder to what extent humility can be feigned for the purposes of strategic advancement in rank and station a question that Amans might well like to pose, but which Gower, a poet as "subtle and elusive" (207) as Chaucer, provides no answers for.

The final essay of the collection is Georgiana Donavin's "'When reson torneth into rage': Violence in Book III of the Confessio Amantis." Donavin notes how in the Confessio "homicide and mutilation are so often perpetrated against women who are objects of desire" (217). However, in Book III "Gower proves that Genius's statements of taboo, injunction against violence, do not adequately address the link between aggression and passion and therefore do not untie that destructive bond" (219). Donavin's reading of the Tale of Phebus and Cornide, the Tale of Canace and Machaire, and the Tale of Orestes (among others), certainly demonstrates this gendered nature of violence very vividly.

I found some explanations puzzling, however. I am not sure how useful (or clear) it is to read the scene where Eolus expresses his rage to Canace over her incestuous relationship with her brother as "a reverse-oedipal transmission of the daughter's body--from son to father for ultimate control in death" (222). I am also concerned about the split between Gower and Genius that is needed to make the argument work (i.e., Gower exposing the aporias in Genius's rhetoric). This is a common move in Gower criticism, but perhaps it should be asked (as David Aers once did, very pointedly), [4] whether Gower himself does not have his moral blind-spots.

What I hope my occasional criticism has demonstrated is not, in the first place, the weaknesses of this book, but rather the fact that these are all pieces that provoke discussion. Many of the essays are consciously open-ended, and I certainly look forward to the continuing discussion that will lead, hopefully, to the fourth volume of collected papers from Kalamazoo.

-------- Notes:

1. For instance, when Nicholas Brembre and Simon Burley were on trial for treason during the Merciless Parliament a few years prior to the completion of the Confessio, their right to appeal was denied by a flurry of gauntlets, thrown on the floor (305 in all, according to the chronicles). See, for instance, the description in The Westminster Chronicle: 1381-1394, ed. and trans. L. C. Hector and Barbara F. Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 282-83.

2. Aside from Kruger and Bertolet, see also Andrew Galloway's recent essay, "Gower's Quarrel with Chaucer, and the Origins of Bourgeois Didacticism in Fourteenth-Century London Poetry," in Calliope's Classroom: Studies in Didactic Poetry from Antiquity to the Renaissance, ed. Annette Harder, Alasdair A. MacDonald, and Gerrit J. Reinink (Paris: Peeters, 2007), 245-67.

3. This is something Michael Kuczynski also points out in his discussion of Gower's Latin poem Eneidos Bucolis Etc. (162-63).

4. See David Aers, "Reflections on Gower as 'Sapiens in Ethics and Politics,'" in his Faith, Ethics, and Church: Writing in England, 1360-1409 (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 102-18.