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…

A Realization, Excitement, and Vadamus!

A new writing project is always an exciting thing. I admit that for me personally it feels especially good because I was not as productive as I would have liked in the fall. The change in habits required pre- and post- PhD was a bit more difficult of a transition than I was imagining. That said, here’s the plan: I am still reading for my Gower project, which given the scale of the project, is not unexpected. I am in a position  to start writing for my pastoral in medieval English poetry paper. I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that made some relevant points. I had been using my heavy teaching load as an excuse to not spend as much time as I would have liked on my own work. While my new schedule (5 classes (3 courses) at 2 schools; 2 of the courses were new to me), I was emotionally and almost physically stretched. But Jenkin’s article resonated with me, especially the points that you can and should use previous ideas that can be expanded (from blogs etc), and that even with a hard teaching schedule, scholarship is possible though it requires detailed planning and some sacrifice.

Now, onwards to pastoral features in English literature during the medieval period. I have already done the writing that illustrates how the Latin pastoral traditions carry on into the medieval period (dissertation work that can be easily adapted), and it turns out that much of the reading will not be new to me based on that and previous graduate school papers/presentations. I will be writing about how the pastoral tradition is clearly present as a part of the gradual evolution and adaptation that happened between the Latin Classical period (Virgil) and the English Renaissance (Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser,etc). Chaucer, Gower, Henryson, and several anonymous poets will provide the texts using pastoral methods and tropes both in their frames and their central messages. This is going to be fun. Stay tuned…

Medieval Literature, Theory, and Beyond

Much 20th century literary theory does not work well when applied to medieval literature. The ideas of formalism, structuralism, reader response, and new historicism (for example) very rarely produce strong readings/interpretations of individual medieval texts. One reason for this problem is that much contemporary theory is designed to function on a genre or wider level, and suggests that texts of certain kinds share a certain set of features (for reasons defined by the theory). Medieval writing displays too much range of style for such ideas to work. A second reason for the incompatibility is that medieval writers and scholars had their own ideas about literary theory and practice which do not match well with the modern theories. Medieval literary theory as practiced and understood by medieval writers has been getting more attention in recent decades, and this scholarship agrees on the point that medieval writers appreciated both canonical styles (the auctores) and individual creativity (inventio). {I will present a more detail consideration of these ideas soon.}

I bring up the idea of literary theory, modern and medieval, because there is a way to adapt current literary theory to medieval literature, and that is to take the terms and key concepts and adapt them and/or combine them (as opposed to attempting to apply the entire theory).  For example, Thomas Reed borrows terms and ideas from Bakhtin and Gilman, and applies them to debate poetry, and Katherine Little borrows from Macherey, Alpers, Marx, and others to apply to late medieval poetry.

Now for confession time. I don’t especially like modern “literary theory” because it too often takes medieval texts out of their original context and gives them readings that may be interesting and intelligible to a contemporary reader, but that are entirely foreign to the culture which produced the texts in the first place.  Literary criticism should  not ignore the actual text in order to produce meaning, nor should it ignore the circumstances (literary, historical, cultural etc) under which the text was first produced.

Here’s what all of this has to with my own work (beyond my personal understanding and practice in terms of theoretical approaches): I am (as mentioned in an earlier post) trying to work on two projects at once. Newer project considers the concept of the medieval pastoral poem as adapted to the university setting, while big (older project) considers Gower’s Confessio Amantis as a debate poem. I looked into Katherine Little’s Transforming Work in hopes that it might work for both projects. The bad news: the argument will only be useful in my pastoral project. The good news: some of her theoretical references will be helpful in both. (Note: I will always advise students and scholars to mine the Works Cited of any publication for your own personal gain. This works every bit as well with digital sources (like Wikipedia) as with print.) Pierre Macherey published A Theory of Literary Production in 1966 (in French; the translation in English was done in 1978) using ideas from Marx and Freud to first define and then outline the practices of ‘literary criticism’.  The ambiguity and manipulation of the art vs science dichotomy to create meaning that Macherey sets up will prove useful in both projects.

Before I end up with further project ideas (more is better than none though), I will pause for now to return to work on working through my ever-expanding reading list for my Gower analysis, while keeping an eye out for ideas that might be useful for the pastoral paper or any other project ideas that might arise. Stay tuned…

Post-M/MLA Observations

I once saw a post of Facebook that said something like “Academics don’t go on vacations. They go to conferences.” While I admit  there is  certainly an element of socializing (both during the carpool there-back and the event itself),  the academic conference is most definitely not a vacation. The humanities academic conference really is a place to go for new ideas and texts and intellectual networking. Personally, I find the discovery of new ideas and texts to pursue both exciting and frustrating. For example, I think I might need to read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, but where in the pile of ‘not-strictly-work’ reading does it go? On the professional level, someone made a suggestion concerning that paper I presented that has the potential to turn an admittedly less than stellar paper into a publishable article. This is a good thing. But then, do I slow my current larger project for this one (which will require a considerable amount of research and additional writing) or wait until my Gower project is at least fully drafted?

I do think that it might be possible to combine the two, since there is a related thread: the use of Greco-Roman pastoral elements. What I am sure of is that I have a starting point title to look up. If this book appears to be relevant to both projects, then I can continue with both at the same time, at least for now. The first problem will be if Transforming Work is only relevant to the new idea of pursuing the university as the medieval version of the ‘representative anecdote’ that serves as a definitive feature of pastoral literature (see Paul Alpers’ What Is Pastoral? for this idea which he borrows from Kenneth Burke). The second problem is that the initial research for this idea will take time because I anticipate a lot of false leads and hits because of the key term ‘pastoral literature’. Even from a simple library catalog search for Transforming Work using ‘medieval pastoral literature’ (I couldn’t remember the title, only that there had been a recent book that discusses medieval poetry and pastoral themes-techniques) brought up mostly titles that dealt with the work of priests and theologians instead of poets. This sort of difficulty is a hazard with any early stage research, but it takes time to get through, and time is not something in abundance in any academic’s life.

On a  different note, one of the best things about this kind of conference is the random knowledge that you find. For example, I never knew that a stone creature was technically a “gargoyle” only if it has water  running through it. If just a statue, then the correct term is a “grotesque” (or other similar label).

Stay tuned for an update concerning how-if I manage to solve the ‘which project’ dilemma, and for my final discovery of this conference weekend just past: Long Live the Starbuck’s Chestnut Praline Latte!


Beginning a New Project

Embarking on a new project is always an interesting time. What I am beginning to work on is an extension of an older project, but it represents a new direction. My current long-term research project is a revision of my dissertation into a book. The original project, titled “Argument In Poetry: (Re)Defining The Middle English Debate Poem In Academic, Popular, And Physical Contexts”, argues that many medieval English argument poems tend to follow two models based on academic and popular practices of the times. The academic models come from commentary and disputation practices (Chapter 2), while the popular practices are derived from medieval drama and sermons (Chapter 3). The physical context, addressed in the fourth chapter, reviews a sample of representative manuscripts containing debate poems in order to analyze the types of texts, themes and marginalia typically preserved along with the poems.

I am currently working on a replacement for my original chapter 4. I will be replacing that chapter with an extended analysis of a single longer poem, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. I plan to analyze the persuasive elements that relate to the commentary tradition, the disputation tradition, the sermon, and confessional literature. The first part of this project will be concentrating primarily on the interactions between Amans and Genius in order to analyze Gower’s treatment of the interpretive and persuasive dialogue in the context of the various related discursive traditions referenced above. The second part of the project will concern the same elements within the exempla presented by Genius.

I am proceeding thus:

1) Initial reading of the primary text for ideas and questions to guide research.

For this first step finding the right edition of your text is important as the edition can be used to start the secondary source research process.  The advent of the digital humanities has made this element far more accessible than ever before. To me, a good edition, traditional or digital requires several components. First, a good scholarly edition must have a good “Works Cited” and ideally “For further information see” sections. A second key element is the inclusion of a glossary and textual notes. Particularly if I am looking at the text in question for the first time in depth, a detailed “Commentary-Notes” section is also very helpful. I am partial to the TEAMS Middle English series because these editions meet the above requirements. In the case of the Confessio Amantis, I will be primarily referring to:

Confessio Amantis, Volume 1


{I will eventually be using all 3 volumes, but volume 1 serves as a good example.}

An interesting fact about this series of editions is that many are available online as well as in print.  If I am committed to a specific text as my object of study, I find that I prefer to have the printed text. I prefer to not be tied down by WiFi connections and battery or cord availability. That said, I do like the digital editions because they can save time with hyperlinks to notes, and a digital text can make initial word searches faster than a paper concordance. I always make sure to double check a full concordance (when available) simply because, especially with Middle English, there may be forms of the word or alternative spellings that I was not aware of.

2) Once I have some ideas and questions from the initial reading of the primary text, I next begin looking into the secondary research to see what has already been done in the field, and to find out who the major scholars are. For this literature review, I start in two places. First, I have search my primary academic library’s catalog for potentially relevant sources.



The second place that I look to build my list of works to review is the Bibliography section of my edition.

                                                                                  LIbrary search

As of this writing, I have gotten as far as the two steps described above. What follows is based on previous practices.

3) As I read through the first round of primary sources, I keep notes. Based on my initial questions and observations concerning the text, I write down the relevant ideas for each text. I also make note of any potentially useful sources referenced so that I can look up the original arguments or ideas for myself. I prefer to keep track of my sources in a searchable digital file, but I keep my notes in a notebook. Although the paper notebook is less easily searchable, I find that if organized by title and author, I can still refer back to what I need while not being tied to an available screen.

This part of the process is probably the most time-consuming. The Bibliography and Index can be helpful places for saving time, especially if a text is not the work of a single author, but a collection or anthology of essays. That said, I firmly believe that taking time during the initial research phase will save time later on. Keeping detailed, organized notes will be helpful later on when I might realize that I want to return to a source I haven’t looked at in six months for a specific reference. In addition to checking my notes, I will also go through the indices and bibliographies provided to re-view the source in terms of my current question or perspective.

4) Outline. I like outlines and I find that I work well with them. As I teach composition students, I record my claims and reasons based on the primary text, keeping track of the relevant passages. I then add to each claim-reason the relevant secondary references.

5) First draft. After ensuring that everything in my outline is compatible, I sit down to write. I find that setting a schedule is useful, but that flexibility must be included. I set myself a weekly page goal and a daily  progress goal with a catch-up day built in.

6) Review and Revision. A hard lesson to learn is that having someone else read your unfinished work is helpful. After draft 1 is done, I send it to a willing trusted third party, while I begin my own revisions. This step is repeated until a polished project is completed.

Given that I am currently in the middle of step 2, the Gower project of mine will be ongoing for quite some time. I hope to have an outline at least started by Summer 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates and observations about how works is coming along.

General Literature

TEAMS Middle English Texts

This invaluable series of texts includes scholarly editions of the texts, notes, and commentary.


The medieval section of this site includes texts from major authors, biographical details (as known), and bibliographies of (and some links to) articles and other scholarship.


This site includes Chaucer’s texts, as well as other tools for study. Tools include a concordance, some ‘translations’, and a glossary of Chaucer’s Middle English.

Although this site is no longer active, it contains an annotated bibliography of resources, many of which are now standard in the study of Chaucer and his contemporaries. The link goes directly to the editions-of-text page.