John Gower and the Limits of the Law

June 2013
230 pages
23.4x15.6 cm
Publications of the John Gower Society
ISBN: 9781843843504
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
BISAC LIT011000, LIT004120

John Gower and the Limits of the Law

Conrad van Dijk

An examination of the ways in which Gower's poetry engages with contemporary law and legal questions.
It has long been thought that John Gower was probably a lawyer before turning to poetry, and this study reveals his active engagement with contemporary legal debates; they include constitutional questions, jurisdictional issues, private vengeance, jurisprudential concepts (such as equity and the rigor iuris), and aspects of criminal law. The author argues that the Confessio Amantis in particular demonstrates Gower's uncertainty about how to reconcile the ideal of a just law with alternative modes of justice, such as self-help, royal discretion, and divine will.
The book also examines the parallel development of the exemplum and casus in medieval literature. Exempla frequently create a sense of narrative closure by means of some form of punishment, or as Gower would put it, "vengeance". How then do we set Gower's reputation as a sympathetic writer alongside his frequent desire for closure and punishment? What are the limits of exemplarity and law? These questions are answered by reading Gower in relation to the volatile politics of the Ricardian period, and in comparison with the poetic concerns of contemporary writers such as Chaucer and Langland. In so doing, the book provides a searching introduction to the intersection between literature and law in the late fourteenth century.

Dr. Conrad van Dijk is Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University College of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada).

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Table of Contents

The Exemplum and the Legal Case
Asking Legal Questions in Gower's Confessio Amantis
The King in his Empire Reigns Supreme
Kingship and Law in Gower's Mirror for Princes
Desiring Closure: Gower and Retributive Justice
Conclusion: The Trials of Exemplary Legal Fiction


John Gower and the Limits of the Law has much to offer readers interested in medieval English law and literature; Gower is its focus, but its ambitions are much larger. This study seeks to move legal literary analysis beyond the (very important) detailing of terminology, and beyond thick historicist reading, toward a place where form and legal matter coalesce. RENAISSANCE QUARTERLY

[B]ased on the extent to which van Dijk can articulate Gower's thinking in terms of legal discourse and theory, if Gower did not practice law, perhaps he should have. THE MEDIEVAL REVIEW

In its lively prose style and focus on some of the most intriguing legal issues of all time, or at least those that have come down to us in literary form, Van Dijk not only gives us much to think about, but he makes the deliberation of each case stimulating and engaging. SPECULUM

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