15.08.27, Arner, Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising

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Andy Galloway

The Medieval Review 15.08.27

Arner, Lynn. Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace After 1381. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2013. pp. ix, 198. ISBN: 978-0-271-05893-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Andy Galloway
Cornell University

A number of studies have argued over the last few decades that vernacular English writing in the late fourteenth century both spread into "new" readerships--readers from of a wider social range than found even just a few decades earlier--and constructed new forms of prestige by which some of those readers were put back in their place. Arner's study is focused directly on the social elitism of this endeavor, especially the strategies of allusion and satire displayed by Gower and Chaucer, focusing on a narrow selection of their works to demonstrate their neutralizing of the threat of readers from "non-ruling social classes." Although its general points are not particularly new, and other critics may be inclined, as I was, to wish for further contextualizing, more range and detail in its literary arguments, and more engagement with the critical traditions treating both poets, the study offers some forceful and provocative ways to emphasize the political importance of the narrative stratagems of the two preeminent London and Westminster poets in the later fourteenth century.

Gower is treated most bluntly and symptomatically, and, although Arner claims that there is "a dearth of class-based analyses of Gower's writings" (8) --part of what she calls a "long-enduring hegemonic stance in Gower studies of sympathizing with Gower and the ruling classes against rebels and the poor" (7) --few scholars of Gower will find the results surprising, or her caricature of Gower scholarship (only thinly sampled) compelling. His Confessio Amantis "heavy-handily legitimates itself" with Latin apparatus, and parades a set of sources that are "learned": literary and intellectual markers of prestige that allow those "enlightened men" familiar with it to "recognize one another against the greyness of the multitude." (48) Some of the sources Arner claims for Gower are unlikely; sifting those is not her forte. The "impact" of Boethius's De consolatione Philosophiae was not mainly transmitted to Gower via Bernardus Silvestris's Cosmographia (49); it was direct, as well as via Alan of Lille and Jean de Meun (Arner misreads a remark on the general Boethian tradition by Winthrop Wetherbee, whose name she consistently misspells). Though it's incidental to Arner's point, I doubt Gower knew the Cosmographia. It is true that Gower took the Troy story from Guido delle Colonne's Historia Destructionis Troiae as well as from Benoit de Sainte Maure's Roman de Troie, but it is odd to characterize those by declaring that both "drew on Statius's Thebaid": doubly odd to mention the Theban material in the Troy tradition since Gower, unlike Chaucer, never demonstrably cites Statius. I know of no evidence that Gower used Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne (49), in support of which Arner cites an unpublished dissertation from 1982 (and just how "learned" should Mannyng's English pastoral guide, "turnede / On englyssh tunge out of frankys," be considered to be?). Dante and Boccaccio are debatable sources. Livy seems impossible. Ovid, of course, is certain; but the strangest elements of Gower's uses of Ovid and Ovidiana (e.g., that Ovid is invisible in both Gower's earliest and his latest writings, and that Gower directly uses so few Roman authors apart from Ovid, lacking even Vergil) are untouched, left to the "many Gowerians" who "have discussed Ovid's influence." (170, n16) It hardly matters, since all these sources are treated from the outside, as an armature of social elitism rather than resources for any particular perspectives, literary or social: clumped as indiscriminately as they are labeled, as the tradition of "Latin, European, and Greco-Roman texts." (59)

The general point has been made fairly often in studies of Gower's Latin dream-vision of the Rising of 1381, Vox Book 1 (most prominently by David Aers in the Cambridge History of Medieval Literature, not cited). [1] At this date further specifications seem due, in order to understand more precisely what kinds of readership, old and new, what conflicting or harmonized philosophies of history, authorship, and political community, Gower was invoking in his dream-vision Latin satire--an effort that numerous critics of Gower who cannot be considered "sympathizers with Gower and the ruling classes against rebels and the poor" have pursued for some time, and continue to pursue. [2]

Yet Arner's strategies for analyzing the narrative logic of Gower's and especially Chaucer's political exclusions are cogent and shrewd. It is useful to be reminded, even if sometimes repetitiously, that Gower and Chaucer were joint innovators in giving English poetry a prestige that would teach a kind of secret handshake to the socially elite--those whose "ruling class" origins allowed them the education to recognize such materials, and thus keep the newly widened literate readership in its place by conferring new markers of intellectual elitism. It is even more interesting to be shown how Gower and Chaucer used fundamentally different strategies and ideas of poetry to accomplish a similar end. For Arner, Gower's Confessio creates subtle forms not so much of inclusion and exclusion as of intellectually dominant and inferior self-definition by its readers: the Confessio welcomes "new readers" to its "store-house of cultural treasures and proclaims those readers more gifted than Everyman," but also teaches "inexperienced readers" that they are fundamentally subordinate, lacking the tools to understand fully what they read in this treasure-chest, and dependent on their intellectual betters for guidance in this and implicitly any project. (71) Accepting his flattery means swallowing some humiliation. Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (and, barely glimpsed, the Canterbury Tales) goes much further than Gower, Arner claims, in neutralizing the challenge of social disruption by the non-ruling classes. Chaucer satirizes "identity-based" interpretation of any sort as flawed and reductive, leaving the voice of an implicitly unlimited Author as the mark of a criticism of literature as useful or political in any sense. If Gower traps "new" or socially unprepared readers by luring them in then fostering in them a recognition of their subordinate intellectual background, Chaucer eludes such readers by leaving them and their betters to imagine that literature is a realm transcendent of political identity: the myth of bourgeois culture. (152)

Again, Chaucer scholars will not find this surprising or essentially new, and the critical conversation here is limited, even clipped (more than once Arner's quotations of critics show them making a typo or a malapropism, flagged with "[sic]"). But distance from specialist scholarship may allow fresh ideas. The best and most original features of the study are Arner's claims about the Legend of Good Women as a send-up of identity-based or political poetry-making and interpretation, leaving Chaucer's satire of this as a cunning ploy to depoliticize the ideal of poetry. Arner is especially convincing in showing this in the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, where Chaucer's narrator's seemingly modest emphasis on personal "entente" as the real point of his (and thus any) poetry cunningly suggests that there is no conspiracy in the structure of the literary canon, that it's all a matter of uncoordinated and endlessly mobile individual meanings, and that to read literature more "politically" than that is to be as bad a reader as the God of Love. His satire of an impossible unanimity of individual intentions in any given group (all women are good, all men are bad) leaves the opposite implication: no political structures are crucial to individual outlook and expression. (123-125) The Legend thus implies and inculcates apolitical individualism by its elaborate insistence on the opposite. And just as political identity is displaced in the Legend by satire of overly simple political and social interpretations of poetry, so oppressive features of the gender hierarchy are displaced by sentiment, "the privileging of affect, the poem's primum mobile." (121) All this is an effective discussion of what might be called Chaucer's narratological social programming of his readers, choosing a work that usually receives at most transitional attention.

Those seeking historical confirmation and further specification of these narrative manipulations of readers, however, will not learn much news here. Early on, Arner has made clear that anyone who looks for the "illusory fullness" of what subaltern figures such as the Rebels of 1381 actually had in mind is on a fool's errand. (6-7) Arner has a few remarks on the evidence of widening readerships in early copies of Gower (drawing on what Siân Echard and Derek Pearsall have shown in the variable role of the Latin in copies of the Confessio Amantis [64-65]), but nothing on the much larger and more varied range of such evidence in Chaucer manuscripts. The spheres of literacies in Gower's and Chaucer's settings are drastically simplified, reduced to those who know, and those who do not, the "privileged, Greco-Roman tradition," further reduced to, and anachronistically characterized as, "white, predominantly affluent European men." (142) This leaves the ideological situating of Gower and Chaucer general enough to allow them both to be assimilated without comment to the views of the monastic apologist Thomas Walsingham, with one of whose denunciations of the rebellious tenant-laborers at Walsingham's abbey of St. Albans Arner closes the study. (161) That too is in fact a remarkable direct address to the Rebels, which rhetorically elevates them into interlocutors even as Walsingham declares they will forever remain subaltern. But Walsingham is brought in there to illustrate a prejudice in its most naked form, not offer yet other narrative complications.

In other ways this study lacks the range and detail that would situate more precisely Gower's and Chaucer's modes of narrative prestige, thus their gestures to and manipulations of readers. Arner usefully and widely surveys various kinds of schooling in which members of "non-ruling classes" might have learned to read and write (31-32); she does not, however, trace how often Ovid, for instance, or pseudo-Cato, or other Roman authors on up to Statius and Vergil, were often part of the elementary "grammatical" training of all these "new" as well as "old" readers in the London region occupied by Gower and Chaucer. Why could not those ranks of unbeneficed minor clergy and even some lower guildsmen have found means to claim or mock prestige by the methods that, Arner emphasizes, Gower offered? Critics have not always found Gower's multiple frames of Latin, English, and dialogue as effectively authoritarian as Arner suggests. His citations of the "Greco-Roman tradition" are peculiarly uneven, and unevenly deployed across his career. What about Gower's last works, written under Henry IV, not only the Latin poetry but also "In Praise of Peace," in which no "learned" sources of any kind, even Ovid, seem quoted? Chaucer's more elusive chronology, up to the probably late Manciple's Tale and Miller's Tale, raises similar questions about his changing deployment of "learned authority."

Chaucer at least emerges as ingenious in his strategies of disarming the challenges of unprivileged "new readers." There is nothing comparably subtle or innovative in Arner's Gower. Even his narrative strategies of repression seem obvious and repetitive. Arner's final observation that Chaucer established a form of depoliticized "literariness" that left explicitly political Gower looking like a failure (158), and her late suggestion that Gower's unusual ways of emphasizing politically situated knowledge has (unspecified) "politically progressive possibilities" (160), constitute feeble compensation for a treatment that otherwise replicates the usual notions that Chaucer was the elusively satiric and clever poet, Gower the more traditional and overtly elitist political moralist: the witting and unwitting collaborators in making literary mechanisms for social control that, Arner proposes in her final sentence, were the real reason why the Rising of 1381 was not repeated. (161) This emphasizes what Arner has shown in narratological terms more convincingly and at times powerfully: that literature has political potency. But on that final suggestion too a wider context might have offered other explanations.



1. David Aers, "Vox populi and the Literature of 1381," in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 432-453.

2. E.g., David Carlson, "Gower's Beast Allegories in the 1381 Visio Anglie," Philological Quarterly 87 (2008): 257-275; Pamela Longo, "Gower's Public Outcry," Philological Quarterly 92 (2013): 357-387.

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