Gower Bibliography

Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England

Ferster, Judith. "Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996

Review

Ferster's chapter on Gower, in this new study of the Fürstenspiegel tradition in the late Middle Ages, is a lengthened version of the essay entitled "O Political Gower" that appeared in the 1993 special issue of Mediaevalia (reviewed in JGN 13, no. 2, pp. 9-10). Her Mediaevalia piece focussed on the ways in which Gower embedded commentary on contemporary issues in the "Mirror for Princes" in Book 7 of CA. Mixing some subtle rereadings with a sharp alertness to context, she found beneath the poet's obvious deference to the king some pointed advice, particularly on the very subject of advice itself: "The key to [Richard's] success," Gower suggests, according to Ferster, "is not his choice among aristocratic advisors, but his willingness to bend to hear the complaints of the commoners" (Mediaevalia 16 [1993):41). Ferster broadens her analysis in this lengthened version by giving more attention to the language of CA, demonstrating both that Gower's deference is more marked in his English poem than it is in either MO or VC, and also that the language that he uses in describing petitions to kings echoes the idiom of contemporary political discourse. She also comments at greater length on what she sees as Gower's representation of the voice of the gentry in contemporary disputes. Finally, she adds a completely new discussion of a group of tales in Book 7 — "Diogenes and Aristippus," "Tarquin and Aruns," and "Ahab and Micaiah" — that, in the paradoxes they raise, seem to bring into question what she calls the "hermeneutics of counsel" and to suggest, before offering an alternative in attention to the vox populi, the futility of a king's dependence upon his own counsellors. The inclusion of her discussion of Gower within the frame of her broader study also allows Ferster to place Book 7 much more persuasively within the tradition of the "advice for princes" from which it derives. The two main themes of Ferster's book are the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in any situation in which a poet or author presumes to advise his king, and the ways in which each of the various works that make up the Fürstenspiegel tradition, beginning with the Secretum Secretorum, can be found to contain a specific contemporary agenda beneath the gestures of deference and the overt endorsement of the monarch's power that are inevitable to the genre. In England in particular, she argues, the principal of the community's right to impose limitations on the king was embodied in Magna Carta, and discussion of the reciprocal relations between monarch and subjects was often phrased in terms of the right to give and the duty to follow advice. By the fourteenth century there was an active community of political discourse, with different groups staking out their rights to advise the king, and several obvious and well known instances in which either the king himself was deposed or his powers limited. The dangers of opposing the king were nonetheless very real, and the trope of the king's need for good advice provided a justification for what might otherwise be taken as a presumption upon the king's power, while the genre of the manual of advice, offered in presumed deference to the king, could be the safest means for offering critical, if necessarily indirect, comment on policies of special importance to the author. Ferster includes chapters on James Yonge's 1422 English translation of the Secretum Secretorum, on Chaucer's Tale of Melibee, and on Hoccleve's Regement of Princes as well as on CA, and she concludes with a brief consideration of Machiavelli's The Prince. She sets the Melibee in the context of the Appellants' crisis, and argues that both the lapses in Prudence's judgment and Melibee's inability to put her advice into practice represent Chaucer's attempt to deconstruct the ideology of advice by which the Appellants justified their impositions upon Richard's authority. Hoccleve, she argues, mixes his endorsement of the legitimacy of the Lancastrian line with pointed criticism of Prince Henry and discussion of some of the most divisive issues of the last years of his father's reign. Each of these readings, like her comments on Book 7 of CA, raises particular problems, both in Ferster's techniques as a reader and in her interpretation of the contemporary political setting; in the former regard, her emphasis upon the apparently deliberate self-contradictions in both CA and the Melibee depends upon an expectation of a formal and thematic consistency in a work of this sort and of this period that is perhaps unreasonably high. The great merit of her book is that by juxtaposing these works and asking the same sorts of questions about them, she has removed the mask of the authors' self-presentation to their patrons and opened up the whole tradition of the advice to the king to a more critical and more revealing view; and in response to the doctrine that there is no possibility of escape from contemporary ideology, she has convincingly demonstrated the presence of a multitude of dissenting voices, however covert some may be, in the political discourse of late medieval England. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 16.1]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Confessio Amantis

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