The Medieval Review 14.06.15

Sáez-Hidalgo, Ana and R.F. Yeager. Royal Entertainments: The Poetry of John Gower in the 15th-century English, Portuguese and Castilian Courts. Valladolid: International John Gower Society, 2012. Pp. 31 + DVD. $15. ISBN: 978-84-615-7182-6.

Reviewed by:

Juan Sierra

John Gower's Confessio Amantis occupies the unique place of being the first known work of English literature to be translated into not just one, but two, foreign vernaculars, Castilian and Portuguese. Since Antonio Cortijo Ocaña's discovery of the Portuguese translation of this work by João Barroso (Madrid, Real Biblioteca, MS Palacio II-3088), much work has been done to understand the conditions which enabled the translation to occur and the Confessio's possible reception in Spain and Portugal. There has yet to be a critical edition of all three versions although the Castilian, English, and Portuguese versions have been published by Elena Alvar, Antonio Cortijo Ocaña, and, Manuela Faccon. Given the difficulties in generating scholarly interest for John Gower’s work in general--as can be attested by the TEAMS publication of Gower's poem--the pace of current work on the translations has been exceptional, as have been the novel approaches used to understand Gower's text.

One such novel approach to imagining the uniqueness of this moment is the recording and accompanying pamphlet of Royal Entertainments: The Poetry of John Gower: English, Portuguese, and Castilian Courts, which attempts to replicate "what kings, queens, and courtiers heard in their native languages, in the courts of late medieval England, Portugal and Spain" (5). The DVD is a masterful reading of the respective Middle English, Castilian, and Portuguese versions of Book VIII.2888-3114 of the Confessio, as accompanied to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century devotional music beautifully performed by Luis Delgado and read consecutively in Middle English (Brian Gastle), Old Castilian (Clara Pascual-Argente), and Portuguese (Tiago Viúla de Faria). Listeners may follow along by reading the text from a beautifully decorated pamphlet with pictures of the Castilian and Portuguese manuscripts as well as views of Gower's grave in Southwark Cathedral. Along with a transcript of the recording, the pamphlet contains a small introduction describing the life of John Gower, the evidence for the work's translations, and a short synopsis of the poem and music in modern English, Portuguese, and Spanish. The edition is laudable in bringing scholars back to the astonishing effect of reading as music--an effect much missed in modern encounters with the poem, and highlighting the inter-cultural aesthetic value of the Confessio. Hearing a Middle English text recited to medieval Andalusian music from North Africa--something which Gower probably never expected--truly brings to light the significance of these translations. Similar moments in which a reader can glean the significance of the poem as performance can be found throughout the piece, which uses not only vocal but also visual aesthetics to bring to life the courtly experience of Gower's poem.

As an aesthetic piece, therefore, this work importantly imagines the culture surrounding the dissemination of Gower's poem in the Iberian peninsula, but in its attempt to engage modern listeners with the poem, the project seems to have forgotten that its audience is modern scholars, who do not just expect an aesthetic experience but also want to understand how to use the project. It is regrettable--to say the least--that the whole piece contains no browsing capabilities. Although the pamphlet clearly allows the reader to follow along with the DVD, with spaces to delineate the change between Middle English, Castilian, and Portuguese, the DVD does not have tracks that would allow listeners to play back content or to skip ahead to other sections of the text. This does a disservice to the music, since users not familiar with fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English, Castilian, and Andalusian lute-playing will be unable to tell one recording apart from the other. It also limits access to Gower's poem, since the poem is read in its original Middle English, Castilian, and Portuguese intonations, which makes it difficult for most modern scholars (who even if they work in the poem seldom have mastery of all three languages) to follow along easily.

Further, the pamphlet would benefit from a separate scholarly appraisal of its content. For one thing, if the goal is to bring together different scholarly communities to appreciate the uniqueness of Gower's text in medieval literature, there should be modern English, Portuguese, and Castilian translations of the text, and its Latin apparatus should be reproduced, since neither the Portuguese nor the Castilian translation (like all medieval translations) is intended as a faithful reproduction of its source. Unfortunately, the contiguous Portuguese and Castilian texts, along with their performance, give the impression that these texts are essentially interchangeable, and the short prologue to the work in the pamphlet does not belie this interchangeability. This becomes a particular issue at minute 15:00 (p. 20) when the Portuguese and Castilian readings, which (following the translations) separate the poem into chapters, present the poem in Book VIII as a separate section although these sections are not delineated in the English. In the manuscripts, the Portuguese and Castilian translations clearly follow the lead of the Latin marginalia in Gower's Confessio, but this Latin marginalia is not performed in the English reading. Thus the performance elides a crucial, contentious part of the reception of Gower's work in England, as well as an important feature of the Iberian translations, which systematically avoid the majority of Gower's Latin marginalia.

The lack of any scholarly background on the poem also causes some other problems: for instance, the beauty of John Dunstable's pieces, the instrumental versions of Llibre Vermell, and the variations on the Twisiya is lost when there is no labeling on the DVD or in the pamphlet to differentiate when one piece ends and another ends. Similarly, none of the images in the pamphlet, although consonant with Gower's opus, are labeled. A major example of this are three illuminations which, although they show passages familiar to the poem--Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the monster of time, for instance--do not seem, at least to the eyes of this reviewer, to come from fourteenth-century manuscripts. (If they do, they would certainly present a significant source of scholarly interest, given that the artistic styles of the illustrations resemble those of Beatus's illustrations of John's Apocalypse, and should be noted accordingly.)

Overall, the performance is quite lyrical and beautiful, and it does give off a fourteenth-century aura both in the appropriateness of the music chosen and by the exactitude and care of each reader in bringing Gower's work to light. Still, for such an interactive attempt to foster interest in Gower's work, Royal Entertaiments would do well with a more user-friendly format (music tracks, separate translations, scholarly description of the images in the pamphlet), to stress fully the importance of Gower's place as the first English work to be translated into a foreign vernacular. It is regrettable that this beautiful work does not do more justice to the text and to the music which may have accompanied it, by not paying more attention to the audience it seeks to interest.

Copyright (c) 2014 Juan Sierra

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