Return to Gower. Sort of.

In working on a conference paper, I have come up with an outline for a theory that I think will actually work very well in helping to structure and organize my Gower project.

The theory: Medieval authors would borrow structures, techniques, and styles from not-strictly literary genres in order to give their own work a boost in credibility (auctoritas).

This idea is not new. The idea of using established authors and works as the basis for your own was an established and recommended technique for literary authors in Roman times. For example, the Roman poet Horatius Quintus Flaccus (aka Horace) gives advice of this nature in his Epistula ad Pisonem better known as the Ars Poetica. Horace suggests “As a writer, either follow tradition or compose what is consistent in itself” (lines 119-120). What Horace means here is that good poetry writers need to follow traditional styles, methods, and narratives, or at be consistent in terms of following expectations of audience concerning characters, stories, and modes.

Three major models used by medieval poets, especially of the debate type poetry, are the sermon handbooks, confession handbooks, and academic disputation format.

For confessional manuals: A lot of scholarship concerning Gower’s Confessio Amantis looks at the confessional model that is set up by the frame of the poem, and provides the connecting narrative between all of the various exempla and themes included throughout the 8 Books.

For disputation: There are scattered references to argument and debate throughout the Confessio, and Genius and Amans engage is a “debat” near the end of Book 8 (8.2189-2190) before Venus comes out for the final reveal about Amans’ character that allows him to reconcile himself with the idea of giving up his lover status.
For sermon manuals: A lot of the advice in these manual concerns how to use and explain the exempla and auctores related to the preacher’s main theme in order to convince an audience to act and/or think according to the preacher’s interpretation. The arrangement of the Confessio into books generally concentrating on a theme relates closely to structure recommended by the sermon manuals, as is the explication in terms of the audience’s lives. In the Confessio, Genius is the preacher with Amans for an audience.

What links these three structures to Gower’s poem and debate poetry is that debate poems, including the Owl and the Nightingale, “Als I Lay”, and Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, use these structures in the same way that the Confessio Amantis does.

To be continued…

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