Gower Bibliography

Dismal Science: Chaucer and Gower on Alchemy and Economy

Epstein, Robert. "Dismal Science: Chaucer and Gower on Alchemy and Economy." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 36 (2014), pp. 209-48. ISSN 0190-2407


As his title suggests, Epstein pursues a double agenda in this essay: linking both Gower's and Chaucer's views on alchemy to their understanding of economics, first of all; and secondly, contrasting their views not just on alchemy, which we already knew were quite different, but on economics too. In his final paragraph, he writes: "Alchemy is, for both Chaucer and Gower, an essential trope for understanding economics. But whereas Gower idealizes alchemy as a vision of natural increase and pure wealth that is the opposite of the monetized economy, Chaucer reviles alchemy as the obscurantist antithesis of both scientific technology and economics, which are logical systems that, while artificial, can only be understood rationally and empirically" (248). It is not a small part of the merit of Epstein's essay that it provides a brief, very clear account of the background, both classical and medieval, to both poets' understandings of both alchemy and economics. The connection between the two in Chaucer's work is a bit more speculative than in Gower's. Epstein makes much of the depiction of the priest who is the victim in "Canon Yeoman's Tale" as an unsophisticated gull in order to portray his lack of understanding of economics as somehow parallel to his susceptibility to the deceptions of alchemy. Chaucer's "scientific" understanding of economics is inferred from his background as collector of customs, his understanding of the nature of financial dealings as revealed in "Shipman's Tale," and the interest in scientific measurement and calculation displayed in his "Treatise on the Astrolabe." It is rather more difficult to demonstrate that these experiences underlay his dismissal of alchemy as false science. Epstein has a bit more to work with in Gower's case since Gower has much to say about profitlessness of the quest for gold in an economic sense in his discussion of Avarice in Book V of CA, in seeming contrast to his approval of the "science," if not the modern practice, of the production of gold by alchemy in Book IV. Epstein explains Gower's allusion to "the time, er gold was smite / In coign, that men the florin knewe" (V.334-35), when there was no deception and no war, as a reference not to some vague Golden Age in the ancient past but to Edward III's minting of gold coins beginning in 1344, which Gower and other contemporaries blamed for the social divisions and other turmoil of their own time. In Book IV, on the other hand, in praising the ancient practice of alchemy, Gower describes it as a natural process, not "transmuting" base metals into some other form but instead restoring them to their purest form. Epstein summarizes the significance of this juxtaposition as he brings his discussion of Gower to a close: "Gower begins Book V of the 'Confessio' with the words 'Obstat auaricia legibus' (Avarice obstructs the laws of nature). He endorses alchemy before he excoriates money because alchemy stands in contrast to mercantilism as a myth of natural wealth. Alchemy in Book IV is everything that money in Book V is not: ordered, organic, bounded by natural extremes, rational, obedient to consistent laws, commensurable, and equitable. One of the qualities of money that most disturbed ancient and modern thinkers was that, through exchange and interest, it seemed to be able to multiply itself, and therefore to create wealth "ex nihilo," without labor or material. But in Gower's understanding, the alchemist's labor leads the material, through "the comfort of the fire," to the ideal form it most desires. "Some of the greatest minds of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries worried that alchemy, by increasing the amount of (natural or synthetic) gold and silver, could destabilize the money economy. Gower seems to have harbored greater concerns about the destabilizing effects of the money economy itself. Alchemy for Gower was a myth of profit without money or exchange, of value that is absolute rather than relative, of wealth that is organic, natural, universal, elemental, and inalienable from the innate value of material. Alchemy allowed him, as it must have allowed many of his contemporaries, to entertain a vision of labor, wealth, and profit while maintaining his belief in a moral social system rooted in ancient concepts of justice and fair exchange. The elixir, Gower says, can refine every metal, 'And pureth hem be such a weie / That al the vice goth aweie' (IV:2555-56). "But, it is also lost. The science itself is true, but we cannot recover it to the modern world, which, even by Gower's time, was thoroughly monetized" (231-32). [PN. Copyright John Gower Society. eJGN 34.1]

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

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