Gower Bibliography

Reading the Dream Miniature in the Confessio Amantis.

Fredell, Joel. "Reading the Dream Miniature in the Confessio Amantis." Medievalia et Humanistica 22 (1995), pp. 61-93. ISSN 0076-6127


Fredell offers a subtle and intriguing argument that links the textual tradition of CA, its reception in the early years of the fifteenth century, its illumination, and modern issues of interpretation. The earliest deluxe MSS of the poem all contain what Fredell refers to as the "Henrician" version, with the revised dedication and epilogue. (He groups together here the copies that Macaulay labeled as recensions "two" and "three.") In most of these MSS, the Prologue is headed by the miniature depicting Nebuchadnezzar and the statue that he sees in his dream. The deluxe MSS of the presumably earlier "Ricardian" version of the poem ("recension one") appear somewhat later; in these, the Nebuchadnezzar miniature has been moved to a place later in the Prologue, closer to Gower's reference to the episode in the text. In most of these, moreover, Nebuchadnezzar himself no longer appears, and the miniature depicts only the statue. That the Ricardian version of CA should still be copied after Richard's death is puzzling enough; that three copies of this version should actually have been owned by sons of Henry IV is even more puzzling. But Fredell suggests that the Lancastrians might have had reason for preferring the earlier version of the poem. Where the image of Nebuchadnezzar's dream appears first, he claims, it serves not only as a Biblical model for the type of vision experienced by Amans, but also as an exemplar of kingship. Nebuchadnezzar, here, is "a royal type of tyranny, madness, and desperate penitence after a fall" (p.63); and the miniature directs the reader's attention to the ways in which the entire poem can be read as a "penitential mirror for princes" (p. 63). Such a view of CA, severely moral and intended for the instruction of kings, is also reflected in the revisions that Gower made for the Henrician version of the poem, with its reminders of the failings of King Richard that brought about his fall and that resulted in the rededication to his successor. In the later manuscripts, the miniature, placed later in the Prologue, no longer functions as a frontispiece to the entire work. When Nebuchadnezzar himself is removed, moreover, the emphasis is shifted from the instruction of the king to the content of the dream, in which the statue functions as a morally neutral figure for impersonal Fortune. The poem, as well as the image itself, is freed not only from an instructional frame but also from its association with the historical context of Henry's usurpation. Such a view would have been preferable to the Lancastrians, Fredell argues, because by the early years of the fifteenth century, the "sterner [revised, 'Henrician'] version might be unflatteringly applied to them also, a sword of moral judgment that could cut two ways" (p. 69). The alternative, "humanist" reading, which emphasizes the "'literary' rewards of recreation and wisdom" over "the mirror for princes frame and moral absolutism" (p. 70), is also the one that is more congenial to many, though not all, modern readers of Gower's poem. In support of his argument, Fredell cites other evidence that by the early fifteenth century even Richard himself was seen as an icon of mutable fortune rather than as the deserving victim of his own crimes. Fredell also invokes the history of the same image in the MSS of Machaut's Remède de Fortune; and at the end of his essay, reproduces and describes the principal examples of the miniature in the MSS of CA. Fredell's essay is well documented and thought-provoking, but it argues for more than can be accepted without reservation. His fundamental premise, that the Nebuchadnezzar frontispiece, which illustrates his dream rather than his later madness, invokes an exemplar of kingship that determines a reading context for the entire poem, is not supported by his own account of how diversely the story of Nebuchadnezzar was read in the Middle Ages. It is also undermined by the example of the Remède. In the earliest MS of Machaut's poem, Nebuchadnezzar appears in the illustration with the statue of his dream, but in later copies only the statue appears because, Fredell suggests, the "fall of princes" motif is of no relevance to the poem's central theme. Fine, but that does not explain why Nebuchadnezzar is present in the first place. The example indicates that he could appear even when the "fall of princes" was not a central concern, an analogy that could easily extend to his appearances in CA. There are many other quibbles one might make (readers should make careful use of Fredell's notes, which qualify some of the assertions on which his argument is based), but this essay deserves serious consideration, if only because of the broad range of materials and methods that the author brings to bear in support of his conclusions. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 18.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis
Manuscripts and Textual Studies

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