Gower Bibliography

Common-Law and Penitential Intentionality in Gower's 'Tale of Paris and Helen'

Barrington, Candace. "Common-Law and Penitential Intentionality in Gower's 'Tale of Paris and Helen'." South Atlantic Review 79.3-4 (2015), pp. 132-43. ISSN 0277-335X


"England's two dominant legal systems, the ecclesiastical and the common-law, had opposite attitudes towards intentionality," Barrington writes. "According to the Church, intention was all. According to the common-law courts, intention counted for nothing" (134), except, she explains, during a brief period during King Richard's reign when Gower happened to be composing CA. In his poem, Gower juxtaposes and places into confrontation the assumptions from the two systems. "Throughout, Genius adopts a position comparable to the one found in penitential manuals: intention is all. Amans, however, maintains the common-law position that only the deed counts. Only reluctantly does Amans admit the culpability of his intentions even when he is unable to bring those intentions to pass. . . . Genius positions Amans as a penitential confessant, but Amans positions himself as a defendant in a criminal case" (136). As her principal illustration, Barrington uses the lesson on Sacrilege in CA Book 5. In interrogating Amans, "Genius adopts a position comparable to the one found in penitential manuals: the soul is judged by its intentions," while "Amans, in contrast, adopts the position associated with the law courts: the deed, intended or not, is all that counts. When Genius asks Amans if he ever committed sacrilege, the lover repeatedly admits to intending sacrilege but denies doing the deed and therefore sees himself as innocent" (137). Both, however, attribute a significant role to chance in determining whether or not an intent is carried out in deed. Chance also plays a large role in the "Tale of Paris and Helen" that follows. In its disjointedness, the tale resembles a "trial narrative" (140), made up of different accounts provided by different witnesses; and in its focus, finally, on the single issue of sacrilege, it recalls the need for a prosecutor to identify a prosecutable offense. The debate that occurs at the beginning of the tale identifies conflicting views of how the Trojans should proceed, but it links the eventual destruction of the city to the collective intention of the entire populace. Paris is given a kind of claim to Helen, but his ability to enforce it depends upon a series of unforeseen events. Once he sees Helen in the temple, however, he proceeds with conscious intention. But "the Trojans' collective involvement and Paris's intended deed--to abduct Helen--are set aside in preference to a legal model that limits the case to a single, provable deed: Paris's sacrilege. In this way, the tale entangles the penitential and the juridical, allowing Genius to rest his argument on a deed both intended and done" (138). Even such a perspective, however, offers no satisfying explanation either for the war or for the destruction of Troy. "The tale provides a barometer for the increasing difficulty of ignoring intention in the courtroom, indicating why Ricardian courts briefly made an allowance for intention because it invariably impinged on the proceedings and on the jurors' perceptions. Yet, the tale and framework also demonstrate why the courts found it the better part of wisdom to ignore the issue of intention. As long as criminal law was tied to a system of pleading that limited the case to a single issue, finding a prosecutable correlation between deed and intention adds complications that return us to the same problems caused by ignoring intention altogether" (140-41). Barrington's analysis is enlightening, but we do not read Amans' confession in V.7094-7182 in the same way. While he excuses himself from the type of indiscriminate flirting that Genius uses as his example of Sacrilege, Amans freely admits to a different sort of Sacrilege (5.7156), both in intent and deed, with regard to his own lady. This passage does not seem as good an illustration of a difference in understanding between Amans and Genius on the nature of culpability as Barrington suggests. [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.1.]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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