Gower Bibliography

Faith, Ethics and Church: Writing in England, 1360-1409

Aers, David. "Faith, Ethics and Church: Writing in England, 1360-1409." Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000 ISBN 0-85991-561-1

Review

Chapter 5 of Aers' study, "Reflections on Gower as 'Sapiens in Ethics and Politics'," was originally published in 1998 in R.F. Yeager's Re-Visioning Gower, and it was reviewed in JGN 18, no. 1, p. 17. A bit more briefly: Aers attacks Gower's reputation as a coherent moral philosopher by laying out some of the more obvious contradictions in his thought. Gower's advocacy of evangelical pacifism in VC Books 3 and 6, for instance, cannot be reconciled with the "unironic celebration of aristocratic violence" in his advice to the young King Richard to follow the example of his father (p. 107). Such a contradiction, Aers points out, was encouraged by the medieval church, where it had become "normalized and internalized" (p. 110). It is also allowed by the structure of VC, in which "the units . . . are paratactically sealed off from each other rather than brought into dialogue. . . . [VC's] paratactic mode becomes a powerful impediment to moral inquiry, to sustained critical reflection on the difficulties that are raised. The mode protects the poet from having to confront sharp contradictions in his ethics, let alone from having to explore their sources in the traditions he inherits and the culture he inhabits" (p. 110; his italics). The same sort of failure can be found in CA, in which the poet condemns the church for the degeneracy of its practices and for the mystification of its claims of spiritual authority yet upholds the church against the Wycliffites whose criticism he echoes. "Are we being invited to cultivate ironic reflections on the grounds of all doctrine, on the grounds of all claims to unfeigned, uninvented authority in matters concerning the divine?" (p. 117). No, Aers concludes; to a "paratactic mode" corresponds a "paratactic moralism" (p. 118). This provocative essay now stands in the company of chapters on Chaucer, Langland, the Gawain-poet, and Wyclif. Each of these Aers situates among the competing discourses on faith, ethics, and the nature of the church in late fourteenth-century England, when Wyclif and his followers raised questions about orthodox institutions and practices that prompted an increasing rigidity of doctrine and an increasing harshness of both ecclesiastical and secular attempts to control public discourse on theological topics. In such an atmosphere, each author inevitably takes stands with both doctrinal and politi-cal implications. One of Aers' principal themes, indeed, is that the doctrinal is political, not only because of the increasing involvement of secular institutions in ecclesiastical matters but also because of the common understanding on all sides of these debates that "faith" was not a purely personal commitment but membership and participation in the congregation of the faithful. The preference of some modern readers to imagine faith apart from the institutions in which it is embodied provides the opening for Aers' examination of Chaucer. He considers the implications of Griselda's unquestioning obedience of Walter in the context of contemporary discussions of faith and ethics, and he places it in contrast to the very different notions of obedience to authority embodied in the Second Nun's Tale. He also examines Chaucer's references to the sacraments. The absence of any allusion to the eucharist, even in the description of the Parson, suggests that Chau-cer's depiction of the church would have been congenial to his Wycliffite acquaintances even though Chaucer makes no pronouncement in favor of Wyclif's cause. The Gawain-poet comes off as rather breezy and superficial in his treatment of issues of faith and eth-ics in Aers' discussion. The heroic figure in Aers' study is Langland, who wrestles in a profound act of faith with the very issues that Aers examines, but who is not exempt from falling into his own contradictions, particularly on social issues, as Aers observes. Aers also finds a deep contradiction in Wyclif's notions of Christian discipleship, particularly for the laity, which he attributes to the theologian's own class interests and to his nationalistic politics. There is much more in these chapters than these few comments reveal, and Aers argues his case with both learning and conviction. The reason for offering even the briefest summary of the other portions of the book here is to give some indication of how Gower comes off by comparison to his contemporaries in Aers' hands, now that the chapter on Gower appears in its proper company. And in that context one has to feel that Aers has simply taken Gower considerably less seriously than he has the others. The contradiction in VC is an easy target, and if Gower does not carve out a sufficiently sophisticated position on church reform, it is also true that the structure of the church is not a central issue in CA. CA is centrally concerned, however, with issues of faith and ethics. In Genius, it gives us a priest who has duties both to God and to a sometimes tyrannical God of Love, and who must therefore mediate between them. In Book 7, moreover, Genius offers a lengthy discussion of the duties owed to secular authority (including unjust authority) and to God. Much of the poem can be read as a lengthy meditation on the sources of moral authority, raising questions that Gower did not reflect on to the same extent in his two earlier long works. Anyone deeply familiar with CA will find repeated echoes of the issues that Gower addresses in the chapters in Aers' book that are not concerned with Gower, and it is a bit of a disappointment to see the poem treated so superficially when its turn finally comes. Aers has a point to make about Gower, but it is a small one, and there is room for much larger. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 20.1]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Confessio Amantis
Vox Clamantis

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