Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace after 1381, by Lynne Arner
CRAIG BERTOLET JUNE 27, 2014
LYNN ARNER'S BOOK TAKES AS HER CATALYST the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, an event that she maintains caused a reaction in John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer to write English poetry as a way of disseminating Western learning while at the same time reducing the ability of English readers to foment a subsequent political revolt. In her book, Arner argues that, while Chaucer’s and Gower’s “writings were key conduits of these cultural riches into the language of the populace, these writings simultaneously engaged in elaborate processes of constructing cultural expertise and defining gradations of cultural authority” (p. 2). She grounds her reading of key texts by Chaucer and Gower with a methodology drawn from gender studies as well as the sociological work of Pierre Bourdieu. Her book consists of an introduction and five chapters.
Chapter One examines the evidence of book ownership by the members of the nonruling urban elites, demonstrating that Chaucer and Gower had a large readership and that many of these readers also participated in the 1381 Revolt. Arner expands on the work of other scholars who have studied the audiences for Chaucer, Gower, and other London-based writers to include members of the craft guilds, the legal profession, and women. These people were being educated in the grammar schools and were able to have access to books not just through purchase, but through borrowing, especially since the scriveners, stationers, and book artisans in London shared social circles with the nonruling urban elite.
Chapter Two argues that Gower’s Confessio Amantis encodes “knowledge of vernacular literature as a version of cultural capital” (47). Given the cultural prestige of works of Ovid, Virgil, and the Gesta Romanorum, Gower appropriated that prestige into his Confessio to make this knowledge accessible to English readers. At the same time, his Latin glosses served as a barrier to those nonruling urban elite who were not educated enough to read Latin, indicating that they were not allowed in the political sphere that the poem addresses. The Confessio’s program, according to Arner, was Gower’s attempt to show these urban elite who may have supported the 1381 Revolt that they were “ill-equipped to participate in political affairs” because of their inability to read unglossed Latin literature (69). The nonruling urban elite would recognize that they were better than the poorer strata of English society who could not read English but inferior to the ruling elite who could also read Latin. It was an attempt to keep readers in their political place
Arner’s third chapter considers the significance of the Dream of Nebuchadnezzar from the Prologue of the Confessio as an argument against social change directed toward the nonruling urban elite. The statue at the center of the dream is constructed of several layers of material: gold, silver, brass, iron, and clay. Each of the layers corresponds to a political age dominated first by Babylon, then Persia, Greece, Rome, and, finally, late fourteenth-century England as the age of clay. Arner suggests that the statue symbolizes competing views of time. The first view is that time is teleological, that the shift from gold to clay shows irreversible decay and that Gower’s contemporary England is the end result of that decay through history. The second is that time is homogenous, that all these regimes had the same social structure that maintained them (irrespective of their historical realities), and that attempts to change the ruling structures are unwise.
Chapter Four analyzes Chaucer’s Cupid from his Prologue to the Legend of Good Women as an undereducated reader. Arner argues that the principal issue for this poem “is the issue of art and social responsibility” so as “to construct parameters of debate regarding acceptable responses to poetry and to establish which conversations about literature could occur in late medieval England” (106). She proves that Chaucer wanted to remove social responsibility as a duty of art, absolving a poet from any blame resulting from a reader’s misinterpretation.
In her fifth and final chapter, Arner argues that the tales in the Legend of Good Women place accountability for the literary texts not with the writer but with the reader. At the same time, the tales advocate that literary texts should not be the vehicle for political agendas. Arner suggests that Chaucer’s Legend shows that “it is more important for the artist to be witty and clever than to be politically progressive” (152). Such a rhetorical stance is also more effective for social control.
Literary criticism of Gower invariably compares his work to Chaucer’s and often finds him wanting. This is not the case with Arner’s book. The principal strength of her book is her ability to demonstrate how both poets address the issue of social control through literary interpretation from different perspectives. Her account of how the Confessio Amantis is a plan for social control rather than for political change is a fresh perspective on the usual reading of Gower as a conservative writer of conventional morality. While the 1381 Revolt was a traumatic time for the elite in England, other events of the period caused social upheaval, especially in London, which is rightly the locus for her study. For instance, throughout the 1380s and 1390s, rival mayors split the City between politically powerful victualing guilds with ties to Richard II and less politically powerful non-victualing guilds. Gower addresses these concerns in his French poem, Mirour de l’Omme, and his Latin poem, Vox Clamantis. But Arner is correct that Gower’s agenda for his English-language Confessio must be different because the readers of English may not be readers of Latin or perhaps French. Consequently, the many tales contained in the Confessio would be appearing in English for the first time for the benefit of readers who could not read the original. Her contention that Gower’s well-known distrust of the mob translates in this poem as a means of limiting the access to classical and European texts rather than opening it to English readers is an important contribution to Gower Studies.
Similarly, Arner's argument that Chaucer’s Cupid is an indictment of the poorly educated reader speaks to the problem that many scholars have with his character. Cupid seems like a figure of the elite reader who misses the point entirely of poetry and the role of the author particularly. Arner’s suggestions that Cupid is deliberately created to be a rejection of literary interpretation based on imperfect reading practices and a rejection of Gower’s poetic agenda will encourage further study of this Chaucerian poem compared with Gower’s works. For instance, if Chaucer condemns a political agenda for English-language poetry, how might Arner approach Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, a story borrowed from Italian literature that examines political and gendered power, or the Physician’s Tale, which describes rebellion against a tyrant and is often considered a tale intended for inclusion in the Legend of Good Women? Still, Arner describes a coherent agenda from the two most influential English-language poets of the late fourteenth century that asks scholars to consider the works of these poets as attempts to maintain the sociopolitical status quo. It will be an important work for scholars working on late medieval literacy, power relationships, and the nexus between behavioral practices and social control.