Gower Bibliography

Disorienting Orientalism: Finding Saracens in Strange Places in Late Medieval English Manuscripts.

Cawsey, Kathy. "Disorienting Orientalism: Finding Saracens in Strange Places in Late Medieval English Manuscripts." Exemplaria 21 (2009), pp. 380-97. ISSN 1041-2573

Review

Both lexically and visually, Cawsey points out, the distinction between Muslims to the south and non-Christians from northern Europe appears to have been blurred in late medieval England, in a way that challenges notions of "orientalism" based on a simple division between east and west: the word "saracen" is often used not as a racial epithet but as a designation of all pagans, including those from the north; and in manuscript illuminations of works such as Lydgate's "Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund," the invading vikings are depicted with curved, hooked swords and with large turbans, a "visual 'shorthand' for a Muslim Saracen . . . well established in medieval art" (383), headgear which is given up when the invaders convert to Christianity. Religion, rather than race or geography, appears to have been the paramount determiner of "alterity." Both "Guy of Warwick" and the tale of Constance (as recounted by both Chaucer and Gower) contain parallel adventures, one set in the east and one in the west. Constance twice voyages to a pagan land (Syria and Northumbria), converts the king, and is expelled by her malicious mother-in-law. Cawsey counters the "orientalist" readings that focus only on the first episode, and she points out how neither Chaucer's nor Gower's text makes any distinction (for instance in appearance) based upon race. But she also asks why the Northumbrians are shown converting successfully while the Syrians are all slain, and she finds the answer in the reasons that are given for the conversion: the Sultan converts not in response to any teaching or any deliberate choice of the Christian faith but only to secure Constance as his bride, while in Northumbria Constance is shown preaching and instructing on the faith before the conversion. Gower's version in particular lays stress upon the efficacy of Constance's voice in the tale. Gower's also has a tripartite structure rather than merely a double one, as it gives more emphasis to the episode in Spain. "Constance thus has the chance to convert the three most significant non-Christian invaders of Europe of the Middle Ages: Easter Muslims who invaded Byzantium and Eastern Europe; Northern pagans who invaded the British Isles, France, and Germany; and Eastern/Southern Moors and Arabs who invaded Spain and France from Africa" (393). In their depiction of the second group, Cawsey finds both English poets confronting the awkwardness of their own nation's descent from a group linked to eastern pagans, and "in differentiating their ancestors from the Muslim Saracens, Chaucer and Gower ultimately turn to a difference more complex than the modern orientalist's answer of race: to one based on religious motivation, personal rather than political faith in God, and the ground of piety and conversion" (393). [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society JGN 29.2]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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