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15.10.34, van Dijk, John Gower and the Limits of the Law

The Medieval Review

15.10.34, van Dijk, John Gower and the Limits of the Law

John Gower has never been the subject of more and more varied study than he is now. Though it is by no means the only venue for Gower scholarship, the John Gower Society has done much to foster this growth in interest over the past decade or so; the society has now held three international congresses, and has sponsored annual panels at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo for decades, producing several volumes of proceedings. The society's book series has increased its productivity of late; it published four books between 1987 and 1991, had one in 2000, and then has had five since 2011, with four monographs including van Dijk's and one proceedings volume. Conrad van Dijk has been an active participant in this more recent growth--aside from this book, he participated in panels on "[John] Gower and the Law" at both the 2011 and 2014 Gower congresses, serving as organizer for the two panels on that subject in 2014. Van Dijk has thus worked to establish himself as a major voice on Gower's involvement with the law, with this monograph a major foundation for such a role.

Revised from the author's 2007 doctoral dissertation for the University of Western Ontario, this monograph effectively supports van Dijk's contention that legal discourse and late fourteenth-century legal issues significantly color Gower's overall interaction with his world, primarily in the Confessio Amantis but with many examples from Gower's other major works, particularly the Mirour de l'Omme and the Vox Clamantis; he even finds legal echoes in the ballades. A close reading of portions of the Cronica Tripertita in the final chapter also helps to confirm that van Dijk's focus is Gower's oeuvre, rather than just the Confessio. That being said, the bulk of the monograph does focus on Gower's major English poem, with chapters ranging in focus--chapters 1 and 2 look at recurring patterns across the Confessio, while chapters 3 and 4 look primarily at Books II and VII, respectively. Chapter Five looks in depth at the Tale of Orestes in Book III, alongside the Cronica. One thing van Dijk does not do, however, is make extensive comparisons to other literary works of the period--this is unquestionably a monograph about Gower, not about Gower and his contemporaries. This is not to say that the books lacks context, because it does not--the legal sources alone make this book a suitable starting point for any scholar interested in Gower's treatment of the law. The one section that does feature extensive comparison to another poet, the comparison to William Langland in chapter 4 (adapted from a 2009 JEGP article), effectively adds to the van Dijk's overall point about the extent to which legal thinking in the period contributes to Gower's treatment of "equite" or equity as it relates to kingship. Other late medieval poets do appear throughout the book, with references to Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, and various anonymous works appearing throughout. This is not primarily a comparative study, however; instead, it is an ambitious attempt to get a handle on how Gower thought, working from the hypothesis that the law provides a foundational structure for Gower's approach to narrative, to conflict, and to the distinction between right and wrong. It draws at least as much from legal texts and maxims as it does from literary comparisons. The book overall is as impeccably researched as one would expect from an adapted dissertation.

Van Dijk's hypothesis, that Gower often thinks in terms of the law, also of course raises the question of Gower's profession, and van Dijk tackles this thorny question deftly in his introduction. Indeed, his treatment of the various issues at stake in determining whether Gower practiced law in his professional life is a model of clarity--he lays out the admittedly limited evidence, gives a thorough critical history of the question, consults with R. F. Yeager on his ongoing biography of the poet (5), and ultimately makes a case for moving beyond what is ultimately not a soluble question--though there is value in "Gower's careful maneuvering around difficult legal questions," he ultimately recommends that we instead "see Gower as exploring precisely the dividing line between law and culture" (5). In the end, it does not quite matter whether Gower was a lawyer as such--van Dijk makes enough of a case for law a model for Gower's thought to support the remainder of the monograph without requiring his reader to commit to a particular theory about Gower's profession.

Once van Dijk has addressed the question of biography, he then spends a fair amount of energy setting up his overall approach to Gower's integration of legal issues and discourse into his work. A detailed exploration of the relationship of the forms of the moral exemplum to that of the legal case, particularly in terms of the different forms' expectations that a reader will sort out meaning at a narrative's conclusion, helps van Dijk draw some interesting conclusions about how the broader concept of "exemplarity" (12) ultimately connects these very different types of narrative. It is not entirely clear why the material setting up his take on genre is split between the introduction and the first chapter, however; he sets up the problem of the exemplum in the introduction, but then gives us his analysis of Gower's exempla in terms of the legal case form throughout the first chapter. He is not exactly repetitive here, but although he is generally very good about helping the reader follow the structure of his argument, this particular transition is more opaque than it might have been. Once van Dijk delves into this analysis, the comparison to the case is a helpful way to address the open-endedness of so many of Gower's tales, which van Dijk sees as a way for the poet to challenge direct dogmatism. This section of the book is also interesting in terms of its use of literary theory--he leads the chapter with Derrida on genre, but at one point he presents a diagram of the internal structures of the exemplum and the legal case. It's possible that a more focused discussion of his theoretical approach to concepts of genre and structure might have helped prepare a reader more for his overall focus here. He is able to use a close reading of a number of courtroom scenes in Gower and other late-medieval works to demonstrate how these structures overlap--he does ultimately seem to argue more for the permeability of genre categories than any persistent structure to these narrative types, but this portion of the book is less clear than some of the later chapters. It is also noticeable that chapters 1 and 2 are much shorter than the later chapters.

Van Dijk hits his stride more in chapter 3, which addresses Gower's treatment of sovereignty and jurisdiction--these questions of royal and other power clearly resonate throughout the Confessio, and van Dijk effectively places Gower's thinking here into a broader context of late medieval understandings of international law and imperial history. Looking in depth at tales, primarily in Book II, that address the legacy of Rome and empire in medieval Europe, van Dijk effectively argues that the body of legal theory surrounding this legacy effectively forms a thematic framework for the Confessio. He is not quite presenting this position as a "key" to the Confessio, but overall he has enough examples to show that the law and related issues really do permeate the poem, and Gower's other major works. Then with chapter 4, he localizes the questions of sovereignty raised by chapter 3 to England, by looking at how the "mirror for princes" section of Book VII of the Confessio addresses a central question for late medieval monarchies: "is the kingdom governed by the rule of law or by its administrator, the king?" (89). As this question was central to the troubles of Richard II's reign, including his challenge by the Lords Appellant and his eventual deposition, this long chapter goes into significant depth on English constitutional theory and history for the period, to place Gower into a legal context--van Dijk's discussion of "regalie" or regality goes a long way toward making sense of this much-debated aspect of Gower's relationship to the monarchy. This is also an area where van Dijk excels at dealing with critical disagreement--he effectively shows how this section of the Confessio has supported a variety of understandings of Gower's politics and position on the monarchy--he points out the ambiguity in Gower's presentation of this theme in the poem, juxtaposing passages that have led critics to see Gower taking essentially contradictory positions on absolutism and constitutionalism. The concept of "equity" (111ff.) ultimately helps van Dijk sort out Gower's take on royal prerogative, through his detailed comparison to William Langland's use of the same concept. Then in chapter 5, van Dijk uses the notion of "retributive justice" to explore Gower's approach to vengeance, largely throughout the Confessio but also in the Cronica Tripertita. The Tale of Orestes provides a chance for van Dijk to show how his argument about the role of law and legal thinking can help straighten out hard-to-understand elements of Gower's narrative, specifically the suicide of Egiona, "its most problematic part" (171). Along the way, he lays out the complicated theological and legal discourses surrounding vengeance, and then uses that context to interpret the Cronica as a vengeance narrative.

On the whole, this book is at its best on the individual interpretive level--van Dijk's readings of individual bits of Gower's oeuvre are generally clear, well-argued, and effectively contextualized. The idea that the law matters in Gower is not exactly new, of course, but van Dijk shows us in some depth just how much it matters, and to what a great extent legal discourse permeates Gower's poetry. What the book does not do, however, is add up nicely to a single pithy point--the structure of the monograph can come across as relatively loose, and the frequent use of often-clever subheadings throughout breaks it up into relatively short sections throughout. Van Dijk does try to put it all together in his short conclusion, and some of his points here do help to pull his thinking (and Gower's) together. He observes, for example, that "while Gower certainly shows much warmth and sympathy, he is also willing to uphold abstract ideals over personal concerns, law over circumstance, and example over pity" (189). Ultimately van Dijk is advocating for the law to be more central to our approaches to Gower--his own use of the law as a lens and framework here is so productive, that it is hard to disagree with his point that "the legal structure and content of the Confessio should therefore receive their place of importance beside the penitential, amorous, and political discourses of the poem" (191). The strongest insights here seem to be about how Gower thinks--based on the extent to which van Dijk can articulate Gower's thinking in terms of legal discourse and theory, if Gower did not practice law, perhaps he should have.

Finally, there is one minor but unusual issue with this book that might be a stumbling point for a reader eager to pursue the author's other research, which is that the spelling of his name varies from venue to venue. The monograph and van Dijk's published articles use the Dutch spelling of his surname, but he is indexed in the Gower Bibliography Online under the spelling van Dyk, which also appears on the cover page of the dissertation version of the monograph. Correspondence with the author confirms that he publishes under "van Dijk," but uses "van Dyk" in other personal and professional contexts. How to spell his own name must of course be at the author's discretion, but it is to be hoped that the Gower Bibliography Online might correct its entry to reflect the spelling that he uses in publication, rather than the one that might appear on a conference name tag or program.