|The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500
27th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University
Friday, March 30 - Sunday, April 1, 2007
At the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University
Linguistic and Political Union in Gower’s Trentham Manuscript
The so-called Trentham manuscript of John Gower is a complex compilation of texts written throughout Gower’s career that purports to have been assembled for the coronation of Henry IV. As such it is already worth more sustained attention than it has received to date, as another significant element of the poet’s complicated relationship with the Lancastrian political ascendancy. It is especially crucial to questions of late-medieval English multilingualism, however, as it also contains the sole surviving copy of Gower’s Cinkante Balades, which introductory poems (also in balade form and in French) dedicate to Henry. This decision is striking, since earlier in the Confessio Amantis – also dedicated, in its later forms, to Henry of Lancaster – forme fixe amatory literary production is depicted as youthful and foolishly insouciant of life’s more brutal realities; a stern Venus concludes the Confessio by ordering the aging Gower to abandon courtly love-writing. Trentham thus depicts Henry’s accession as a form of literary as well as political rejuvenation, enabling Gower to turn back the clock and return to the language and genre that he had turned his back on even earlier, at the end of the Mirour de l’omme.
Just as striking is Trentham’s union of all three of Gower’s literary languages: French, Latin, and English. Confessio depicts linguistic and political divisioun as linked, dire, and present problems; by uniting all three of his literary languages within Trentham, he optimistically supposes that the newly crowned Henry will be able to perform an analogous reunification of a fractious kingdom. Yet Gower is no servile Lancastrian hack; while fundamentally optimistic, the Trentham manuscript uses the allusive play of intertextual echoes from earlier works, and juxtapositions within the manuscript itself, to encode anxiety at the uncertainties that Henry’s accession necessarily entailed. The literary difficulties that Gower faces in trying to make his collection of disparate texts embody a unifying aesthetic and ideological script are analogous to those faced by Henry himself (and memorably dramatized by Shakespeare) in the political realm. At times, I will argue, Gower succeeds in his goal, while at others he allows the cracks and fissures in his project to show, with the effect of making clear that however much he may wish Henry to succeed, he is realistic enough to understand that he may well not.
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