John Gower’s poetry offers an important and immediate response to the turbulent events of his day. Here Professor Stephen H. Rigby, editor of Historians on John Gower (with Siân Echard), explains the collection’s historical approach to Gower’s work. Look out for a longer, more detailed full version of this article in the forthcoming issue of the Medieval Herald. Sign up here to get your copy as soon as it’s posted.
It is a commonplace of modern criticism that a useful way of interpreting medieval literary texts is to consider how they engage with the social hierarchies, institutions, conventions, behaviours and ideologies of their day. Yet, surprisingly, historians have been rather slow to engage in the interdisciplinary dialogue between history and literature which literary scholars have sought to initiate. Indeed, when they come to approach works of medieval imaginative literature, historians have often adopted what literary specialists will, understandably, regard as a rather naive approach as, for instance, when they have searched for the real-life models for characters such as the sheriff of Nottingham or the abbot of St Mary’s, York, who feature in the ballads of Robin Hood.
The aim of our new volume, Historians on John Gower is to enable a group of historians to bring their expertise to bear on Gower’s poetry and to show what a detailed knowledge of England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries can add to our understanding of his work. By examining the ideological frameworks which were available to Gower and his contemporaries, by determining the social, religious and political issues which his works tackled, and by establishing the assumptions and expectations of his original audience, historians can, we hope, contribute to the project of helping modern readers to arrive at a greater appreciation of the meanings of his texts.
Naturally, it would be a mistake to take Gower’s works as providing us with straightforward reports of contemporary events. Nor can Gower’s poems simply be seen as vehicles for ideas, values, discourses and ideologies which originated outside them. Rather, the meaning of the complex works of imaginative literature which Gower produced is bound up with their poetic and formal qualities and with the specifically literary pleasures they provide to their readers. In Historians on John Gower, we are fortunate in having the editorial assistance of Siân Echard, a Gower scholar who has herself edited an important companion to Gower’s work. We also enjoyed the support of Robert Yeager, another leading Gower scholar, who generously commented on the book’s fourteen chapters. Our aim was certainly not to barge into the territory of another discipline but rather to ally our own historical approaches with the expertise offered by these literary scholars.
Our book seeks to provide fresh insights into Gower’s life, into the context needed to understand his work and into modern critical reception of his poetry. Hopefully, it not only demonstrates what historians can contribute to our understanding of Gower’s work but will also encourage other historians to engage with the debates which literary scholars have initiated about how we should locate medieval literature in its historical context.
This guest post is written by Stephen Rigby. STEPHEN RIGBY is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Social and Economic History at the University of Manchester; SIÂN ECHARD is Professor of English, University of British Columbia.
Contributors to the volume: Mark Bailey, Michael Bennett, Martha Carlin, James Davis, Seb Falk, Christopher Fletcher, David Green, David Lepine, Martin Heale, Katherine Lewis, Anthony Musson, Stephen Rigby, Jens Röhrkasten