Gower Bibliography

Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace after 1381

Arner, Lynn. "Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace after 1381." State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013 ISBN 9780271058931

Review

Arner's study makes two large claims. First, as she states in her introduction, she "examines the transmission of Greco-Roman and European literature into English while the ability to read was burgeoning among significant numbers of men and women from the nonruling classes in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England. This transmission required a dissemination of cultural authority and offered a radically democratizing potential for accessing, interpreting, and deploying learned texts"(p. 2). More specifically her focus is on the numerous and disparate readership among the "upper strata of nonruling urban classes," defined as "the most affluent and powerful layers of the population, beneath the wealthy merchant class, in the approximately thirty largest cities and towns in late medieval England. Regarding London: this category refers, in part, to the rank and file of the greater companies . . . artisans and retailers, including . . . prosperous shopkeepers . . . the master craftsmen and . . . other leading members of lesser companies, including…trained employees in their respective crafts [but excludes] servants or waged laborers." (p. 23) Culling from an array of published sources, in chapter 1 she develops a case that the ability of this group to read English texts has been underestimated—and that these precisely were the major audience imagined by Gower for the CA and Chaucer for the "Legend of Good Women," the text Arner (who is also concerned with how these poems illuminate both poets' treatments of gender) examines by way of example. Indeed, it is to reach these wealthier readers that the former chose English for the CA. Her second claim is that "while Geoffrey Chaucer's and John Gower's writings were key conduits of [Greco-Roman and European literature] into the language of the populace . . . [their] poetry attempted to circumscribe the democratizing potential of this new knowledge and worked to grant certain socioeconomic groups leverage in public affairs, all the while promoting . . . dependency for others . . . . By doing so, [Chaucer's and Gower's] writings participated in determining, at the sites of vernacular poetry and poetics, who could legitimately contribute to the production of knowledge in late medieval England." (p. 2) For Arner, Chaucer and Gower "'both . . . were from the ruling classes' [emphasis hers]." (p. 22); their works transmitted values and "conversance with the Greco-Roman literary tradition" (p. 153) to the "upper strata of nonruling urban classes." These benefitted from their poetry, even as the premises of the work effectively excluded, to variable degrees, the less privileged members of society. Arner (albeit in language often derived from Pierre Bourdieu and Karl Marx), as do many others, argues that Chaucer and Gower had different views of what poetry ought to do: the former "offers an art that guarantees the poet's right to liberal self-expression, without repercussions or accountability. Chaucer engages in cultural pastimes as a game, demonstrating casualness, mannered elegance, and statutory assurance, characteristics that . . . indicate a mastery of culture and signal membership in the elite" (p. 157); and the latter "proceeds as if poetry is a means of social reformation and a vehicle for social engineering." (p. 158) In an interesting rethinking of the more familiar litany of "pedantic Gower/aesthetic Chaucer," Arner finds in Gower's work an "agency" for lower classes via the facility of language (chapter 3); Chaucer, on the other hand, intentionally undermined both this acknowledgement of peasant agency and also Gower's insistence that poetry engage in socially responsible ways. Thus Chaucer "helped to thwart one of the most politically progressive possibilities of Gower's poetry and of similar literature in late medieval England." (p. 160) These arguments of Arner's are sharply rendered in her consideration of time in chapter 3. Despite these different attitudes toward poetry, in Arner's view Chaucer's and Gower's work nevertheless achieves the same end: "English literature from its nascence did not offer a democratization of culture but represented a new means of constructing authority and imposing social control as a form of education. Lacking an appropriate pedigree to become the legitimate inheritors of this cultural tradition, readers from the nonruling classes were still refused entry into the inner sanctum of culture." (p. 160). [RFY. Copyright. JGN 33.1]

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

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