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…..

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.

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.


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.