Gower Bibliography

Politics and the French Language in England during the Hundred Years' Way: The Case of John Gower

Yeager, R.F. "Politics and the French Language in England during the Hundred Years' Way: The Case of John Gower." In Inscribing the Hundred Years’ War in French and English Cultures. Ed. Baker, Denise. Albany, NY: University of New York Press, 2000, pp. 127-157.


Yeager takes a new look at how Gower’s responses to the political events of his time are reflected in his writing by focusing on the poet’s choice of language, particularly his use of French, in the context of the ebb and flow of his country’s wars with France, which began when the poet was a child and showed no sign of abating at his death. All language is political, Yeager reminds us, a truism that takes on particular force when, in time of war, the poet’s readership is waiting to judge his work by his conformity to their expectations of him and he, in turn, is anxious to influence them by both his overt and his covert instruction. Yeager attempts to document the evolution of Gower’s and his readers’ expectations of one another, and he sees Gower’s career falling into three periods. (1) In the first, that of MO, Gower writes exclusively in French, the language of the landed aristocracy and of the king. Yeager challenges the traditional dating of MO to the late 1370’s, pointing out first of all that so long and ambitious a work is unlikely to have been the poet’s first composition suggesting that it was probably the product of continued work over a long period of time. The most appropriate time for undertaking such a work in French, he argues, would have been between the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360, when Gower would have had greatest reason to look forward to a “'greater England’ encompassing France? (p. 138). The references to the Schism indicate that Gower did not finish revising the poem until after 1378, but with the death of Edward III in 1377 the moment for a long work in French had passed. (2) The second period encompasses VC and CA. Both Latin and English were appropriate choices for addressing Richard II. When Richard was a youth, Gower probably had quite high expectations of his learning. The rebellion of 1381 led to a profound shift in Gower’s attitude, first towards his own poetic project, as he abandons his direct address to the king for a broader goal of reforming society, and second, towards the war, as his “belligerent patriotism? yields to an “international pacifism? (p. 142) and a sustained effort to overcome division, primarily at home. The shift from international to domestic concerns, which correlates with Richard’s own primary interests, is reflected in CA, which is “overwhelmingly a poem in English? (p. 145). (3) Gower’s attitude towards Richard changed abruptly, however, in the early 1390’s, as reflected in his revisions of both VC and CA; and while he did not reject English he did reconsider its relation to French and Latin “as media for reaching the king and for commenting on political events? (p. 148). Except for “In Praise of PeaceP,? all of Gower’s last compositions are in Latin or French. Most are explicitly directed to Henry IV. (In order to fit in the notoriously undatable CB and Traitie into his chronology, he focuses on their dates of publication rather than that of their composition, the more significant event, as he points out, from a political perspective.) The resuscitation of French corresponds with a revival of interest in the wars in France. Gower’s use of all three languages is a tribute to his sovereign’s linguistic skills, while the brevity of these works is an indication both of Henry’s get-to-the-point personality and of Gower’s closer relationship with his new king. But Gower avoided English, Yeager suggests, in part because of the association of literacy in English with Lollardy, which could have been dangerous to the poet in the first decade of Henry’s reign. And his choice to record the titles of all three of his works on his tomb effigy in Latin indicates Gower’s final preference for “the most learned, the most lasting, and perhaps the safest tongue of all? (p. 153). Yeager covers a great deal of ground here, there will inevitably be a great deal to discuss in any effort to sort of Gower’s attitude to political events that are no less compli-cated in retrospect than they must have seemed to those who were alive at the time. If there is a single reason to be disappointed with this essay, it is that space did not allow Yeager to engage more fully with the many alternative views to some of these matters that have been expressed by other scholars, and in omitting from his notes any reference to those who have seen some of these matters differently, he leaves the impression that many of these issues are much more settled than they really are. To take a minor instance: he dates Gower’s revisions of Book 6 of VC to the period before 1393 (p. 147). Maria Wickert argued in 1953 (in a book that Yeager doesn’t cite) that the changes were actually made after 1400, and most subsequent scholars have accepted her view. Yeager may well have reason for thinking Wickert was wrong, but he doesn’t provide it to us. For his account of the revisions in CA, he depends upon a single problematic essay by George Stow that actually proves, in the reviewer’s mind, how desperate the attempt to find a justification for Gower’s presumed change of heart regarding Richard in the early 1390’s has become. Whatever one thinks of Stow’s argument, there are a great many dif-ficulties both in reconstructing the evolution of the text and in assessing Gower’s response to events that he never refers to that other scholars have discussed and that Yeager passes over. Even the scholars that Yeager cites take some very different positions on some key issues that aren’t acknowledged here. Fisher, of course, appears repeatedly in Yeager’s notes, but if one reads Fisher and Yeager side by side several large differences emerge. Fisher takes a very different view of the change of the CA dedication, for one. And where Yeager sees both MO and VC as addressed directly to the reigning king (referring to MO at one point as “in many ways a mirror for princes,? p. 139), Fisher sees MO as a private devotional work (p. 104) and VC as its public counterpart, addressed, however, not to the young king but to influential clerics (pp. 105-6), leading to a very different conclusion on the reasons for Gower’s choice of language for both works. None of this is to diminish the importance of Yeager’s essay, but instead merely to wish that it could have had somewhat greater scope. Both its real significance and also the specula-tive nature of some of its conclusions will be evident only to those who have read around in the other literature on the subject, not all of which is accessible through Yeager’s notes. This essay appears in a provocative and well-rounded collection of essays on responses to the Hundred Years’ War on both sides of the channel (some of which have already appeared in print elsewhere). In addition to Yeager’s essay, the contents are: Norris J. Lacy, “Warmongering in Verse: Les Voeux du Heron;? Patricia DeMarco, “In-scribing the Body with Meaning: Chivalric Culture and the Norms of Violence in The Vows of the Heron;? Denise N. Baker, “Meed and the Economics of Chivalry in Piers Plowman;? Judith Ferster, “Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee: Contradictions and Context;? John M. Bowers, “Chaucer after Retters: The Wartime Origins of English Literature;? Earl Jeffrey Richards, “The Uncertainty in Defining France as a Nation in the Works of Eustache Deschamps;? Anne D. Lutkus and Julia M. Walker, “The Political Poetics of the Diti de Jehanne d’Arc;? Susan Crane, “Clothing and Gender Definition: Joan of Arc;? Michelle Szkilnik, “A Pacifist Utopia: Cleriadus et Meliadice;? and Ellen C. Cald-well, “The Hundred Years’ War and National Identity.? [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 20.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Language and Word Studies

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