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13.04.10, Carlson, John Gower: Poetry and Propaganda

13.04.10, Carlson, John Gower: Poetry and Propaganda

In his biography of poet John Gower, John H. Fisher asks, "Has there ever been a greater sycophant in the history of English literature?" [1] John Gower's alleged change of loyalty from Richard II to Henry IV at the end of Richard's reign has long marked him and his political writing, especially post-1399 work such as the Cronica tripertita and "In Praise of Peace," as opportunistic at best, and fawning at worst. Those who have viewed Gower more positively have tried to find conflict and hidden resistance in them, in order to claim that these works are more than "inert piece[s] of propaganda." [2] In John Gower: Poetry and Propaganda in Fourteenth-Century England, David Carlson takes up Gower's late Lancastrian writing as fully propagandistic, but by placing it in a wider context, even "tradition" of state-sponsored literature, he renders it anything but inert. The reader comes away from Carlson's book not only much enlightened on a wide range of under-read and under-appreciated Anglo- Latin verse (Gower's and others'), but also with a more complicated conception of the relationship between medieval state power and poetic creation.

Carlson begins his book with a warning to readers, "More history than John Gower, perhaps; much of state-papers, little literary criticism" (1). To a certain extent, this is true: only the second half of the book concerns Gower directly, and little of the book deals directly with literary analysis as such. Nevertheless, his project would be impossible without the careful literary analysis that shapes the both the goals and the process of the book. Carlson's main goal is "to establish that poetry was written in fourteenth-century England by sponsorship of the monarchic state, in prosecution of state-official purposes, and that the slight though century-long official verse- production culminated in the late writings of the English poet John Gower" (1). Though he sets the bar fairly low for what constitutes "propaganda," as anything that "argues for or promotes a particular institutional authority" (42), he is generally careful to qualify the extent to which agents of that authority participate in its creation. However, he admits that he does not engage in arguments over state- formation or literary patronage; similarly, he is interested not in popular issues, but only "non-popular elite cultural actors" (3). While every book comes with certain limitations, these create some serious ambiguity about the primary relationship that propaganda assumes. Without a clear definition of the composition of the state, or a clear picture of the public goals of that state's information program, some readers who approach "propaganda" through either the mass media engines of modern states, or the evangelizing office of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide may have some trouble with Carlson's deployment of the term.

In the first chapter, Carlson examines the complexities of evidence for relationships between states and poets. He begins with perhaps the best-attested case in Great Britain, Robert Baston, a Carmelite who accompanied Edward II to Bannockburn for the purpose of witnessing and attesting to expected English conquest, but who was instead captured and forced by the Scots to write in celebration of their victory. Here, as Carlson shows, there is both external witness and internal evidence; both the Scots and the English, both poet and patrons make clear the nature of the relationship. The major methodological problem for establishing other fourteenth century poems as "propagandistic" (rather than simply panegyric, opportunistic, or flattering) is the lack of such direct evidence. Even poets' attestations to sponsorship (or denial of sponsorship) are suspect, a rhetorical strategy, to make panegyric seem inspired rather than coerced or purchased. Therefore, a major method of analysis will be through the poet's "use of state- deriving sources of information" (5): only through the demonstrated use by poets of official documents does Carlson claim to discover "state-sponsored" verse (28). This informational approach is necessary because style and diction will often be radically altered in the transformation from documentary literature to poetry.

In Chapters two and three, Carlson introduces the reader to the state's methods of propagating of official news, and the "official Latin verse" that depended upon those state documents, especially newsletters. In Chapter two, using the prose works of Thomas Favent, Robert Avesbury, and Henry Knighton, Carlson explores the various ways in which the ephemeral documents that circulated among officials made their way into literature, through literary adaptation, compilation, or solely as a source for information. In the third chapter, he speaks to poetry, and illustrates the problem for establishing "interconnection between the secular state's propaganda programme and the surviving verse performances" (44). His analyses of poetry about Edward III and the Black Prince, including works by Laurence Minot and Gower, illustrate how poetry produces state-centered propaganda without any provable connection with newsletters or other official state writing, especially with problems of "incommensurable styles" of the newsletters and poems (49, 53). These chapters establish the method that Carlson will use to argue for the existence of a tradition of propagandistic poetry, and considering the highly limited evidence available, they are quite convincing; however, it is here again that some readers may feel the lack of definition of the "state" and its programmatic approach to encouragement of institutional faith and management of information. Agents of the monarch, individual nobles, and ecclesiastical actors seem to all be subsumed under the umbrella of "state."

Chapters four and five, on Walter Peterborough's Victoria belli in Hispania and Richard Maidstone's Concordia, respectively, both deal with Anglo-Latin poetry's move to "historical" (rather than ecclesiastical-satiric) content in the mid to late fourteenth century (68). The first celebrates English victory at Nájera in Castile, led by the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, and the second the peace concluded between Richard II and the City of London in 1392. Both chapters explore the need in these poetic accounts for some kind of official access because of their dependence upon multiple witnesses, some of which are necessarily official. Thus, Carlson argues, that even without any documentary evidence of commission, they can be considered state-sponsored. These chapters explore the range of "historical sources" to great profit, and admirably exemplify Carlson's method; nonetheless, Carlson tends to follow threads of what appears to be possible verbal parallels or other more concrete relationships between texts, often for several pages, only finally to declare them "unremarkable." This thoroughness can be frustrating to read at times, and might have been better suited to footnotes.

The second half of the book deals with the very end of the 14th century, and Gower figures centrally. In Chapter six, Calson sets the groundwork for the rest of the book, detailing the production of the Record and Process, the contemporary "official" parliamentary document which recorded the 1399 deposition of Richard II, and which serves as the primary source for Gower's Cronica tripertita (Carlson has recently edited both of these texts). [3] In the seventh chapter, "English Poetry in Late Summer 1399," Carlson discusses, in addition to the Cronica tripertita, four other poems dealing with Henry's invasion of England: "O deus in celis, cuncta disponens fidelis," "On King Richard's Ministers," Richard the Redeless, and a bit of marginal verse from Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 7 (fol. 47r). He argues that these texts all claim to have been written of late summer 1399, seek to justify Henry's execution of several of Richard's advisors Scrope, Bussy, and Green at Bristol on 29 July, 1399, and share an "odd enigmatic allegorical idiom" despite what appear to be very different intended audiences (121). He argues that the use of this "non-popular" idiom drawn from prophetic texts, often in the midst of presenting popular "clamor" as a justification, and even cause, of Henry's actions, suggests a coordinated response by Lancastrian writers to remove agency from Henry to both the populus and the divine. He finds widespread popular anger at these counselors "implausible" (137), but the poems, in their (false) witness of popular clamor, will become the evidence of clamor in the future. While his argument is both bold and convincing, I wish that he would have engaged a bit more with Wendy Scase's work on the literature of "clamour;" it could have made his complicated argument a bit clearer. [4]

Chapter eight, "The Cronica tripertita and its Official Source," is the longest chapter and the first fully dedicated to Gower, and is the culmination of a number of articles Carlson has written about the Cronica and the Record and Process. Arguing that the Cronica draws directly and necessarily upon the Record and Process, he claims, "Inasmuch as he did use the "Record and Process," even without witness (internal or external) to his commissioning, Gower's work in the Cronica tripertita is in effect an official verse panegyric of the Lancastrian advent" (196). He supplies an extraordinarily helpful chart, showing not only the accounts of events shared between these two texts, but with other key "official" sources of the Cronica. Much of the chapter is showing, often through large chunks of Latin quotation, the parallels between the two texts. Because, as Carlson explains, the Leonine verse of the Cronica made verbal parallels essentially impossible to produce, the parallels concern solely knowledge and order of events. While some readers may find the chart sufficient for proof of the poem's "official" status, Carlson's careful comparisons reveal Gower's methodology of borrowing, invaluable for those considering his adaptations in Latin, English, and French.

In his last chapter, Carlson examines Gower's poetry after the accomplishment of Henry's coup. Since so much of Gower criticism focuses on the Confessio Amantis and the first book of the Vox Clamantis (the Visio Anglie), much of the political interest in Gower has concerned the 1380s and 1390s; Carlson's investigation of Gower's last writing is extraordinary. The best-known work of this period is the poem usually referred to as "In Praise of Peace," Gower's only English poem other than the Confessio Amantis. Carlson produces a very thoughtful reading of this poem, focusing on its panegyric qualities, including its "appearance of criticism" (205). He reads Gower's emphasis on peace as "only a species of order" (206), and a "gift" to be given to England from Henry. His emphasis on "control" provides his most convincing approach to the poetic values brought to the political situation, the production in language of justifications for expediency. He argues that Gower's subtle criticisms, by being criticisms of a king, work primarily to reinforce Henry's legitimacy and shore up its generally panegyric form. Carlson then moves to Gower's emendations to earlier verse, emendations that Carlson is able to date convincingly to this late period. These include "Rex deus celi" (which reworks for Henry a passage of the Vox Clamantis about Richard), as well as revisions of the Cronica and the Vox itself. Here, he is able to suggest a real change in Gower's relationship to Henry, and dates it to Henry's 1405 execution of Archbishop of York Richard Scrope in the wake of the Percy rebellion. He tracks a "withdrawal of support" (222) that is completely indiscernible to the reader of Gower's texts as they appear in modern editions, but which is both convincing and revelatory. By opening a window onto a little- understood period of Gower's life, Carlson complicates our understanding of Gower's political notions and affinities, and his modes of managing his public poetry.

Carlson calls poets "promiscuous tools" (6), and his book does an excellent job exploring the many ways in which a state might use them. Like Paul Strohm in England's Empty Throne, Carlson usefully "employs literary hermeneutics in pursuit of historical understanding," [5] but rather than focusing solely on the Lancastrian use of literature, convincingly establishes state-sponsored poetry as an English literary tradition. This book will be invaluable for Gower scholars, but should be of interest to everyone interested in the relationship of literature and politics in late medieval England. --------


1. John H. Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 133.

2. Frank Grady, "The Lancastrian Gower and the Limits of Exemplarity," Speculum 70 (1995): 552-575, 556. Cf. his "Generation of 1399," in The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England, ed. Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 202- 229, and Paul Strohm, England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 1-31.

3. David R. Carlson, ed., The Deposition of Richard II: The Record and Process of the Renunciation and Deposition of Richard II (1399) and Related Writings (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2007), and John Gower: Poems on Contemporary Events: The Visio Anglie (1381) and Cronica Tripertita (1400) with a verse translation by A.G. Rigg (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, and Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011).

4. Wendy Scase, Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

5. Strohm, England's Empty Throne, xii.