Historians on John Gower
The late fourteenth century was the age of the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Hundred Years War, the deposition of Richard II, the papal schism and the emergence of the heretical doctrines of John Wyclif and the Lollards. These social, political and religious crises and conflicts were addressed not only by preachers and by those involved in public affairs but also by poets including Chaucer and L. Above all, though, it is in the verse of John Gower that we find the most direct engagement with contemporary events. Yet, surprisingly, few historians have examined Gower’s responses to these events or have studied the broader moral and philosophical outlook which he used to make sense of them. In this volume, a number of eminent medievalists seek to demonstrate what historians can add to our understanding of Gower’s poetry, of his life and of his ideas about society, the church, gender, politics and science. Whilst it would be a mistake to take Gower’s works as merely straightforward reportage, it remains crucial to acknowledge how Gower addressed the issues of his day: because Gower’s work includes such overt political and social commentary, an understanding of the period in which his work was rooted is particularly important. The aim of this volume is to enable a group of historians to bring their specialist expertise to bear on Gower’s poetry and to show what a detailed knowledge of England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries can add to our understanding of his work. By examining the ideological frameworks which were available to Gower and his contemporaries, by determining the social, religious and political issues which his works tackled, and by ascertaining the assumptions and expectations of his original audience, historians can, it is to be hoped, contribute to the project of helping modern readers to arrive at a greater appreciation of the meanings of his texts.
The book begins with Martha Carlin’s chapter, offering an important reassessment of Gower’s biography which is based on newly-discovered primary sources and which lists all known Gower life-records. On society, David Green examines Gower’s views on the nobility and chivalry. Mark Bailey discusses his attitudes toward the peasantry and the 1381 revolt. James Davis explores how the poet’s views on trade were linked with contemporary London politics, whilst Anthony Musson reassesses his engagement with the law and his use of legal discourses. On the neglected topic of Gower and the church, David Lepine shows how Gower’s poetry relates to contemporary debates about the papacy, secular clergy and Lollardy. Martine Heale asks how Gower’s critique of contemporary monasticism was compatible with his own personal piety, whilst Jens Röhrkasten locates Gower’s work in the context of medieval anti-fraternalism. On gender, Katherine Lewis looks at the possible reception of Gower’s work by female owners of the Confessio Amantis; Christopher Fletcher offers a detailed linguistic analysis to illuminate Gower’s understanding of masculinity. With regard to politics, Stephen Rigby asks why Gower’s political theory has been open to such contradictory interpretations by modern critics. At the same time, Michael Bennett shows how Gower’s personal connections may have influenced his shifting political positions. Finally, on science, Seb Falk identifies some new sources for Gower’s use of astronomy. Whilst much modern study has focused on Gower’s Middle English Confessio Amantis, the contributors to this volume also examine his works in French and Latin including the Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis and Cronica Tripertita.
Although the contributors to this volume emphasise the importance of historical context for an understanding of Gower’s poetry, they do not seek to reduce his works simply to the status of vehicles for ideas, values, discourses and ideologies which originated outside them. Rather, the exchanges between history and literature documented in these pages are a two-way street. The historical explications on offer are often matched by these scholars’ recognition of the rewards made available for historians from a close engagement with literary texts and with the work of literary scholars. The volume thus seeks not only to throw new light on Gower’s work but, more generally, to encourage historians to engage with the debates which literary scholars have initiated about how we should locate medieval literature in its contemporary context. (SHR)