Gower Bibliography

From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet

Cannon, Christopher. "From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet." PMLA 129 (2014), pp. 349-64.


Cannon's own earlier studies of surviving fourteenth-century textbooks concluded that, contrary to the testimony of Higden and Trevisa, instruction in literacy at the time that Langland, Chaucer, and Gower all learned to read took place neither in French nor in English but in Latin: "from the beginning of their education children were not only taught to read and write by construing Latin, they were taught to read and write in Latin" (351). Later, each of these poets "needed to move their very understanding of language and its grammar from the Latin forms and terminology in which they learned it to the English in which they were writing" (352). Their consciousness of that process is reflected, he argues, in the use of grammar as a trope in both Langland and Chaucer, and he proposes that "the period at issue here might be best called the 'Era of Grammaticalization.' That designation would describe the way in which English literature of the fourteenth century so often used grammatical concepts and terminology to shape allegory and image that it elevated grammar into something like a literary technique. It would also describe the way such literature hewed so close to the practices of basic literacy training that literary production often proceeded by means of the simplest exercises used to teach children how to read and write" (352-53). Gower figures only briefly in Cannon's essay, in a paragraph on schoolroom translation exercises, "which are most significant to Middle English poetry . . . where they are not anterior to the poem's English but parallel to it, where a poem can be said to unfold as a translation into and out of English for its entire length" (357). He suggests that the Latin of the CA not be dismissed as mere apparatus: "The Latin and English in the 'Confessio' are often precise equivalents, a fact embraced by the scribes who copied the poem and placed both Latin and English together in the main column of text (Pearsall, 'Gower's Latin' 14) or, on one occasion, made the Latin so large and colorful that it appears as if 'the English text is to be read as a commentary on the Latin . . . rather than vice versa' (Echard and Fanger xxvii-xxviii). In all such cases the 'Confessio' takes the form of literacy training, a grammaticalization insofar as it pairs what could be English prompts with their 'Latyns' or Latin prompts with their 'vulgars' for its entire length" (357). [PN. Copyright eJGN 34.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Confessio Amantis

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