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John Gower and the Limits of the Law

John Gower and the Limits of the Law

Conrad van Dijk
Volume: 8
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 232
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt2tt1k9
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  • Book Info
    John Gower and the Limits of the Law
    Book Description:

    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).

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-105-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-14)

    The poet John Gower has long been associated with the law. From John Leland’s speculation in the sixteenth century that Gower and Chaucer met at the Inns of Court, to John Fisher’s more robust argument in the twentieth that Gower “had some sort of legal connection,”¹ the association has gradually hardened into something closer to fact.² The biographical detail fits nicely with the legal texture of Gower’s works. Yet the connection between the biography and Gower’s poetry is a troubled one, and while I will review some of the difficulties involved in the first part of this introduction, my own...

  6. Chapter 1 THE EXEMPLUM AND THE LEGAL CASE
    (pp. 15-32)

    Jacques Derrida, in his essay “The Law of Genre,” has fun with the assumption that there could indeed be a law of genre. In a slightly facetious way, he questions whether genres can ever be free from contamination and impurity. Perhaps not surprisingly, Derrida embraces the counter-law that genres must always mix. In addition, the movement from exemplary individual text to the level of genre is never an easy one from species to genus, or from particular to general. This is why Derrida concludes, “What is at stake, in effect, is exemplarity, and its whole enigma.”¹

    Given that the problem...

  7. Chapter 2 ASKING LEGAL QUESTIONS IN GOWER’S CONFESSIO AMANTIS
    (pp. 33-48)

    One of the most prevalent types of exemplum in the Confessio Amantis is the sin-and-punishment story, of which there are at least sixty examples in the Confessio.¹ Frequency tells us little of course about how punishment is administered. Does the punishment fit the crime? Does punishment resolve the difficulties of the case? The important question, therefore, is how Gower’s use of particular narrative models influences his treatment of the law. Specifically, does Gower desire his case to be closed or open-ended; does he preempt interpretation or invite the reader to work out the problems, for instance through casuistic reasoning? This...

  8. Chapter 3 THE KING IN HIS EMPIRE REIGNS SUPREME
    (pp. 49-88)

    If some of the legal topoi discussed in chapter two remain relatively localized, a much more common legal problem that crops up in the Confessio Amantis is the subject of the present chapter: the question of jurisdiction. The aspect of jurisdiction I am most concerned with is the ruler’s sovereignty over his own subjects and his power in relation to the law.¹ In the Confessio, these aspects of the ruler’s jurisdiction are frequently put to the test in relation to what we might provisionally call “international law.”²

    For Gower, the area of international law covers and addresses the supranational conflicts...

  9. Chapter 4 KINGSHIP AND LAW IN GOWER’S MIRROR FOR PRINCES
    (pp. 89-138)

    In the early thirteenth century, the jurist Azo noted “quilibet rex hodie videtur eandem potestatem habere in terra sua quam imperator, ergo potuit facere quod sibi placet” (“today it seems that each king has the same power in his land as the emperor; therefore he can act as it pleases him”).¹ Azo recognizes that questions of jurisdiction, sovereignty, and kingship are intertwined. In fact, he combines two influential maxims here. The first, rex in regno suo est imperator regni sui, was at the heart of the last chapter. The second maxim suggests something of the focus of the current chapter:...

  10. Chapter 5 DESIRING CLOSURE: GOWER AND RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE
    (pp. 139-188)

    William Ian Miller has written that for the modern reader revenge “has been removed from the center of our practical lives and has been relocated to the fantastic marches.”¹ Indeed, the marches, or borderlands, provide an apt metaphor for thinking about vengeance. In the late fourteenth century, vengeance remains a kind of shadowy borderland poised between law and self-help, between religious sanction and disapproval. Vengeance functions as legal punishment as well as rough justice outside the law, it can be condemned as the result of anger (per iram ad vindictam), or it can be the will of God.²

    There is...

  11. CONCLUSION: THE TRIALS OF EXEMPLARY LEGAL FICTION
    (pp. 189-192)

    A common critical assumption holds that the process of story-telling brings the poet into a warmer and more sympathetic relationship with his subject matter, that it frees the poet from cold generalities and leads to an appreciation for contingency, for the victim, for alternative points of view.¹ In many ways this describes the judicial exemplum, with its attention for the particularities of the legal case. Yet what we have also seen is that Gower’s interest in exemplary punishment often has the opposite effect. The need for closure and the penological and pedagogical importance of “setting an example” are well illustrated...

  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 193-214)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 215-222)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-225)