Cover image for Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace After 1381 By Lynn Arner

Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising

Poetry and the Problem of the Populace After 1381

Lynn Arner


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ISBN: 978-0-271-05893-1

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208 pages
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Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising

Poetry and the Problem of the Populace After 1381

Lynn Arner

Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising is an original and provocative study that reorients our sense of the fourteenth-century audience for vernacular English literature. Lynn Arner shows how the writings of Chaucer and Gower shaped complex new hierarchies of cultural expertise and authority. Through a series of wonderful readings, drawing fruitfully on Pierre Bourdieu, among others, this book makes an important contribution to the social and cultural study of medieval literature, vernacular literacy, and access to cultural capital in the later medieval period.”


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Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising examines the transmission of Greco-Roman and European literature into English during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, while literacy was burgeoning among men and women from the nonruling classes. This dissemination offered a radically democratizing potential for accessing, interpreting, and deploying learned texts. Focusing primarily on an overlooked sector of Chaucer’s and Gower’s early readership, namely, the upper strata of nonruling urban classes, Lynn Arner argues that Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings engaged in elaborate processes of constructing cultural expertise. These writings helped define gradations of cultural authority, determining who could contribute to the production of legitimate knowledge and granting certain socioeconomic groups political leverage in the wake of the English Rising of 1381. Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising simultaneously examines Chaucer’s and Gower’s negotiations—often articulated at the site of gender—over poetics and over the roles that vernacular poetry should play in the late medieval English social formation. This study investigates how Chaucer’s and Gower’s texts positioned poetry to become a powerful participant in processes of social control.
Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising is an original and provocative study that reorients our sense of the fourteenth-century audience for vernacular English literature. Lynn Arner shows how the writings of Chaucer and Gower shaped complex new hierarchies of cultural expertise and authority. Through a series of wonderful readings, drawing fruitfully on Pierre Bourdieu, among others, this book makes an important contribution to the social and cultural study of medieval literature, vernacular literacy, and access to cultural capital in the later medieval period.”
Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising is an enthralling and thought-provoking reappraisal of the interplay between literacy, poetry, and social relations in England during the years immediately following the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Taking as her starting point a startling reappraisal of the extent of literacy at the time of the rising, Lynn Arner explores how the poetry of Gower and Chaucer intersected with the aspirations and anxieties of emergent social classes. Arner not only provides an engrossing account of the interplay of text, culture, and authority at a critical moment in English history, but also shows how the cultural choices made at that time resonate in many modern assumptions about the role and nature of culture. This book is required reading for anyone interested in how the social and cultural tensions of the late fourteenth century shaped English-speaking culture.”
“One of the most compelling subjects in scholarship on the Middle Ages is the Rising of 1381—what we used to call the Peasants’ Revolt. What Lynn Arner contributes to this research is an overlooked and necessary perspective, an account of literature from the ground up, as it were, or at least how literature looked from the ground up. Arner demonstrates how pervasive are the tensions and themes that surround the rebellion and how they work within and on a wide variety of works, authors, and audiences in the late Middle Ages. Arner is able to read Gower and other writers not as defensive social conservatives but as voices for a newly emerging polity. She insists on rooting readings of medieval literature (or any literature) in lived, material experience, and she also insists on the importance of considering the aesthetic and the political as part of an interpretative matrix.”
Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising excavates the moderating effects that early canonical literature in English would have on nonruling classes who were likely to have been sympathetic with or to have participated in the Peasants’ Revolt, and for that reason alone it offers an enormous contribution to scholarship in fourteenth-century English literature.”
“[Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising] will be an important work for scholars working on late medieval literacy, power relationships, and the nexus between behavioral practices and social control.”
“Ambitious and original.”
“This study is welcome and valuable in returning literature, which has been studied as an isolated phenomenon, to the rich social fabric of which it is a part. Literature, and culture generally, have an autonomy in which man’s most penetrating self-interrogations take place. This is therefore not the last word, but it is an important word.”

Lynn Arner is Associate Professor of English and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University in Canada.



1 Chaucer’s and Gower’s Early Readership Expanded

2 Against the Greyness of the Multitude: Poetry, Prestige, and the Confessio Amantis

3 Time After Time: Historiography and Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

4 In Defense of Cupid: Poetics, Gender, and the Legend of Good Women

5 Chaucer on the Effects of Poetry






The spring and summer of 1381 witnessed the most geographically widespread series of rebellions, featuring the largest number of insurgents, in medieval English history. In the immediate aftermath, John Gower composed book 1 of the Vox Clamantis, describing the event in vitriolic terms and portraying rebels as beasts ontologically incapable of intelligible speech. Preaching to the demographics who overwhelmingly opposed the English Rising of 1381, the Vox staged a dramatic refusal to engage with subordinate classes, as the poem’s educational prerequisites attest. Around 1386 Gower began the Confessio Amantis, in which the memory of the rising persists, although the two poems offer dramatically divergent strategies for grappling with the event. Requiring neither fluency in Latin nor conversance with Greco-Roman antecedents, the Confessio acknowledged that the eagerness of the ruling classes alone was insufficient to reproduce social relations and that recruitment is easier when the ruling and subordinate classes speak a shared language. Spending far less time than the Vox on explicitly politicized speech, the Confessio relocated the debate to an expressly literary register, promoting culture as a powerful site at which to engage in political struggle. No longer the preserve of the ruling classes, learned poetry structured by a Greco-Roman and erudite European literary tradition addressed members of the populace directly in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, and, as the Confessio testifies, offered a viable locus for intersecting with the consciousness of the subordinate classes. Ultimately, this study is less concerned with the English Rising of 1381 than with the larger “crisis of authority” that the rebellion signaled and with responses to this crisis. This crisis of authority was an incitement to discourse, and one response was the flourishing of an erudite, highly literary Greco-Roman English poetry, a key site of political struggle in late medieval England.

Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace After 1381 examines the transmission of Greco-Roman and European literature into English while the ability to read was burgeoning among significant numbers of men and women from the nonruling classes in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England. This transmission required a dissemination of cultural authority and offered a radically democratizing potential for accessing, interpreting, and deploying learned texts. The late medieval vernacular turn meant that large portions of the nonruling classes no longer needed the more highly educated to dispense this knowledge or to interpret it for them. The Vernacular Rising argues that while Geoffrey Chaucer’s and John Gower’s writings were key conduits of these cultural riches into the language of the populace, these writings simultaneously engaged in elaborate processes of constructing cultural expertise and defining gradations of cultural authority. At the founding of a highly literate English tradition, this poetry attempted to circumscribe the democratizing potential of this new knowledge and worked to grant certain socioeconomic groups leverage in public affairs, all the while promoting relations of dependency for others. As part of its analysis, The Vernacular Rising scrutinizes multiple addresses to different sectors of the early readership for Chaucer’s and Gower’s English poetry, with particular attention to the Confessio’s complex, often contradictory address to sizeable portions of nonruling groups upon their entrée, as a significant readership, into an erudite literary legacy. Classificatory systems in Chaucer’s and Gower’s texts encouraged all sectors of their early readership to make social distinctions: first, among varied groups of readers; and, second, between these groups and those not among them. By doing so, these writings participated in determining, at the sites of vernacular poetry and poetics, who could legitimately contribute to the production of knowledge in late medieval England.

Furthermore, The Vernacular Rising argues that at formative moments in the English literary tradition (as it is now conventionally celebrated), the poetry of Chaucer and Gower circumscribed the field of debate regarding appropriate responses to poetry and acceptable categories of analysis for understanding and for adjudicating texts, helping to establish which conversations about literature were possible. Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings jointly participated in forging a highly effective set of discourses about English poetry, some premises of which subtend current praxes surrounding English literature. While their writings were typically consonant regarding constructions of cultural expertise, gradations of cultural authority, and the circumscription of the democratizing potential of English literature, regarding other terms, Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetics frequently clashed. Gower’s version of poetics envisions poetry as an explicit, direct participant in political debates, especially in socioeconomic struggles in late fourteenth-century England, although Gower’s expressed stances and the ways in which his writings attempted to intervene in the sociopolitical terrain were not always congruous. By contrast, Chaucer’s version of poetics not only disavows that poetry intervenes in political debates but denies that the poet or his art can do so. While forwarding this stance, Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women offers a sustained attempt to disarticulate both Gower’s vision of poetics and the recognition that poetry is a powerful arena for sociopolitical struggles. This study examines negotiations, enacted in the texts of these two key figures, over the roles vernacular poetry should play in the late medieval English social formation and considers how their writings positioned poetry to be a powerful participant in processes of social control.

The Vernacular Rising is keenly interested in engagements of erudite English poetry with readers from the nonruling classes. Although after Steven Justice’s Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 it became difficult to discount the possibility of at least some members of the nonruling classes being among the audiences for vernacular writings, there has not yet been much consideration of subordinate classes specifically as readers of highly literary English poetry derived from Greco-Roman and European texts in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Discussions of lay readers of vernacular literature from 1380 to 1425 have been heavily influenced by Anne Middleton, Paul Strohm, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, and Steven Justice. Middleton suggests that early readers for poetry such as Chaucer’s included “New Men,” resembling his fictive Man of Law, Franklin, Monk, Clerk, and Squire, and Strohm argues that Chaucer’s primary reading circle for his poetry during his lifetime consisted of fellow knights and esquires in Richard II’s household and civil servants and lawyers in the London-Westminster area, while additional readers may have included educated women at the court and, in the early fifteenth century, wealthy merchants. As chapter 1 explains, Middleton and especially Strohm focus primarily on the protobourgeoisie and aristocracy (including the gentry), the classes from which Chaucer and Gower emerged. Middle English scholars frequently reiterate Strohm’s problematic identification of these readers as being from the “middle strata” or “middle class,” thereby mistaking members of the ruling classes for less privileged ranks. These scholars also often echo Middleton’s formulation “public poetry” and maintain that English-language texts were potentially available to a reading public. Typically in these commonplace invocations of the “middle strata” and “reading public,” the demographics of readers are unstable. After delineating the relationships among various socioeconomic groups in Chaucer’s and Gower’s lay readership in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, chapter 1 examines which men and women from the nonruling classes in cities and towns typically possessed the ability to read English and were among the readership for Chaucer’s and Gower’s vernacular poetry prior to 1425. Mapping out this territory enables more complicated analyses of social class in relation to negotiations over the terms of an emergent highly literary English poetry in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England.

Kerby-Fulton and Justice argue that bureaucrats, sergeants and justices of law, civil servants, and scribes in London, Westminster, and Dublin formed a central readership for William Langland, Chaucer, and Gower from 1380 to 1427. Although Kerby-Fulton and Justice do not pursue this line of inquiry, the higher-ranking members of these London, Westminster, and Dublin reading circles emerged from the ranks of the gentry and merchant class. However, of greater interest to me are those men whom Kerby-Fulton and Justice identify at the lower levels of the London-Westminster reading circles, including anonymous legal scribes who intermittently helped produce literary manuscripts, such as the poetry of Chaucer and Gower. I argue that these legal scribes need to be placed alongside London’s large cadre of booktrade artisans and, in turn, located among craftspeople as readers of Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. To investigate the ways in which this new, highly literary poetry spoke to subordinate classes in the aftermath of the insurrection, I offer, as a concrete example, what I dub the “upper strata of nonruling urban classes,” roughly, lesser merchants and prosperous artisans, strata that had generated substantial numbers of rebels in 1381, demographics described more fully in chapter 1. Despite records of book ownership and despite extensive documentation of these ranks’ abilities to read English prior to 1425, literary scholars have generally overlooked these men and women as readers in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England. It is important to reframe discussions of medieval readers to make these ranks visible, since members of these strata typically possessed the ability to read English, often owned texts, and intermittently consumed literature. The Vernacular Rising demonstrates that the upper strata of nonruling classes must be seriously considered part of Chaucer’s and Gower’s readership prior to 1425, opening up new possibilities for critical engagements with the writings of these two poets.

Emphasizing this readership, but also keeping in mind the broader spectrum of late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century readers, one central concern of The Vernacular Rising is the flourishing of a highly literary English poetry vis-à-vis a nexus of issues surrounding entitlement, exclusivity, cultural prestige, and suitability for social mobility. Although scholars have discussed sundry ways in which Middle English poets legitimated their use of the language of the populace, explorations of the simultaneous multiple addresses of a text, especially according to socioeconomic position, have been rare in medieval English literary studies. The Vernacular Rising scrutinizes the emergence of (what is now celebrated as) the English literary tradition while this poetry addressed different groups of readers according to varied degrees of alleged election, deservedness, and preparedness, thereby assigning these readers differing qualities for claiming and exercising cultural authority. Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings engaged in processes of classifying readers, in part, through readers’ different connections to the Greco-Roman and European literary traditions that Chaucer’s and Gower’s texts conferred. These classificatory systems were simultaneously intertwined with a seemingly contradictory project of forging unity among readers. I am not arguing that Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings had specific effects on early readers, only that the discourses speaking through these writings attempted to reshape readers’ consciousness. I understand the social terrain of cultural production in ways indebted to theorists who have pursued questions about culture’s participation in the recruitment of populations from a range of socioeconomic positions, especially Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams. Gramsci and Hall have argued that politics must be understood as a production and that effective recruitment involves an acknowledgment of a variety of social antagonisms, aligning different interests within a common project. The production of such alignments entails altering how subordinate subjects view themselves and their relationships with others; severing former alliances and forming new ones among groups who might appear to have very diverse interests; speaking to different identities, projects, and aspirations; and constructing unity from difference by seeming to represent some of the interests of everyone.

In social projects forging unity, as Williams points outs, tradition often plays a central role. Williams argues that tradition is an actively shaping force, a powerful practical means of incorporation, powerful in the processes of social and cultural definition and identification. Most versions of tradition are radically selective: from an expansive arena of past and present events in a given society, certain meanings and practices are emphasized, while others are excluded, although this selection is usually passed off as “the tradition” or “the significant past.” Tradition, Williams writes, “is a version of the past which is intended to connect with and ratify the present. . . . The hegemonic sense of tradition is always the most active: a deliberately selective and connecting process which offers a historical and cultural ratification of a contemporary order.” It is at the vital points of connection, where a rendition of the past is employed to ratify the present, that a selective tradition is most effective, because it is tied to many practical continuities—such as places, institutions, a language—that are directly experienced. When Williams explains that tradition is a version of the past “used to ratify the present and to indicate directions for the future,” he implies that a construction of history and tradition makes certain possibilities in that present moment, and potentially in the future, more probable, while simultaneously decreasing the likelihood of alternatives. The Vernacular Rising examines the mustering of tradition in Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry, the excerpting and molding of earlier cultural artifacts for use in political debates in late medieval England, often working to consolidate power relations in the aftermath of the English Rising of 1381 and to circumscribe political possibilities at the time and impede their likelihood thereafter. The very terms in which the writings of Chaucer and Gower shaped a previously largely exclusive cultural history produced a new readership and a new set of possibilities for governance.

The Vernacular Rising foregrounds the incoherence and fragmentation of the consciousness of the late medieval English nonruling classes. Regarding rebels’ consciousness, Justice’s seminal Writing and Rebellion, which continues to influence most literary scholars’ perceptions of the insurrection, seeks to reconstruct rebels’ consciousness by drawing together scant, often contradictory extant evidence surrounding the rising. Concentrating on priests and peasants, Justice strives to uncover rebels’ intentions, experiences, and consciousness in some illusory fullness, answering the Freudianesque question “What did rebels want?” While the chronicles and other writings by members of the ruling classes betray a great deal about their own projections, interests, and ideologies, they reveal little about the thoughts of men and women who rebelled. Although Strohm also voices this sentiment, he nonetheless strives, albeit much more cautiously and reservedly, to restore rebels’ ideologies, intentions, and speech. In part because the consciousness of subaltern groups is by definition fragmentary, studies offering to reconstruct, especially in any authentic way, the consciousness of nonruling classes from medieval England are highly fraught. Hence, rather than pursuing consciousness as a lost object waiting to be found in the archive, I trace the ways in which rebels and members of subordinate classes more generally were addressed and instructed through a set of key texts in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England.

In addition to its inherent fragmentation, the consciousness of these strata is further lost to us because of the distance of more than six hundred years and because these are not the ranks whose worldviews are expressed in extant cultural artifacts from the period. The emergence of English literature can be read elegiacally, as a memorial to those whom Gower and Chaucer were writing over and against, intentionally or not. Responding to insurgents’ comprehensions of themselves, of their actions, and of their larger society, the poetry of Chaucer and Gower worked, albeit often differently, to guarantee the incoherency of these subjectivities. Ultimately, the project of disarticulation in which the Vox, Confessio, Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and various late medieval chronicles participated succeeded: what must have been the varied, complicated web of rebels’ perceptions of their actions, and their larger worldviews, remains largely inaccessible or unintelligible to us now. The Vernacular Rising investigates this process of disarticulation and the cultural project of thwarting the uprising from living compellingly in the minds of readers. More broadly, this study connects attempts to ensure the fragmentation of subaltern consciousness in late medieval England to a metaliterary formation in which Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry rendered incoherent alternate ways of understanding and being in the world. Simultaneously, at the sites of poetry and poetics, Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings promoted certain new social identities and cultural relations in late medieval England.

The long-enduring hegemonic stance in Gower studies of sympathizing with Gower and the ruling classes against rebels and the poor is the legacy of this disarticulation. With respect to Gowerian poetry and class relations more generally, Gower studies has been structured by a simultaneous acknowledgement and disavowal of social class in Gower’s writings. On the one hand, as the need for scholarship such as David Aers’s work on Gower’s politics reveals, there has been a strong defense of a beloved poet by the humanist gesture of locating Gower outside the sociopolitical fray, aiming his arrow equally at the three estates. On the other hand, because Gower ferociously pronounces the social order to be decreed by God and nature alike, there are commonplace assumptions that the class politics of his texts are self-evident and hence that we need not analyze them. Both stances have resulted in a dearth of class-based analyses of Gower’s writings. Negotiations surrounding class in Gower’s texts, particularly in the Confessio, are much more complex and fascinating than they initially appear and hence merit further investigation, even as the texts themselves and the legacy of their critical reception thwart such an endeavor.

Although this study locates Chaucer and Gower at the beginnings of English literature, their writings do not represent the founding of English literature in any absolute sense, as extant Anglo-Saxon poetry and as Piers Plowman, with its earliest complete version of the B-text dating from 1378 to 1381, attest. Exemplifying Williams’s formulations surrounding tradition, the beginnings of English literature are, of course, heavily constructed and contested. John M. Bowers’s rendition of the origins of English literature, for example, privileges William Langland, pronouncing Langland’s writing indigenous to England and insular in style and content, noting that Piers Plowman features many Latinate references to bureaucratic culture rather than offering the literary allusiveness of Chaucerian poetry. Keenly aware that there are numerous potential loci at which to posit the foundations of English letters and that sundry aesthetic and ideological criteria determine these loci, The Vernacular Rising positions Chaucer and Gower at the nascence of a particular type of English literature, a type frequently valorized in conventional histories of English literature: a legacy structured by Greco-Roman texts and in dialogue with French and Italian poetry; a corpus with identifiable, individuated authors; an English-language heritage without the embarrassing interlude of a Norman conquest; and a corpus with a subsequent history of allusions to Gower’s and especially Chaucer’s poetry. Multiple artistic and political possibilities existed in the embryonic moments of the versions of English letters propelled by Chaucer and Gower, and this book is, in some ways, a memorial to what the English literary canon did not become, including a memorial to some, curiously, politically progressive options that Gower’s writings proposed for English literature but that have failed to become dominant. In its analysis of these lost possibilities, this study eschews the romantic paradigm of the struggling poet structuring Bowers’s book, investigating instead the participation of Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry in emergent discourses about erudite poetry and poetics.

Gower scholars have not infrequently paired Gower with Chaucer, as two scholarly monographs, both recent, attest: J. Allan Mitchell’s Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower and Malte Urban’s Fragments: Past and Present in Chaucer and Gower. Mitchell examines ethics in Gower’s and Chaucer’s writings, but since ethics is one of the most traversed territories in Gower scholarship, it is not a topic I pursue. In the preface to Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics, a study of Gower’s ethics and politics in relation to gender and sexuality, Diane Watt cursorily compares Chaucer and Gower, noting that Gower intervenes in politics in a way Chaucer did not. Similarly, Elizabeth Allen interprets the Confessio’s explicit reference to Chaucer as a “specific challenge to Chaucer’s notorious political reticence,” where Gower “charges his fellow-poet to take a personal stand.” Speaking more generally, in John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer, John H. Fisher writes, “Gower was Chaucer’s senior and mentor; their allusions to one another and the evolving pattern of the parallels in their works suggest that Gower was a sort of conscience to his brilliant but volatile friend, encouraging him by both precept and example to turn from visions of courtly love to social criticism.” The Vernacular Rising explores the striking political disparity between Chaucer’s and Gower’s stances on the role of poetry, an incongruence not infrequently remarked on but less commonly pursued. Urban’s book might be a possible exception here, although, deploying deconstruction, queer theory, and postmodern theory, the methodology and politics of Urban’s study differ greatly from mine and, predictably, class is not of much concern in his book, nor is literacy. Urban does, however, foreground the instability of meaning in Chaucerian texts. Chaucer’s political elusiveness, whether volitional or discursive, is no secret. Several Chaucerians, including Lee Patterson, Sheila Delany, and Strohm, have commented on Chaucer’s avoidance of explicit political stances. An innovation I bring to the conversation is to argue that the Legend of Good Women directly grapples with a Gowerian version of poetics and seeks to render uncompelling and incoherent Gower’s explicit stance that poetry actively participates in the production of the social formation.

The Vernacular Rising, in part, investigates a debate between two of the most prolific, important authors in late medieval England over the function of poetry, while these men were vernacularizing a rich Greco-Roman and European cultural legacy. Gower understands Art to be inherently political and maintains that authors have an obligation to intervene explicitly in sociopolitical affairs. Gower offers heightened emphases on socioeconomic conflicts, and his poetry generally privileges history and political struggles. By contrast, Chaucer privileges art and aesthetics. The Legend of Good Women can be viewed as a protracted response to the version of poetics for which Gower stands. I argue that the Legend is an ars poetica intently concerned with the question of Art and social responsibility and that the Legend launches this inquiry specifically at the site of gender. The Legend undertakes a sustained investigation of the accountability a poet bears for his art and insists that neither the poet nor his creations are subject to any imperative to correct social maladies or to uplift society. The Legend seeks not only to undermine Gower’s stance that poetic production entails such obligations but also to fragment social responsibility as a possible category through which to assess—and, more foundationally, through which to comprehend—poetry. By means of its investigation, the Legend seeks to establish the parameters of debate for suitable responses to poetry.

Although considering other poems by both Gower (most notably the Vox) and Chaucer (including Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales), The Vernacular Rising focuses the most intently on the Confessio and the Legend. As Gower’s only major composition in English, the Confessio is a self-evident selection on which to center an interrogation of his vernacular poetics, and the Confessio is coupled with the Legend because the latter constitutes an important Chaucerian treatise on poetics and because the Legend is arguably the most pronounced articulation of the debate between Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetics. More minor considerations also make the Confessio and the Legend an obvious pair. Both texts were composed around London at roughly the same time: Gower is conventionally believed to have begun the Confessio after penning the Visio Anglie (ca. 1381) and to have finished the Confessio around 1390, while the Legend is conventionally dated around 1386, with the Prologue possibly being revised as late as eight to ten years thereafter. Even apart from the simultaneous composition of the Confessio and the Legend, the junior poet had seen earlier demonstrations of Gowerian poetics in the Vox and the Mirour de l’Omme. As chapter 3 explains, Chaucer’s dedication to Gower in Troilus and Criseyde connects Gower to the Legend, especially to the Legend’s investigation of Art and accountability. Regarding verbal exchanges and mutual textual references, Joyce Coleman has detailed the sustained, ubiquitous verbal echoes and literary parallels between the Legend and the end of book 8 of the Confessio (i.e., Amans’s conversion scene), two sections of Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings this study scrutinizes at length.

Apart from its dialogue with Gowerian poetics, the Legend is a response in its own right to socioeconomic conflicts in late fourteenth-century England. Although saying little about the Legend specifically, in Chaucer’s Jobs David Carlson argues that Chaucer’s literary devotion to amorous affairs is a response to the crisis of order in late medieval England. Despite well-documented flaws in his study, Carlson’s stance deserves serious consideration. Carlson believes that Chaucer’s amatory complaints supported the interests of the dominant class through several maneuvers: by retreating into individualism; by distracting, namely, by pretending that there was no crisis and by shifting attention to other concerns; by promoting an ideal of the noble good life, a leisurely life to which to aspire, an existence untroubled by social conflict; and by cultivating a capacity for elegantly saying little or nothing, to establish that nothing need be said. Although I interpret Chaucer’s love visions as more contradictory texts than Carlson seems to, Carlson is right to insist that Chaucer’s interest in l’amour should be understood at least, in part, as a response to socioeconomic conflicts, including the English Rising of 1381. Discarding Carlson’s models of authorial intention (including servility) and false consciousness in favor of complex models of the production of consciousness and subjectivity formulated in poststructuralist theory and British cultural studies, I offer more mediated understandings of the relation between Chaucer’s amatory writings and socioeconomic struggles and argue that Chaucer is engaged with the socioeconomic in much more expansive ways than Carlson investigates.

I also bring gender into the conversation. While chapters 2 and 3 (primarily discussions of Gower) privilege class as the primary category of analysis, in chapters 4 and 5 (primarily discussions of Chaucer), class recedes while gender predominates. The Legend’s considerations of gender, however, are ultimately tied to class and to the socioeconomic conflicts with which the Confessio grapples. Through a complicated nexus of issues surrounding gender, the Legend seeks to fracture discourses of inequality, both in the domain of literature and in late medieval England. The Legend works to make discourses of inequality ineffectual and incoherent as possibilities for understanding one’s place in the world. The poem’s attempts to dislodge discourses of inequality have profound implications for understandings of class and can be viewed, in part, as an engagement with the insurrection and with rebels’ dramatic challenges to inequitable distributions of wealth and power. Likewise, the Legend adopts a strong anti-identity stance. Rendered ridiculous, it is easy to dismiss identity-based claims within the universe of the poem, and readers are encouraged to dismiss identity politics more generally, whether rooted in gender or class. Moreover, the Legend dramatizes what happens when special interests are given audience: the imperilment of Art, tradition, and even civilization itself. People who argue from identity, the Legend maintains, muster no rational intellectual arguments, and the Legend instructs readers how to recognize and comprehend identity-based logic, discounting such concerns as unartful, ignorant, and ultimately dismissible. Furthermore, the Legend teaches readers to perceive protestations as mere products of a culture of complaint, voiced by malcontents, not as sincere concerns by those with legitimate grievances. By maintaining that poetry does not help shape consciousness or affect lives and that an author bears no social responsibility for his creations, the Legend works to frustrate Art’s potential to be a forum for interrogations of societal strife, including gendered and class-based inequities in late medieval England, and to be an explicit vehicle for social transformation. While forwarding its elaborate argument about the unsuitability of serious considerations of gendered and class-based inequities in assessments of poetry, the Legend simultaneously engaged in the reproduction of gendered and class-based relations in late medieval England by advancing this very argument. Disavowing poetry’s participation in the generation of the sociopolitical terrain, the Legend was thereby better poised than Gower’s frequently didactic writings to intervene effectively in this terrain.

Their approaches to poetics often at odds, Chaucer’s writings do not consistently permit the same types of analyses as Gower’s. More specifically, the frequent incommensurability of their respective poetry’s responses to socioeconomic conflicts renders it impossible to entertain questions of class in the Legend in several of the ways in which they are entertained in the Confessio. The Vernacular Rising explores the Confessio first, a text that bears witness to intense political upheavals, that provides significant insights into England’s socioeconomic contestations in the 1380s and 1390s, and that, through contrast, demonstrates what the Legend expressly writes out. Among the multiple addresses inscribed therein, the Confessio documents the presence of readers from the upper strata of nonruling urban classes in the late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, an address scrutinized at length in this study. However, the conflicts the Confessio marks at the level of address are eclipsed in the Legend. Regarding readers from the upper strata of nonruling urban classes, the Legend thwarts this level of decipherability in its address: just as the poem works to frustrate understandings of socioeconomic conflict and, especially, to frustrate understandings of poetry’s relation to such conflict, the Legend makes specifying address much more difficult and erases traces of these strata, largely eliding competing ranks. Hence, while chapters 2 and 3 focus on the Confessio’s attempts to speak to these strata, chapters 4 and 5 instead examine the ways in which the Legend renders socioeconomic struggles in late fourteenth-century England as a possible concern of poetry incomprehensible. Consequently, this book’s heightened emphasis on class in discussions of Gower and diminished attention to class in discussions of Chaucer reflect two competing discourses about poetry’s relation to the social and to history. The Vernacular Rising’s shift regarding address mimics the Legend’s containment of an address to these readers. While Chaucer insists on the autonomous work of art and on the separation of poetic from political discourses, Gower conceptualizes literature as a vehicle for conferring social and political identities—and for constructing groups’ interests—not merely as reflective of such identities. Gower views culture as a tool of social management or transformation. Although Chaucer maintains a divergent point of view, nonetheless, his poetry participates in social control, irrespective of his agency. Hence, not only do Chaucer and Gower volitionally voice disparate visions of poetry, but discursively their writings forwarded frequently competing models for what the rising vernacular literature could become.

The first chapter, “Chaucer’s and Gower’s Early Readership Expanded,” widens the demographics of the lay readership whom literary scholars have envisioned for English poetry in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. This chapter defines the “upper strata of nonruling urban classes,” explains their importance, and, drawing on scholarship of historians, briefly outlines political and economic alliances between these strata and different ranks in English cities and towns. Piecing together evidence from wills, court records, documents surrounding formal and informal educations, and various other historical records, chapter 1 demonstrates that substantial portions of the upper strata of nonruling urban classes possessed the ability to read the vernacular in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England. Presenting a constellation of evidence grounded in social practices surrounding the consumption of vernacular texts at the time, this chapter argues that men and women from the upper strata of nonruling urban classes were among the readership for Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings prior to 1425, indicating that erudite Middle English poetry had a sizeable readership among the nonruling classes at its emergence, with many of these readers occupying demographics that had that produced large numbers of rebels in the English Rising of 1381.

After considering what Chaucer’s Man of Law betrays about the Confessio’s cultural logic, chapter 2, “Against the Greyness of the Multitude: Poetry, Prestige, and the Confessio Amantis,” argues that the Confessio attached prestige to an erudite English vernacular tradition, while engaged in founding this tradition, and granted this nascent heritage, and conversance with it, cachet, not unlike what Bourdieu identifies as “cultural capital.” The Confessio’s portrayal of the acquisition of this cultural knowledge is heavily mystified, an enchanted tale participating in something akin to what Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron dub an “ideology of ‘gifts.’” The poem offered readers a similar gift and coded conversance with its textual legacy as a signifier of transformation, proof of intellectual, moral, and spiritual superiority over the populace. Familiarity with this heritage was the mark of distinction by which readers and other inheritors of these cultural treasures could recognize one another against the greyness of the multitude. Using this standard of measurement, the Confessio attempted to police debates about England’s welfare, determining who was equipped to participate in such dialogues. Although inviting all readers to be inheritors of this legacy, the Confessio deemed some readers worthier than others, pronouncing certain readers members full inheritors of the bequest, while positioning less experienced readers as only partial beneficiaries. The poem instructed readers alienated by the text to differentiate between their deficient selves and the more deserving scions and to defer to the latter as the only legitimate producers of knowledge. This chapter examines how the terms of the poem’s conferral of this new heritage worked to reorganize political alliances among various socioeconomic groups in the aftermath of the English Rising of 1381.

Chapter 3, “Time After Time: Historiography and Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream,” focuses primarily on the competing models of history embedded in the rendition of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream recounted in the Confessio’s Prologue. This regal vision represents history both as a homogeneous, static mass and as a teleological progression into ruin. This chapter investigates how, through these contradictory models of history, the poem proposed to alter the terms in which readers from the upper strata of nonruling urban classes understood how history happens and perceived their relation to the past and future. Through these competing versions of history, the text offered to change the ways in which readers understood their interests, conceptualized their agency, chose their allies, comprehended their connections to the English Rising of 1381, and perceived insurrection more generally.

The final section of this chapter considers two other competing understandings of time in the Confessio: historical time versus the seemingly eternal realm of l’amour. These incongruent versions of time both mark a shift in Gower’s oeuvre and reflect a strong divergence between Gowerian and Chaucerian poetics. Tying these versions of time to Chaucer’s and Gower’s explicit mutual references, this section argues that each author’s comments about the other foreground their disparate understandings of the nature and function of Art. Gower’s message to his colleague betrays a recruitment fantasy of Chaucer and of Chaucerian readers to a poetics centered on intense engagements with social issues, while Chaucer warns “moral Gower” about the perils of zealousness, advice dispensed at the end of Troilus and Criseyde and writ large in the Legend, as the subsequent two chapters demonstrate.

Chapter 4, “In Defense of Cupid: Poetics, Gender, and the Legend of Good Women,” argues that a central concern of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is the issue of art and social responsibility, a discussion instigated narratively by Cupid’s complaint about construals of gender in Troilus and Criseyde, since cultural artifacts shape readers’ consciousness and affect lives. This chapter maintains that the Legend launches a full-blown investigation into the problem of poetry and accountability, conducting this investigation at the site of gender. The poem examines the conundrum of where culpability for suspicious gendered practices in and surrounding the field of cultural production lies. Through its investigation, the Legend attempted to delimit the parameters of debate regarding acceptable responses to poetry and to establish which conversations about literature were proper to its domain. The poem worked to thwart readers’ recognition of gender, and of social inequities in general, as an appropriate, or even possible, category of analysis through which to evaluate literature. The poem simultaneously attempted to block understandings that cultural artifacts shape consciousness and hence affect lives, while proceeding as if poetry does exactly that.

The fifth chapter, “Chaucer on the Effects of Poetry,” demonstrates the Legend’s second pronounced strategy for dealing with concerns about the stakes of poetry: the Legend conducts an extensive theoretical inquiry into how to measure and adjudicate the effects of a text. In part, through repeated, dramatic stagings of endeavors by the narrator and by fictive authors to elicit defined responses from their respective readers, the poem investigates methodological complications involved in claims that a text induces a specific action or affect. The Legend scrutinizes difficulties surrounding how to delineate and how to gauge the influence of a piece of writing, and the poem explores the mediation of a constellation of factors in the production of the meaning of a cultural artifact or literary practice. This chapter then analyzes the political implications of the Legend’s assessments of difficulties surrounding the adjudication of a text’s effects.

Building on preceding chapters, and placing the Legend alongside the Canterbury Tales, the conclusion compares the political possibilities for English poetry forwarded by Chaucer’s and Gower’s writings. The conclusion examines the specific terms their respective poetry legitimated, discredited, or disarticulated for comprehending and for assessing this new cultural form. This discussion considers, for example, the ways in which their texts participate in discourses regarding identity politics, as well as valuations of identity as a legitimate category of knowledge about the world and for engagements with literature. While forwarding sometimes coincident, sometimes divergent, and frequently contradictory understandings of the roles the poet and poetry should play in the social formation, Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry jointly helped set up vernacular literature to be a compelling force in processes of recruitment, cultural identification, and social identification in late medieval England. The conclusion also investigates recurrent alignments of Gower with morbidity and nihilism and of Chaucer with artistry, potential, and futurity, in their own works and in current scholars’ appreciations of these men and their compositions. Chaucer’s writings scorned the understanding, represented by Gower, that poetry was a vehicle of social engineering, all the while offering a more effective means than Gower’s texts for reproducing the social formation in late medieval England and in the subsequent history of English letters.

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