Coming back to a project for purposes of repurposing a little

I am coming back to a project I’d started over a year ago to adapt it into a conference paper, namely John Gower’s possible use of disputation in the Confessio Amantis.  One of the first things I had to do was re-read what I had. My first reactions were not what I expected. First reaction- wow, there’s a lot of footnotes/scholarship. Second- this is actually pretty good (for the re-purpose). Normally when I go back to something, my ideas have either changed or I just plain don’t like/agree with what I said or how I said it.

Shocker number two was that in the process of refocusing what will hopefully eventually become a book chapter into a conference paper, I now have a much clearer idea of a thesis for the chapter.

Original: The fourth rhetorical model, the debate, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship of Gower’s poem.  References to and instances of debate or disputation are scattered throughout the poem, but the instances in which Genius and Amans are involved are indicative of the importance of debate and disputation as influences on the poem. By tracing references to and moments of debate between Amans and Genius in the Confessio, debate-disputation becomes a new way to trace Amans’ journey of transformation from troubled lover to accepting soul at peace with himself.

Current: In spite of theses similarities, the fourth rhetorical, the debate, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship of Gower’s poem.  The first three rhetorical models model {after sermons, love complaint, and confession} share one major obstacle that disputation avoids: they do not allow for free interaction between the two speakers. By tracing the exchanges of disputative language and reasoning between Amans and Genius, disputation become a way to trace Genius’ influence and Amans’ evolving perspective as the result of active participation on both sides of the discussion.

This really should not surprise me though; when I was preparing a paper for a different conference this past fall, a proposal and paper I wrote only to fill in a panel I was presiding over, I ended up with an idea that I hope eventually will make a good article. We’ll have to wait and see. I do wonder though if this is a normal pattern. I don’t mind it, but we’ll have to see if it continues.

In the process of getting reacquainted with the previous work I’d done, I was reminded of why ILL is such a wonderful service to have and why librarians are fabulous people. In order to review the scholarship and citations that I hadn’t looked at in a while, I had to order nearly all of the books this way.  Since I ordered all at the same time and they came from mostly the same partner library, they all showed up at the same time. I was expecting that they would appear about the same time, but when I went to pick up what I thought was one book, I got the whole stack. The librarian checking me out wondered what was going on with the load of books he had to retrieve from the ILL shelf and process (it was at the end of the semester after all), then saw the faculty id and figured out “Conference paper?”  I saw the same librarian in the wellness center nearly a month later and he remembered me (or the stack of books he had to retrieve).

On a related note, a new twist for me is that I also have to remember when each book is due back because my school library does not do that. I almost got in trouble once, but thanks to that scare I have developed a strategy revolving around colored Post-Its, which are wonderful things. I probably could program my phone or an online calendar to send me reminders, but this way is faster. Another reminder that organization is important, not just with research information and ideas.

All together, this is a pretty good position to be in at the beginning of the summer (when most college teachers do a lot of research and lesson planning). I have 2 conferences to finish papers for, both of which have promise for publication. I am also facing teaching my first upper level English class this summer (exciting but a little scary), so I’m going to need to be really careful about balancing teaching and scholarship. To be continued…..

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…

An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.

Lydgate No Fun?

John Lydgate is known primarily for his more serious works such as Troy Book, the Fall of Princes, and the Siege of Thebes. The heavy moral didactic emphases in these works are something of a Lydgate trademark.  Even in the more amusing works, including the debate poems “The Churl and the Bird” (179ff) and “The  Debate of Horse, Goose and Sheep” (48ff), this tendency is apparent. Based on the majority of his work, Lydgate seems to have a hard time writing ‘just for fun’ pieces.

“The Churl and the Bird” is told in the style of a fable, and in accordance with this tradition, Lydgate includes a moral at the end of the poem. The final three stanzas specifically label the poem as a fable, and present four lessons to be taken from the poem.  The first is “Now forged talis  I counsaille you to fle”, and the second “For losse of goode takethe not to gret hede” (192). This second lesson is reiterated as “Coveitethe no thing that may not be” (192). The third lesson is “Bettir is freedom withe litelle in gladnesse/ Than to be thralle withe al worldly richesse” (193).

The fourth and final lesson is less direct. In the final stanza of the poem, Lydgate presents the traditional sending of his book to his patron. Conventional though this conclusion may be, the final lines still contain instructions. Lydgate says, “And as touching the translacioun/ Oute of Frenshe, hough ever the Englisshe be,/ Al thing is saide undir correctioun/ With supportacion of your benignite.” (193) The humility and  self deprecation are conventional, but the comment about the imperfection of translation contains the suggestion that the reader needs to take some responsibility for their own reading and interpretation.

In “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”, the moral is more direct. After the narrative of the court case has concluded, Lydgate adds another section, fourteen stanzas long, to explain ‘the moralite’ of the debate. The moralite opens with the lines, “Of this fable conceyveth the sentence,/ At goode leyser doth the matier see,/ Whiche  importith grete intelligence,/ Yif ye list take the moralyte,/ Profitable to evry comunaulte;/ Whiche inculdith in many sundry wyse:/ Noman sholde, of high or low degre,/ For no peragatif his neyhbour  to despise.” The rest of the lesson in interpreting the debate never refers to the actual debate, and instead presents a sermon on social equality.

There are very few texts by Lydgate in which the author does not indulge in his monkish habit of turning everything into a lecture. Lydgate wrote a series of ‘mummings’ (alternatively titled ‘disguisings’) which make up the majority of his ‘just for fun’ work. The Mumming at Hertford will serve as an example. Mummings are a kind of dramatic performance intended for entertainment purposes often produced on commission.  What kind of performance will be coming in this particular example is made clear by the prologue, which explains, “Nowe in þe vigyle of þis nuwe yeere/ Certeyne sweynes ful [froward of ther chere]/ Of entent comen, [fallen on ther kne],/ For to compleyne vn-to Yuoure Magestee/ Vpon þe mescheef of gret aduersytee,/ Vpon þe trouble and þe cruweltee/ Which þat þey haue endured in þeyre lyves/ By þe felnesse of þeyre fierce wyves;”

A series of caricatures follows the prologue, but Lydagate does not rely exclusively on wife-bashing for the entertainment. After all of the husbands present their complaints, the wives get a chance to respond. This group of women appear more educated than their husbands, which off-sets the shrewish characterizations. All though it is a collective speech, as opposed to each woman getting her own response, the women make references to literature as opposed to pure folklore and convention at the beginning of their defense: “And for oure partye þe worthy Wyff of Bathe/ Cane shewe statutes moo þan six or seven,/ Howe wyves make hir housbandes wynne heven,/ Maugre þe feonde and al his vyolence;/ For þeyre vertu of parfyte pacyence/ Parteneþe not to wyves nowe-adayes,/ Sauf on þeyre housbandes for to make assayes./ Þer pacyence was buryed long agoo,/ Gresyldes story recordeþe pleinly soo.” The ladies clearly have read Chaucer.

The decision by the ‘king’ also supports the idea that the women have outsmarted their husbands: “Wher-fore þe Kyng wol al þis nexst[e] yeere/ Þat wyves fraunchyse stonde hoole and entier,/ And þat no man with-stonde it, ne with-drawe,/ Til man may fynde some processe oute by lawe,/ Þat þey shoulde by nature in þeyre lyves/ Haue souerayntee on þeyre prudent wyves,/ A thing vnkouþe, which was neuer founde.” In contrast to this potentially feminist stance, the final words of the performance return to the traditional view of women causing men nothing but trouble: “Let me be-ware þer-fore or þey beo bounde./ Þe bonde is harde, who-soo þat lookeþe weel;/ Some man were leuer fetterd beon in steel,/ Raunsoun might help his peyne to aswaage,/ But whoo is wedded lyueþe euer in seruage.”

“The Mumming at Hertford” shows that Lydgate was capable of composing a text purely for entertainment, with no lecture or overall moral. One wonders what the effects might have been if he had allowed “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep” or “The Churl and the Bird” to stand without the emphasis and re-emphasis on the specific lessons he wanted his reader to take away.