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Gower's beast allegories in the 1381 Visio Anglie.

The poet himself, John Gower (c. 1330-1408), equivocates, in his allegory of beasts setting about to invade London, at the beginning of the 1381 Visio Anglie, transmitted as the first book of the Vox clamantis. (1) At once, the poet's peasant-revolutionaries are not persons; and at once they are, though denatured by vice. The latter notion will appear to mitigate, by imputing a humanity to the peasant-revolutionaries that the former conceit does not allow; it also inculpates, however, redoubling justification for the slaughter of them that was occurring as Gower wrote. Mounted troops of royal retainers surrounded and killed groups of fleeing dissidents; whoever came before the royal "Commissions of Inquiry" was found guilty and executed, with the disemboweling of some; the gibbets made a ring around London, in one account, also lining the roads east and northeast. "Churls you were and churls you will remain," announced the king, "in bondage but incomparably harsher." (2) Notwithstanding his various protestations to the contrary--"facta referre" is how the poet describes his job (prol. 30)--Gower was demonstrably not interested in these facts, or not much, but more so in ideological apology after the fact: justifying the ruling-class reaction was Gower's purpose in writing. However, the Gowerian justifications must also create an abreaction of sympathy; for to clarify peasant culpability--justifying punishment by their subhumanity and their guilt alike--Gower needs also at least adduce (though contrary to express intention) the reasons in circumstantial reality that made rebellion right: the political economy was treating agricultural labor inhumanely. (3)


In the early verse chapters with which the Visio Anglie begins (183-678)--before the poet's accounts of the invasion of London, making up the better, narrative part of the Visio--Gower represents the frightful mutation of a series of animal kinds (always already subhuman) into insubordinate monstrosity. Some of the kinds with which he works might be regarded as already pestiferous: flies, for examples, and frogs, less clearly (565-678); also, the foxes grouped with domesticated felines (461-504). Preeminently, however, the animals which Gower chose are the otherwise most comfortingly serviceable, productive ones: domesticated herbivores, for example (241-98); domesticated laying-fowl (505-64); house-cats and farmyard canines (379-504); and swine (299-378), with bearing-asses to begin (183-240).

The asses are represented in the first place as throwing off the bridles by which ordinarily they are made to serve (184, "nec frenis quis moderauit eos"):
      Que fuit vtilitas vtilitate caret
   Amplius ad villam saccos portare recusant,
      Nec curuare sua pondere dorsa volunt.

   [Their former usefulness is useless now.
   No longer will they carry sacks to town;
   They do not wish to bend their backs with weight.]


These creatures' unnatural unwillingness to serve is then rendered reduplicatively by their condign unnatural physical transformations, from beasts into monsters (224, "transformati sunt quasi monstra"). Persistently subhuman, Gower avers, "quod eis nil racionis erat" [for not a spark of reason did they have] (238), but now, where long ears had been before, the asses have put on sharp horns (225-27, "gladius non scindit forcius illis"); no longer slowly load-bearing but leaping about like free-ranging hinds (229-30, "Qui de natura pigri tardare solebant, / Precurrunt ceruis de leuitate magis"), and roaming off-track, beyond the barnyard, wild carnivores in search of prey, with lions' hearts inside them, noble beasts, in place of docile ones (185-86, "Viscera namque sua repleta furore leonum / Extiterant predas in repetendo suas"), just as the barnyard fowl later put on eagles' mein (519-20, "Qui residere domique fimum calcare solebant, / Presumunt aquile sumere iura sibi"). The cows too just want to be free: "Amplius ex aratro se dicunt nolle iugari, / Colla sed erecta libera ferre volunt" [No longer will they yoke themselves to ploughs, / They say, but want to free and raise their necks] (249-50). Since such desire is "contra iura bouis" (243), however, it turns them tOO from tractable, productive creatures into dangerous monstrosities, bear-footed, dragon-tailed, and terrifying: "Vrsinosque pedes caudas similesque draconum / Gestant, quo pauidus omnis abhorret eos" (255-56). No longer are they of any use to their human masters, either (286 "nichil vlterius vtilitatis habent'). (4) "Sic transformatas formas natura reliquit, / Et monstris similes fecerat esse boues" [Their nature left their forms, now thus transformed / And made these cows resemble monstrous things] (253-54). Mutatis mutandis, so on and so forth, the pattern repeats, until no servile beasts remain, nor any love for masters amongst them: "Non erat ex brutis animal quodcumque creatum / Quod de seruili condicione fuit" [Of all creation's brutish beasts--of those / Which rightly were of servile rank--not one / there was] (507-8) but that, now suddenly, "Nec sua rusticitas quicquid amoris habet" [Their peasant ways display no sign of love] (412).

Gower's beast-monster metamorphoses culminate finally in a long, carefully built passage, by anaphora, summarizing the consequence. "O res mira nimis" six times, beginning six consecutive couplets at the end of the section on flies and frogs (623-34), leads on to a still longer passage (635-70), held together by eighteen repetitions of the phrase "Hec erat ilia dies," (5) in couplet-initial position again, where the poet first (in 635-48) repeats his list of specific transformations in the order (1) muscaat 635, (2) asinus639, (3) boues 642, (4) porcus 643, (5) canis 645, and (6) murilegus 646, which the chapters proper had had in the order (2) asinus at 183-240, (3) boues at 241-298, (4) porcus at 299-378, (5) canis at 379-460, (6) murilegus at 461-504, and (1) musca at 565-678. Gower then (in 649-70) generalizes from the whole sequence, but, to maintain connection of the consequent general to aforegoing particulars, keeps the same anaphoric phrase, "Hec erat illa dies":
   Hec erat ilia dies, fortem qua debilis, altum
      Infimus, et magnum paruus vbique terit....
   Hec erat illa dies, qua libertate dolente,
      Gaudet rusticitas rusticitate sua.
   Hec erat illa dies, seruos que duxit in altum,
      Subdidit et proceres, nec sinit esse pares.

   [This was the day when weak wore out the strong,
   The lowest those on high, and small the grand....
   This was the day when freedom was in pain
   And boorishness exulted boorishly.
   This was the day that set the serfs on high,
   Subduing lords, denying equal rank.]

   (649-50 and 657-60)

The adjunct prayer (678, "rogo") with which Gower concludes the section inverts the anaphora, putting part of its repeating phrase--illa dies--in line- (and couplet-) final position, then to conclude:
   Heu quam terribilis, heu quam tristis vel amara,
      Quam districta malis mnc fuit illa dies!
   Vlcio celestis grauis et velox et aperta
      Destrnat hos per quos sic furit illa dies!
   Tarda sit illa dies, nostro redeat nec in euo,
      Absit et hec causa qua reditura foret!
   Si prius est aliquid nobis hac luce petendum,
      In loca ne redeat amplius ista rogo.

   [How full of fear and bitterness, how sad,
   How gripped with evil terrors was that day!
   May heaven's vengeance, swift, severe, and clear
   Destroy all those through whom went mad that day!
   May that day come but slowly back to earth,
   And may there be no cause for its return!
   If I should ask for anything today,
   I beg that such a day should not return.]


The world-turned-upside-down topic that Gower here finally adduces ("fortem qua debilis, altum / Infimus, et magnum paruus vbique" [649-50], the crucial pair split by the line, also grammatically inverse, object-subject) recurs pre-eminently in the other Latin poet of these same events of 1381, who made 108 Leonines (hexameters, with a pentameter in fine) surviving in two contemporary copies, the Latin "Jack Straw" verses. This other poet too invokes a peasant-beast equation, but only transiently, in simile: the rusticus in this poet's representation too "fremit et furit vt lupus" [roars and rages wolf-like] (61-62) and "more ferino" [like a beast] (15). This poet's dominant image, however, recurring pervasively, is the one with which the poem opens, dread confusio:
   Dum virtus procerum silet et vulgus male seuit,
   Seruit nobilitas, et rusticitas dominatur,
   Ad res illicitas omnis plebs precipitatur.
   Garcio bachatur, et in ingenuos, agitatur;
   Iudex dampnatur, reus atque in sede leuatur;
   Lex ancillatur, iniuria iugis amatur;
   Sanguine mucro satur, actus miseros operatur.

   The nobles didn't speak; the mob was unrestrained.
   Nobility are serfs and peasants rule the roost;
   At what was once outlawed the plebs are now unloosed.
   The serving lad runs wild against the better sort;
   The judge is in the dock, the felon rules his court.
   The law's a slave and lawlessness is always loved;
   The sword works dreadful deeds: it's always soaked in blood.]

   (1-8) (6)

An alternative approach, useful for reminding of a topical-metaphoric road that Gower might have taken but did not, generally or very far: though Gower might well have done more with the humbling of the mighty in his poem, say, or the matter of inversion at large, instead, at his own setting off point, he concentrated singularly on the one beast-monster type of metamorphosis, strictly, only from bad to worse.

Gower's great extended elaboration of the topic--the notion that agricultural laborers were beasts, always and so already subhuman by nature--has been noted as a special case, but because the basic conceit was not original with him. The conceit is in fact only the reason of feudal political economy at work in literature. Like the political economy, the literary topic too reduces some laboring persons (specifically, peasant-laborers) to non-human status, as if a subhuman force of production only, never for itself, but strictly for exploitation, via the non-economic means of coercion that characterize feudalism, by others (specifically, the notional land-owners) who, restrictively, would define themselves alone as properly human, by means of the class-deriving slander, itself a violence, though ideational, complementing the concrete. "The image of the peasant as naturally meant for servile work," as Paul Freedman wrote, "or as forming a lower, semi-bestial level of humanity justified servitude." This hostile, repressive representation of peasants as beasts, in Cower as elsewhere, "may be read as an elaboration of Aristotelian natural slavery. The peasant by nature is fit for toil and, moreover, toil that does not deserve a reward but rather is assured by coercion. To the extent that he is naturally base, the peasant is appropriately exploited, and there is no need to invent a temporal origin for inequality." (7) Of course, there would be some such image crystallizing the exploitive economic relation, in such a way as also to justify it. The corresponding image of the reification of laborers in industrial capitalism was, not animal, but the machine. (8) And of course, so useful a ruling-class conceptual tool for the class-struggle would have a history before Gower: large numbers of articulations of it have been collected, from a variety of sources, in wide Western European distribution. (9) Transnationally Latinate--to facilitate ruling-class collaboration from community to community-or in one or the other of the local vernaculars, the expressions tend to cluster about the regular outbreaks of pan-European peasant revolutionism that characterize the high-medieval feudalism--twelfth century, fourteenth century, early in the sixteenth too--when some justification or rationale for repression was exigent, to complement in ideology and to corroborate the actual, concrete ruling-class violence necessary to restore the exigent kind of order. Not only at such points of crisis, however: the subhuman status that Gower's allegory imputes to the rebels of 1381 was in fact the quotidian condition of agricultural labor in feudalism, as was recognized even in contemporary English:
   Thin fadere was a bond man.
   Thin moder curtesye non can.
   Every beste that levyth now
   Is of more fredam than thow. (10)


Though widespread, because useful--reasonable even from the particular class perspective that Gower was bound to take--the peasant-beast conceit is still repugnant. Gower's mitigation of it, by the notion that his common mob had been human before but was rendered bestial, then monstrous by its revolutionism, occurring chiefly in his prose-framework, in fact recurs in the verse itself, there chiefly though not exclusively by means of allusion.

In the prose matter describing what his verse does, Gower puts it instead that his account of the 1381 Social Revolt represents the English rebels, not as naturally bestial, but as only rendered animal by their criminal revolutionism: the compositor "fingit se per sompnium vidisse diuersas vulgi turmas in diuersas bestiarum species domesticarum transmutatas" [puts it that in a dream he saw crowds of the mob turned into different forms of domestic animals], the initial prose asserts; as a further step, "ille bestie domestice, a sua deuiantes natura, crudelitates ferarum sibi presumpserunt" [these domestic beasts, departing from their nature, took upon themselves the cruel behavior of wild animals]. Gower's verse describes the rebels, become monstrous, as always already bestial, no metamorphosis in bestias being requisite: the point is that the peasants were by nature subhuman to begin with. In the alternative prose formulation, though too tractable creatures become masterless beasts, the setting off point is human, however vulgar that humanity is. (11)

In this (as in various other particulars), the Gowerian prose matter shows itself to be post-festal: an authorial effort, more or less imperfect, and sometimes mistaken, after the fact to explain what had already been done in verse. Likewise, in the similarly post-festal prefatory verse section, Gower again apologetically mitigates his chief metaphor. Before coming to enumeration of his kinds of beast-monster metamorphosis in the fundamental verse section, Gower once points out that his beast-monsters had enjoyed reason:
   Nec michi longa via fuerat, dum proxima vidi
      Innumerabilia monstra timenda nimis.
   Diuersas plebis sortes vulgaris iniquas
      Innumeris turmis ire per arua vagas;
   Dumque mei turbas oculi sic intuerentur,
      Miror et in tanta rusticitate magis,
   Ecce dei subito malediccio fulsit in illos,
      Et mutans formas fecerat esse feras.
   Qui fuerant homines prius innate racionis,
      Brutorum species irracionis habent.

   [I had not walked for long, when close at hand
   I saw uncounted monsters, full of dread.
   In many bands the hordes of common folk
   Were wandering throughout the fields enraged;
   And while my eyes beheld the raging mob
   And marveled more at all its boorishness,
   Then suddenly the curse of God blazed down
   On them and changed their form and made them beasts.
   Thus men endowed with reason at their birth
   Take on the form of beasts irrational.]


To justification of the repression by means of his notion of the peasantry's always subhuman, bestial nature, Gower adds this further blame, by means of another received notion, namely, that, by improbitas, the rebels brought on themselves their own reduction to subhumanity.

This alternative ethical-condemnatory conceit with which Gower also worked in the Visio Anglie is contained in the imagery of the "Circe" meter of the Philosophiae consolatio of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524) and its prose explication (4p3-4p4), where the divine interlocutor wishes to establish that improbitas renders bestial those who succumb to it: that "uitiosos, tametsi humani corporis speciem seruent, in beluas tamen animorum qualitate mutari" [though wicked men preserve the appearance of human bodies, they are transformed into beasts so far as the quality of their minds is concerned] (4p4.1). (12) Humanness is virtue, consisting in virtuous choices; consequently, Philosophia argues, it happens "ut qui probitate deserta homo esse desierit" "uertatur in beluam" [that he who abandons goodness ceases to be a man and so is transformed into an animal] (4p3.21). The illustrative verse uses the "uenena" (4m3.35) (13) that Circe brewed for her victims--who "miscet hospitibus nouis / tacta carmine pocula" [Distils for each of her new guests / Cups charged with magic charms] (4m3.6-7), rendering Ulysses' men swinish--to stand allegorically for the dehumanizing vices that change humans in beluas:
   Quos ut in uarios modos
   uertit herbipotens manus,
   hunc apri facies tegit,
   ille Marmaricus leo
   dente crescit et unguibus;
   hic lupis nuper additus
   flere dum parat ululat,
   ille tigris ut Indica
   tecta mitis obambulat.
   Sed licet uariis malis
   numen Arcadis alitis
   obsitum miserans ducem
   peste soluerit hospitis,
   iam tamen mala remiges
   ore pocula traxerant,
   iam sues Cerealia
   glande pabula uerterant
   et nihil manet integrum
   uoce, corpore perditis.

   [Her touch, so masterful with herbs,
   Transformed all men she knew.
   The likeness of a boar cloaked one;
   An Afric lion too
   With sabre tooth and monstrous claws
   Where man had been, stood by;
   A third, now partner with the wolves,
   Howled when he sought to cry.
   An Indian tigress took the shape
   To which the fourth was changed;
   A meek and gentle tigress this
   As through the halls she ranged,
   Although the winged Arcadian god
   Pitied their lord's reverse,
   Discharged him, steeped in diverse ills,
   From Circe's monstrous curse,
   By then the oarsmen of his ships
   Had drunk the poisoned wine,
   Were crunching acorns, and not bread,
   For they had turned to swine.]


In the prosaic argument by which Philosophia introduces these verses and explains their point, Boethius's interlocutor adduces too a series of particular cases, not allegorical, of particular vices inducing particular bestialities:

Auaritia feruet alienarum opum uiolentus ereptor: lupi similem dixeris. Ferox atque inquies linguam litigiis exercet: cani comparabis. Insidiator occultus subripuisse fraudibus gaudet: uulpeculis exaequetur. Irae intemperans fremit: leonis animum gestare credatur. Pauidus ac fugax non metuenda formidat: ceruis similis habeatur. Segnis ac stupidus torpet: asinum uiuit. Leuis atque inconstans studia permutat: nihil auibus differt. Foedis immundisque libidinibus immergitur: sordidae suis uoluptate detinetur.

[A man who in seizing the possessions of others is consumed by greed is comparable to a wolf. The aggressive and restless man who devotes his tongue to disputes can be considered a dog. The underhand plotter who rejoices in stealthy theft can be likened to young foxes. The man of ungovernable temper who roars his head off can be regarded as having a lion's disposition. The fearful man who does not stand his ground and trembles when there is nothing to fear can be compared with hinds. The idle sluggard who is a slave to sloth lives a donkey's life. The fickle, capricious person who passes from one thing of interest to another is no different from the birds. The one who steeps himself in foul and unclean lusts lingers over pleasures like a filthy sow.] (4p3.17-20)

Gower did not simply use this Boethian list--wolf, dog, fox, lion, deer, ass, fowl, swine--nor Boethius's "Circe" meter itself as the basis on which to make the early allegorical sections of the Visio's Tiervision, though Gower's choices there do appear to have been determined in part by the availability of prominent literary sources, scriptural, ancient, and modern, more familiar to him and to his non-specialist audience (and explicitly named) than these Boethian depths, from the technical back-end of the dialogue. (14) Nonetheless, the ethical-condemnatory conceit with which Gower was to work in the Visio is spelled out here in the Philosophiae consolatio. "Quicquid a bono deficit esse desistit" [whatever departs from the good ceases to exist] (4p3.15); since human viciousness is such a defect of the good, "necesse est ut quos ab humana condicione deiecit infra homines merito detrudat improbitas; euenit igitur ut quem transformatum uitiis uideas hominem aestimare non possis" [it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition. What follows from this is that you cannot regard as a man one who is disfigured by vices] (4p3.16).

The particular allegorical reading of the particular Homeric episode that the Boethian meter encapsulates, as with so much else in the Consolatio, had had long currency, in wide circulation, by the early sixth century CE, having its origin about a thousand years earlier, in exegesis of the Homeric poems contemporary already with Socrates in the fourth century BCE. (15) Horace has it, in an epistle representing Ulysses, not as a legendary-historical figure, but as an allegorical exemplar, a something utile for showing "quid virtus et quid sapientia possit" [what virtue is capable of, and what wisdom] (Epistulae 1.2.17-18). Horace adduces in particular evidence Ulysses' own abstention from drinking the "Circae pocula." The hero--virtus and sapientia impersonate--was immune from the foolish cupidity that rendered his men dogs or equally unclean swine:
   quae si cum sociis stultus cupidusque bibisset,
   sub domina meretrice fuisset turpis et excors,
   vixisset canis immundus vel arnica luto sus.

[For had he drunk with his companions, stupid and greedy, he too had been mastered by the whore, fouled and senseless, had been forced to live as a dog unclean or swine mired in its own filth.] (Ep. 1.2.23-26) (16)

In the long post-Homeric meanwhile, this notion that improbitas rendered humans in beluas was also widely invoked in explanation of other instances of human-beast metamorphosis. The Isis-priest who witnesses the deassification of the protagonist of the second-century novel of Apuleius, for example, explains the metamorphosis to him in the familiar Boethian terms of immorality: "lubrico virentis aetatulae ad serviles delapsus voluptates curiositatis inprosperae sinistrum praemium reportasti" [Youthful follies ran away with you, when you fell a slave to pleasure, and your luckless curiosity earned you a sinister punishment]. (17) The more prominent ancient elaboration of the same topic comes in the other Latin Metamorphoses, the still earlier first-century one of Ovid. Though a superabundance of varieties of metamorphosis characterizes the perverse epic of mutability--"In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / Corpora" (1.1-2), or, in the Apuleian paraphrase and completion, "figuras fortunasque hominum in alias imagines conversas et in se rursum mutuo nexu refectas" [men's appearances turned into other shapes, along with their fortunes, and then restored to themselves again by some strange attraction] (18)--amongst the Ovidian varieties of metamorphosis is this one precisely, of humans changed into beasts by consequence of their own wickedness. The poem has about fifteen instances of metamorphosis in bestiam, from minor embedded episodes, like the Lycian peasants' transformation into flogs in the Latona episode (Met. 6.313-381), expressly by reason of their impiety (6.317-18, "Lyciae quoque fertilis agris / non inpune deam veteres sprevere coloni" [the colonists of old, about the fertile fields of Lycia, did not spurn the goddess unpunished]), to the grandest.

First is the first of the whole Ovidian cycle, thus having historical causality as well as an exemplary force: the transformation of Lycaon, "notus feritate" (1.198), into a wolf, by consequence of his aggressive, violent impiety. To the divine conclave assembled early in Met. 1, Juppiter reports the results of his investigations into the "infamia temporis" amongst humans that had come to him (211). "Minor fuit ipsa infamia vero" [the ill report was less bad than the truth], the god found; and, since "longa mora est quantum noxae sit ubique reperrum / enumerare" [it were long to tell how much damage everywhere was found] (214-15), Juppiter recounts the assault on him of the tyrannus Lycaon, and his punishment of him by a metamorphosis in beluam, of a sort appropriate to the improbitas at issue, reflecting the savage nature of Lycaon's crimes Cnunc quoque sanguine gaudet"). You would find him to be "lupi similem," as Boethius has it, the very "feritatis imago":
   fit lupus et ueteris seruat uestigia formae:
   canities eadem est, eadem uiolentia uultus,
   idem oculi lucent, eadem feritatis imago est.

[Wolf he becomes, yet keeps traces of his former appearance: the like hairiness, a look of like violence, the like gleaming eyes, the same likeness of wild bestiality.] (237-39)

In consequence, the assembly concur in Jove's decision to destroy humankind--"illa propago / contemptrix superum," as impious collectively as Lycaon had been individually, "saevaeque avidissima caedis / et violenta" (1.160-162)--by the diluvium that ensues: "perdendum est mortale genus" (188).

In the Visio Anglie (having a diluvium of its own too, of course), (19) Gower quotes repeatedly, prominently from this episode that Ovid made his paradigmatic point of departure. For example, to characterize his allegorically transformed peasant-beast rabble in its assault on London, Gower uses terms borrowed from Ovidian lines quoted just above (Met. 1.160-162) and adds allusion of his own" ("Vt lupus") to the metamorphosis in beluam of Lycaon.:
   Demonis ex stirpe furiens fuit illa propago,
      Horrida facta viris et violenta deo.
   Contemptrix superum, seueque auidissima cedis,
      Vt lupus est, ouium dum furit ipse fame.

   [That raging offspring came from Satan's stock,
   To men a horror, waging war on God.
   They scorned the gods, and thirsted after blood,
   Just as the wolf that's hungry for the sheep.]

   (751-54) (20)

The pair of Ovidian phrases out of which Gower makes his own line 753 "Contemptrix superum, seueque auidissima cedis" amount to summary of the official explanation for the Social Revolt: cataclysm is what comes of impiety going forth in violence, as it did amongst the revolutionaries, characterized both by their irreligion (contemptrix superum, the rabble is) and by their blood-thirst (saevaeque avidissima caedis). (21)

Elsewhere in the same poem, Gower quotes from other similar episodes in the Ovidian Metamorphoses, involving human-to-beast metamorphoses that punish impiety, including the Latona episode (579-80, "Verterat in ranas quos Latona turba colonum / Ecce reditque"); also, Gower alludes to the Boethian "Circe" meter, where the implication of this particular kind of metamorphosis that preoccupies him is most clearly put. To conclude description the bestial rabble's assembly, next to be exhorted by leadership to the assault on Troynovant, Gower does his own verse version of the Boethian conceit. Who lacks the basic rationality that traditionally defines humanness, forgoing too human appearance, becomes a beast:
   Hec etenim rabies furiens connexa malignis
      Conuenit hiis furiis, de quibus ante loquor.
   Conueniunt eciam socii quos nuper Vlixis
      Mutauit Circes, et sociantur eis.
   Nunc facies hominum, nunc transformata ferarum
      Gestabant capita, que racione carent.

   [This raging madness now allies and joins
   The wicked furies which I just described.
   The crew of Ulysses, by Circe's wiles
   Transformed, now gathered, joining with their ranks.
   The face of men, thus changed, now bore the heads
   Of brutish animals, devoid of wit.]


From this perspective too, of the rebel improbitas, Gower's peasant-beasts again comprise a genus perdendum, by consequence of their willful surrender of their own humanity in favor of vice. (22)


The ethical-judgmental conceit--vice makes humans into beasts--that Gower took from Boethius and the antique tradition that Boethius summarizes, Ovidian though not exclusively so, complements or compounds the class-slander that Gower likewise uses--peasants are subhuman simply ab ovo--to impart the unpleasant force that Gower's compound-complex peasant-beast-monster allegory has in the Visio Anglie. G. G. Coulton went so far as to suggest that in Gower's metaphoric duplicity may lie representation of the most basic cause of the Social Revolt: "it would be difficult to find a clearer justification for the revolt of 1381 than by comparing" the "theoretical liberalism" that Gower espouses--his Christian-biblical notion that all are equal in God's love, for example--"with his practical conservatism" in enjoining exploitation and repression for some. (23) The revolutionaries were guilty of crime, in the first place guilty of succumbing to vices that made them inhuman, and so fit for slaughter, this being Gower's "theoretical liberalism," imputing humanity to the rebels; his "practical conservatism" resides in his other metaphoric perspective, that the revolutionaries were only beasts anyway, by nature, so again also, though more simply, fit for slaughter.

Gower would also have believed that his bestial-vicious peasants were common criminals, too, guilty of murder, arson, riot, and so forth; to accuse them of so much would be to impute mens reus to them, which beasts cannot have, strictly, no matter whether the bestiality were natural or assumed through immorality. The revolutionaries' common crimes were in fact few, and remarkably circumspect: chiefly, crimes against property rather than against persons. (24) They gave someone like Gower little to work with in this regard, and what little they supplied him the poet himself oddly diminished, once saliently. (25) Simple, ordinary crime of this sort was never the issue, however; the greater subtending basis of the social totality--class itself (and hence history itself)--was under attack. Gower's bestiality topics--a matter of immutable nature as well as viciousness by choice--are the best defense that could be mounted.

It must have been difficult for "moral Gower" (as it would have been for anyone other than the less moral Geoffrey Chaucer) to condone the killing. (26) Hence the prose mitigation; hence the extensive ideological confabulation, drawing out the implications of the Ovidian metamorphoses in bestias, that of Lycaon most prominently, by way of the Philosophiae consolatio and the rest, in an effort to justify what Gower knew was wrong. The mitigating change of conceit in the post-festal prose acknowledges the bad faith of the original verse misrepresentation of the rebels as subhuman; but the mitigation cannot eliminate or expunge. The fact remained that the feudal political economy was itself inhumane, treating human beings as unequal, reducing some to non-human status, the status of thingness, for exploitation.

The historical-circumstantial pressures on Gower, personally and professionally, were so great as to extort the Visio Anglie, justifying the murder, though the poem is not without its moments of sympathy for the victims, amounting almost but not quite to Gowerian dissent from the ruling-class triumphalism that perforce he himself was also in process of performing and promoting. (27) The mouthpiece for the collective disaffection that Gower creates--as if peasant-rebellion had to have charismatic personal leadership itself, monarch-like, repeating a fundamental class tenet of rule (28)--Gower causes to announce:
   O seruile genus miserorum, quos sibi mundus
      Subdidit a longo tempore lege sua,
   Iam venit ecce dies, qua rusticitas superabit,
      Ingenuosque suis coget abire locis.

   [You, servile race of wretches, whom the world
   Has long held in subjection by its rules,
   The day has come when peasants will prevail
   And drive the nobles from their own domains.]


"Iam venit ecce dies" is manifest error, be it reason's deformation by vice, or simply bestial unreason: the day had not come, as events would have to have proven in order for Gower to be writing as he was. On the other hand, Gower's address "O seruile genus miserorum" acknowledges common humanity and calls oppression by its proper name, "quos sibi mundus / Subdidit a longo tempore lege sua." Gower's vision-nightmare is an act of aestheticizing political will, properly anaesthetizing too, perhaps: while articulating this justice of the threat that the 1381 Social Revolt posed, willfully also still to deride it and its bestial or bestialized agents.

University of Ottawa


(1) The scheme of the genesis of the Vox clamantis espoused herein--its evolution from a Mirrorde l'omme deriving estates-satire (in the surviving Vox clamantis, books 2-5) with later accreted sections of a miscellaneous nature (in books 6 and 7), published as a six-book Vox clamantis c. 1377-1380, to which the separately conceived Visio Anglie, also separately published, was later added, as Vox clamantis, book 1, to make the surviving seven-book work now most widely in evidence, was explicated by Maria Wickert, Studien zu John Gower (Cologne: Universitats-Verlag, 1953), 13-30 and 169-73; and corroborated by the analyses of John Hurt Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (London: Methuen, 1965), 99-109, and A. G. Rigg, A History of Anglo-Latin Literature 1066-1422 (Cambridge U. Press, 1992), 287-88, with additional particulars in "Gower's Early Latin Poetry: Text-Genetic Hypotheses of an Epistola ad regem (c. 1377-1380), from the Evidence of John Bale," Mediaeval Studies 65 (2003): 293-317. Quotations from Gower's work, cited parenthetically by line number, are from the edition of G. C. Macaulay, The Complete Works of John Gower, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1899-1902), vol. 4: The Latin Writings; the modern English verse translations are by A. G. Rigg; except as indicated, other translations are the present author's doing.

(2) These points are drawn from the evidence conveniently collected in R. B. Dobson, The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970), 306 (Anonimalle), 311-12 (Walsingham), and 313-14 (Knighton).

(3) The debt to Stephen Greenblatt, "Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion," Representations 1 (1983): 1-29, will be immediately clear; also, to Sheila Delany, "Substructure and Superstructure: The Politics of Allegory in the Fourteenth Century," Science and Society 38 (1974): 257-80, demonstrating that even resort to allegory--the beast-allegories peculiar to Gower explicated below or any other allegorical figure--is motivated by particulars of the class struggle within the political economy at a particular moment; cf. too Eve Salisbury, "Violence and the Sacrificial Poet: Gower, the Vox, and the Critics," On John Gower: Essays at the Millenium, ed. Robert F. Yeager (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007), 125. The exegesis following is restricted to this characteristic equivocation in Gower's representation of the revolt, consistently the representation of a peasant revolt, no matter the actual class composition of the rebellion, which apparently (despite all difficulties of the highly recalcitrant documentary and historiographical sources) had also urban-bourgeois and radical-clerical elements to it, as well as manifesting already some stratification within the peasant class; there are instructive remarks in Lynn Arner, "History Lessons from the End of Time: Gower and the English Rising of 1381," Clio 31 (2002): 238-40.

(4) Cf. 191-92 "et omnis / Que fuit vtilitas vtilitate caret."

(5) This enumeration includes the variation (slight perhaps, though also perhaps significant) at 655: "Ecce dies."

(6) The poem is quoted from the copy in the manuscript Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Dd.iv.35, fols. 45r-46v, and the modern English verse translation is by A. G. Rigg. There is an edition of the same item in Thomas Wright, ed., Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History, 2 vols. (London, 1859-61), 1:227-30.

(7) Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford U. Press, 1999), 256 and 133; cf. 155, again mentioning the Aristotelian context (i.e., chiefly The Politics 1254a-1255b).

(8) See Georg Lukacs, "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat," History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin, 1971), 89, in the section concluding that, in capitalism, the laborer's "fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification this transformation of a human function into a commodity, reveals in all its starkness the dehumanized and dehumanizing function of the commodity relation" in general (92).

(9) See G. G. Coulton, The Medieval Village (1925), repr. Medieval Village, Manor, and Monastery (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 233-52 and 516-26; also, Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, 139-56, and "Peasant Anger in the Late Middle Ages," Anger's Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages, ed. Barbara H. Rosenwein (Cornell U. Press, 1998), 171-88, esp. 176-78. Significant though briefer comment is in Lee W. Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 272-73, and Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (U. of California Press, 1994), 211-13.

(10) "A Song of Freedom (1434)" (no. 849 in Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, A New Index of Middle English Verse [London: British Library, 2005]), Rossell Hope Robbins, ed., Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (Columbia U. Press, 1959), no. 22, p. 62. Though not in context of this example, Freedman reminds that more than "economic or communal issues" were contended in the 1381 revolt: "Personal unfreedom had a substantial effect and was deeply resented" (Images of the Medieval Peasant, 246); cf. also Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1973; repr. London: Routledge, 1988), 151-55.

(11) Such a distinction between bestiality in nature and bestiality by choice is formulated in Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, 154-55.

(12) For the Boethian passage, I rely on Seth Lerer, Boethius and Dialogue: Literary Method in the "Consolation of Philosophy" (Princeton U. Press, 1985), 180-90; also, Gerard O'Daly, The Poetry of Boethius (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1991), 207-20. The text is quoted from Ludwig Bieler, ed., Anicii Manlii Seuerini Boethii Philosophiae Consolatio (Turnhout: Brepols, 1957); the English translations are from P. G. Walsh, Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).

(13) Another indication of Gower's mindfulness of this portion of the Philosophiae consolatio may be that, twenty years later, for the Cronica tripertita, he thrice built lines (once for each of the poem's books) that may appear to derive from this same Boethian meter: 1.34 "Quo magis ad plenum diffundat vbique venenum," 2.25 "Sed magis ad plenum tunc fuderat ille venenum," and 3.56 "Quo magis ad plenum conspergitur omne venenum" may recall Prov. 23.32 ("Sed in nouissimo mordebit ut coluber, et sicut regulus venena diffundet)"; or recall 4m3.35-39, the concluding lines of the "Circe" meter ("Haec venena potentius / Detrahunt hominem sibi / Dira quae penitus meant / Nec nocentia corpori / Mentis vulnere saeviunt").

(14) The term is from Wickert, Studien zu John Gower, e.g., 36, distinguishing within the Visio "drei Visionen," i.e., "Tiervision, Trojavision und Schiffsvision."

(15) The early locus is Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.6.11-12, Karl Hude, ed., Zenophontis Commentarii (1934; repr. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1969), 76, where Socrates suggests that the Siren-song represents an Odyssean aspiration to arete. For analysis of a useful collection of ancient citations, see Erich Kaiser, "Odyssee-Szenen als Topoi," Museum Helveticum 21 (1964): 109-36 and 197-224, esp. 200-13.

(16) It happens that Gower's only quotation from Horace (to my knowledge) is from this same item, at a different place: Ep. 1.2.14, "quidquid delirant reges plectuntur Achivi": H. W. Garrod, ed., Q. Horati Flacci Opera (1912; repr. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) In. p.]. Gower uses the line twice: in a couplet of the Vox clamantis, "Quicquid delirant reges plectuntur Achivi, / Nam caput infirmum membra dolere facit" (6.497-98), and again, separating the same elements, "O deus immense" (5), "Quicquid delirant reges plectuntur Achivi," and "Quo caput infirmum, nichil est de corpore firmum" (85). These apparent quotations may be of no consequence, however, since the Horatian line was proverbial, or nearly so; a contemporary example is the recurrence of the same line in the poem beginning "Me cordis angustia," at line 97, "Quod delirant nobiles plectuntur Achivi": Thomas Wright, ed., The Political Songs of England, from the Reign of John to that of Edward II (London, 1839), 262-67 (unlineated) at 267.

(17) Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.15: Rudoff Helm, ed., Apulei Platonici Madaurensis Opera quae supersunt vol. I Metamorphoseon Libri XI (Leipzig: Teubner, 1968), 277. A nearer analogue for the Boethian meter and its exegesis, also more likely to have been known to Gower, would be Claudius Claudianus, In Rufinum 2.480-493: Maurice Platnauer, trans., Claudian (Harvard U. Press, 1922), 1:92-93:
   nam iuxta Rhadamanthys agit. cum gesta superni
   curriculi totosque diu perspexerit actus,
   exaequat damnum meritis et muta ferarum
   cogit vincla pati. truculentos ingerit ursis
   praedonesque lupis; fallaces vulpibus addit.
   at qui desidia semper vinoque gravatus,
   indulgens Veneri, voluit torpescere luxu,
   hunc suis inmundi pingues detrudit in artus.
   qui iusto plus esse loquax arcanaque suevit
   prodere, piscosas fertur victurus in undas,
   ut nimiam pensent aeterna silentia vocem.
   quos ubi per varias annis ter mille figuras
   egit, Lethaeo purgatos flumine tandem
   rursus ad humanae revocat primordia formae.

[For he, Rhadamanthus, is busy close at hand. When he has closely examined the deeds of their earthly life and all that they did therein, he suits the punishment to their crimes and makes them undergo the bonds of dumb animals. The spirits of the cruel enter into bears, of the rapacious into wolves, of the treacherous into foxes. Those, on the other hand, who were ever sunk in sloth, sodden with wine, given to venery, sluggish from excesses, he compelled to enter the fat bodies of filthy swine. Was any above measure talkative, a betrayer of secrets, he was carried off, a fish, to live in the waters amid his kind, that in eternal silence he might atone for his garrulity. When for thrice a thousand years he had forced these through countless diverse shapes, he sends them back once more to the beginnings of human form purged at last with Lethe's stream.]

(18) Apuleius, Metamorphoses 1.1.

(19) Visio Anglie, 1593-1694, where, in addition to widely recognized quotations from the Ovidian Ceyx and Alcione episode (Met. 11.410-748, esp. 474-572), Gower in fact draws significantly too on the Jovial deluge in Ovid (Met. 1.244-312), to frame his own flood section: 1623 = Met. 1.265, 1627 = Met. 1.264, 1631 = Met. 1.282, 1635 = Met. 1.269, 1637 = Met. 1.270, and 1693 = Met. 1.292. Here as throughout, Ovid's poem is cited from R. J. Tarrant, ed., P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoses (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004).

(20) To Visio Anglie, 754 "Vt lupus est, ouium dum furit ipse fame," cf. the line from the Latin "Jack Straw" verses (cited above, n6) 62 "Ac ad dedecora fremit et furit [sc. rusticus] vt lupus agnis."

(21) See Margaret Aston, "Lollardy and Sedition, 1381-1431" (1960), repr. in Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (London: Hambledon, 1984), 1-47.

(22) When later Gower returned to use the ethical-condemnatory human-beast metamorphosis, in Confessio Amantis 1.2785-3042, Russell A. Peck, ed., John Cower Confessio Amantis, vol. 1., 2nd ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006), 137-42, it was to be in the case instead of a secular ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, who was rendered in beluam too by consequence of his own impiety. See R. F. Yeager, "The Body Politic and the Politics of Bodies in the Poetry of John Gower," The Body and the Soul in Medieval Literature, ed. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti (Cambridge: Brewer, 1999), 162-65; and for the literary context, P. B. R. Doob, Nebuchadnezzar's Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (Yale U. Press, 1974), 54-94.

(23) Coulton, Medieval Village, 237, and see 235-37.

(24) W.M. Ormrod, "The Peasants' Revolt and the Government of England," Journal of British Studies 29 (1990): 2-8; Susan Crane, "The Writing Lesson of 1381," Chaucer's England: Literature in Historical Context, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1992), 204-7; and Justice Writing and Rebellion, 90-94. On Gower's capacity for drawing out the "symbolic meanings of violence" in the London invaders' actions, there are highly useful remarks in Salisbury, "Violence and the Sacred City: London, Gower, and the Rising of 1381,"A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence, ed. Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk (U. of Toronto Press, 2004), 79-81 and 83-87.

(25) Though devoting a great deal of attention (Visio Anglie, 1001-1162) to the rebel execution of Simon Sudbury (c. 1316-81), Gower omits to mention the execution of Robert Hales (fl. 1358-81), in the same place and circumstance, presumably because mention would remind of the rebels' political-economic motivation: Sudbury was Lord Chancellor, Hales Lord Treasurer, the one responsible for promulgating the poll-tax that sparked the revolt, the other for collecting it. Omitting mention of Hales freed Gower to represent the one execution alone as an acme of peasant irreligion: Sudbury, a former bishop of London (1362-75), was also Archbishop of Canterbury (1375-81) at the moment; Gower makes the Caesarean prelate's killing a martyrdom, Becket-like (Visio Anglie, 1055-78). On these events and the sources, see George Kriehn, "Studies in the Sources of the Social Revolt in 1381," American Historical Review 7 (1902): 279-84.

(26) Chaucer's single (dismissive) remark about the Social Revolt comes in the "Nun's Priest's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales 7.3394-96, Larry D. Benson, gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 260; on the larger issue, see Alcuin Blamires, "Chaucer the Reactionary: Ideology and the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales," RES, n. s. 51 (2000): 523-39.

(27) A similar effect, occurring in different writers, though on the same 1381 events, is described by Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, 267: "Naturally, it would be hard to argue that Walsingham, Knighton, or Froissart [the best known of the prose historians or chroniclers of the English Social Revolt] displayed any sympathy for the rebels, but they did put into their mouths arguments that were neither novel or incomprehensible."

(28) Allusion is to the remark of Marx and Engels (in "The Communist Manifesto"), on a propensity of the ruling class in capitalism: "it creates a world after its own image," stated more broadly elsewhere, e.g., in chap. 1 of The German Ideology: "Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones." The quotations are from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, 3 vols. (Moscow: Progress, 1969), 1:112 and 48.
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Author:Carlson, David R.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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