Gower Bibliography

Nuisance and Trespass in the 'Vox Clamantis': Sheriffs, Jurors and Bailiffs

Meindl, Robert J. "Nuisance and Trespass in the 'Vox Clamantis': Sheriffs, Jurors and Bailiffs." Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics and Semiotic Analysis 20 (2015), pp. 181-213. ISSN 1087-5557

Review

Meindl's essay offers a translation and commentary on Book 6, lines 419-68 of VC, "de errore Vicecomitur, Balliuorum, nencon et in assisis iuratorum" (concerning "the error of sheriffs, bailiffs, and also jurors in assizes"; Meindl's translation), demonstrating by its detailed analysis that "the surface of Gower's text is deceptively bland and the sub-text surprisingly rich" (182). Meindl sets the composition of the passage in 1378-80, largely on the basis of the absence of any reference to the events of 1381. In the course of his commentary, he explains the rule and scope of responsibility of the fourteenth-century sheriff, the opportunities that the position offered for venality and corruption, and how the office was evolving at the time that Gower wrote; the role of the "iurati," which he points out can only loosely be translated as "jurors"; the function of the bailiffs; and the different forms and settings of the assizes, including how they differed from the courts per se, before centering in on the "assisa de nocumento" ("assizes of nuisance"), which Gower slyly invokes in lines 420 and 436 by referring to the "nocumenti" committed by sheriffs rather than those which serve as the basis for a complaint. It is no small part of the merit of Meindl's analysis that in addition to his concern for the precise referent of Gower's terms (such as "legifer," p. 195), he is also alert to Gower's frequent plays on words, and he also cites the sources for some of Gower's imagery. Beneath the broad condemnation of avarice and corruption offered by Gower's text, Meindl finds some circumspect reference to specific issues and events from the years in which this passage was composed. In lines 445-62, he asserts, Gower treats miscarriage of justice by those with responsibility to enforce it as not merely a crime but as treason, a betrayal of the king, taking "what was likely the official royal position" on an issue on which thought was evolving during Gower's time. And he suggests that Gower's criticism of the assizes may have reference to a particular well publicized case involving some prominent local names (among them Nicholas Brembre and John Northampton) in which the issue was a blocked drain in a property owned by the Franciscans, but in which Meindl finds hints of irregularities in the proceedings that led to the plaintiff's success. "As a poetic spokesman for the king's faction [at that time]," Meindl argues, "Gower would have seen in Northampton's victory over the Franciscans (the poor man of l. 432?) at the least an inappropriate gain for the opponent of someone he favored" (205). Meindl writes with the advantage of greater familiarity with the records that he has examined, but for the rest of us, it is difficult to know precisely how much weight to give to this one case without knowing what others there might have been that Gower might have been equally interested in, or even involved in. And it is actually a little difficult to find a precise reference either to the king or to treason in lines 445-62. The invocation of "ius" rather than merely "lex," the comparison to Judas, and the reference to rewards in hell might suggest a broader moral basis for Gower's condemnation, more typical of the rest of VC. [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.2]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Vox Clamantis

Gower Bibliography Editors Only: edit metadata