Gower Bibliography

Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker.

Craun, Edwin D.. "Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker." Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature., 31 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997


Craun's study is concerned with the ethical evaluation of speech and language, and more particularly with the "Sins of the Tongue," as they appear in the "pastoral" literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (that is, in the manuals of instruction for priests that followed the Fourth Lateran Council and in the related handbooks for penitents) and in four major texts of fourteenth-century English literature. In his first chapter he surveys his corpus: it concludes some names that will be familiar to Gowerians, such as Peyraut and Frere Lorens, but also some that are much less well known, such as the long thirteenth-century treatise De Lingua (once attributed to Grosseteste) that Craun has examined in manuscript. In most of these the "Sins of the Tongue" have become a category of their own apart from the Seven Deadly Sins by which treatises of this sort are traditionally organized, but the purpose is the same, to identify, classify, and provide remedies for the various subtypes of the sin for the benefit of both priests and penitents. In his second chapter, Craun takes a closer look at both the form and the content of the treatment of speech in these works. He identifies an "Augustinian" strain in the treatises in the focus on intentionality as the ethical standard by which speech acts are to be judged and on the relation between speech and reason. The writers of the treatises are thus concerned more with "falsehood" than with "falsity" (p. 40): the relation between speakers and the social consequences of truthful or untruthful speech receives more attention than the problematic relation between sign and referent. There is also what Craun calls a "Solomonic" strain, which advises prudence and moderation over hasty or heedless speech. To enforce their lessons and to win their audience away from sin, the writers draw upon a variety of materials, including sententiae (but not usually proverbial or folk wisdom), analogies and comparisons, and narrative exempla, making both rational and emotional appeals; and Craun describes well the fragmentary and disjunctive quality that results from their copiousness (p. 67), in terms which, though he doesn't mention it here, will remind many readers of the experience of reading MO, the work of Gower's that is obviously closest to the tradition in question. In his four remaining chapters, Craun examines how both the contents of these works--their classification of the sins and their hortatory materials--and their rhetorical stance, the address of a moral authority to a penitent, have been adopted and adapted in Patience, Confessio Amantis, Piers Plowman, and fragments IX-X of the Canterbury Tales. Patience he treats as an exemplum on "murmur," a form of deviant speech given prominence in the treatises, which also provide a precedent for using Jonah as an example. The Biblical tale, Craun finds, is everywhere in the poem mediated by traditional pastoral discourse on adequate and inadequate speech; and he emphasizes the creation of the poem's speaking voice, the authoritative catechist who addresses his exemplum to a reading audience and who interprets it for them, and who at the end, portrays himself as affected by the tale and enacts the choice that the tale requires in the telling of the exemplum. In Piers Plowman, the connection is to the pastoral tradition is found in the Langland's discussion of minstrels, which may reflect his unease about the status of poetry, as others have claimed, but which also draws directly, Craun observes, from the treatises' condemnation of entertainers and of the two related sins of scurrilitas and turpiloquium. In establishing this link, Craun is able to draw a closer connection between Langland's references to minstrelsy and both his social and his spiritual concerns: the rebuke of nobles for rewarding sinful speech instead of helping the poor reveals his preoccupation with how wealth is distributed, while the contrasting uses of speech in the poem reflect his concern with the best way to achieve salvation. In the Canterbury Tales, Craun notes that the Manciple's Tale is as heavily marked by traditional pastoral discourse as the Parson's is. As the host seems to recognize, the Manciple's public criticism of the Cook is an example of the sin of Chiding as it is described in the treatises, while the Parson takes unusual care to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate reproof is his discussion of Ire. More important is the way in which each imitates the pastoral discourse from which he draws. The Manciple offers a parody, while the Parson practices the very norms that he advocates. "The Manciple parades jeeringly the inherent contradictions and limits of discourse on deviant speech in general, gutting its claims to provide comprehensive, binding norms for speech . . . [while] the Parson, in response, asserts that pastoral discourse on specific sins is a powerful instrument for moral analysis and religious formation" (p. 189). That Gower should be indebted to the pastoral tradition in a work that is concerned with a confession comes, of course, as no surprise. Formally, Craun points out, the pastoral interrogationes provide a model for Genius' role in the poem, the forma confitendi a model for Amans' replies, though not one that Gower follows slavishly. The interrogatio, for instance, was meant to follow a confession if the priest thought it incomplete, rather than precede it as is Genius' normal practice in the Confessio (pp. 134-35). The Confessio is also marked, Craun argues, by a pervasive concern with the moral dimensions of speech which derives from the same models. Seven of the confessional sequences in the poem are concerned with "Sins of the Tongue;" acts of verbal deception occupy a central position in many of the tales; and the "deviant" speech of the exempla is set in contrast to the honest self-revelation that Amans is encouraged to practice in his confession. One of the three sections of the encyclopedia of human knowledge in Book 7, moreover, is given to Rhetoric, and it is followed by an exposition of "Trouthe" which echoes many of the same ethical concerns. The comparison of Gower's work to his pastoral models reveals both similarities and differences, Craun observes, which can help us understand both Genius' and Amans' strategies. He focuses his examination of the poem on Book 7 and on Amans' lesson on Detraction in Book 2. Genius' treatment of Rhetoric departs from Latini, Gower's source for the structure of Book 7, is its emphasis on the moral use of language. He begins where the pastoral treatises do, with the origin and function of speech, deriving the moral imperative on the uses of speech from its divine creator. Both divine origins and the cognitive function of speech are invoked again in the lesson on "Trouthe." There, however, the pastoral concern is extended into the political, for what is at stake in the lesson for rulers is nothing less than civic concord and discord. The opposite of proper speech is portrayed in the lesson on Flattery. There and elsewhere in the poem, Gower reveals his consciousness of the "fragility" of the spoken word, and offers an alternative to deceit in plain, unselfish counsel. Book 7 thus sets the ethical norms for use of speech for all of the rest of the Confessio. Genius acts as the sage, providing both lessons on and a model of truth-telling speech, and Amans is the "ruler" who must rule both himself and his tongue, and whose experience as a lover "reveals the seductive appeal and destructive consequences of the deceiving word, paralleling the politically deviant speech of the flatterers" (p. 132). In his examination of the lesson on Detraction, Craun points out the many correspondences to the penitential manuals, both in form and in imagery. Along the way, he discovers a combination of logical and emotional appeals that is usually denied Genius but that echoes the multiple discursive strategies of the treatises. He is also alert to a number of differences from these sources, which he interprets in dramatic terms, as Genius' conscious attempts to influence the lover before him, as part of the recognized duty of the priest to adapt his instruction to the particular circumstances of the penitent. On the same basis, he offers a justification for Genius' inclusion of the long tale of Constance as part of the lesson on Detraction. It is, he says, a "rhetorical performance within a confessional sequence" (p. 148), not a self-contained exemplum. Amans has already acknowledged his guilt, and the tale serves less to define the sin than it does to win Amans away from his sin by illustrating the consequences both for the sinner and for his victims, appealing, along the way, to the universality of the moral norms that it teaches rather than illustrating them exclusively in terms of love. There is obviously a great deal of value in Craun's study. He is an alert and persuasive reader of Gower. He has also considered a broader range of earlier works than are usually cited, even by those who have concerned themselves with Gower's indebtedness to the penitential tradition, and his first two chapters thus provide a very useful introduction to this very important group of texts. In focusing on the "Sins of the Tongue," moreover, he has discovered an elegant way of relating the form and language of the works that he examines to their ethical teaching, following a path first laid down for the study of Gower by Schmitz in 1974. If there is any disappointment about his treatment of Gower, it is that it is too brief. His observation that language is a pervasive concern of the Confessio deserves to be demonstrated and analyzed at greater length. At the same time, there are some problems with isolating the lesson on Detraction in the way that Craun does: the tale of Constance might also be seen within a broader argument in Book 2 rather than in terms of an immediate rhetorical purpose deriving from the lesson at hand. It is also not clear how typical this lesson is of the entire poem. Craun is aware of many of the ways in which his argument impinges on current disagreements about CA, and takes time out to allude to some on these. It isn't evident, however, that he is aware of all. He points out how Gower, in contrast to some of his contemporaries, is almost exclusively concerned with the human victims of evil speech, not with the harm to the transcendent (p. 118), but he doesn't pursue the significance of his observation to our struggles over the spiritual dimensions of Genius' (or Gower's) instruction. In his discussion of Gower's debt to the penitentials, he doesn't mention R.F. Yeager's proposal (1984) that the "Sins of the Tongue" provide the explanation for the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated topics in Book 6, the only other instance I know of in which this category of sin has been invoked in the interpretation of the poem. And he equivocates a bit on Genius' role. In emphasizing the importance of Book 7 in supplying moral norms for the rest of CA, he attributes to Genius both a genuine moral authority and a practice that is consistent with it (pp. 130-31), but he takes it back at the very end of his chapter with an allusion to the critics who called into question Genius' reliability as a moral guide (p. 155). But then what are we to make of the parenthetical sentence that immediately follows? "Such ironic readings of individual sequences, however, are only fully convincing when they are grounded in the pastoral tradition of specific vices as well as in the conventions of confessional discourse." Can such readings be grounded in the texts that he has examined or can they not? Genius' moral authority is one of the most important questions that divides us in Gower criticism at this time, and where Craun might have been able to help settle the matter, he backs away. All of this is to say, of course, that he has opened up a very productive line of research, and that he has laid the foundations that others who come after may now build upon. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 17.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Style, Rhetoric, and Versification
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

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