Gower and political prophecy

I’ve been reading John Gower alongside Geoffrey Chaucer this semester with my students. As I had previously only read Gower in small doses, it’s been great fun. Gower wrote thousands of lines of poetry in all three major literary languages of fourteenth-century England: English, French, and Latin. We’re sampling this gigantic output, focusing on the English Confessio Amantis, a wild tale collection with a conscience, and the Latin Visio Anglie, an even wilder dream vision composed in the wake of the 1381 uprising.

Since I read lots of political prophecy (think Merlin and dragons) for my second book, I’ve been noticing when Gower draws on that tradition. He assumes his readers know it. I hope to write an article on this eventually, but in order to do that I’ll need to read more Gower to scout out passages for comment. I believe this is an underappreciated aspect of Gower’s poetics. (A search for “prophecy” in the Gower bibliography turns up just nine results, most relating to biblical prophecy.) Three places in Gower’s Latin writings have been recognized as drawing on the insular political prophecy tradition as it developed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain onward. These are the animal symbolism in Visio Anglie (Cornelius 51n73) and Cronica tripertita (Taylor 131) and the short coronation poem “H. aquile pullus” (see the notes). As far as I can tell, not much has been written on even these three texts in relation to political prophecy.

Fonzo’s dissertation shows how seriously Gower takes the role of “public prophet” in all his major poems. However, while Fonzo focuses on political prophecy in reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, biblical prophecy takes center stage in the Gower chapter and the article derived from it. I think it would be possible to show that both kinds of prophecy are ingredients in Gower’s modus operandi.

In addition to the animal allegory in Visio Anglie, I’d point to the surreal moment later in the same poem when the Tower of London/storm-tossed ship carries the dreamer and the English nobility ashore to a foreign land that is revealed to be Britain but must be explicated as if unknown (Carlson 1955-63):

Ad portum veniens de naui concito litus
   Egressus pecii, turbaque magna michi
Plebis in occursum iam venerat, ex quibus vnum
   Pre reliquis dignum contigit esse virum,
A quo quesiui, ‘Dic, insula qualis, et vnde
   Tantus adest populus, quis <sit> et inde modus?’
Ecce senex ille, portu qui stabat in illo,
   Reddidit ista meis horrida verba sonis:

‘Exulis hec dici nuper solet Insula Bruti. . .’

(“In port I quickly disembarked and sought
The shore; a crowd of folk by then had come
To meet me, and of these it chanced that one
Appeared a worthy man, above the rest;
I asked: ‘This island, what’s it like, and whence
So many folk? And how do they behave?’
That aged man, who stood there in that port,
To my remarks returned these fearful words:

‘Its name is now “the Isle of Exiled Brut”. . .'”)

It’s an uncanny and dramatic moment, pointed by Gower’s having withheld the keyword Bruti until the end of line 1963. Literally, of course, Gower and the noblemen are already in Britain, but the poem, following through on its Ovidian exile motif, washes them ashore there as if for the first time. Unlooked-for discovery of actually existing conditions from within a self-consciously fictional world is just what political prophecy is for, I think. And the representation of Britain as “Insula Bruti” emanates from a historiographical tradition that Geoffrey of Monmouth also initiated. I read the aged man (senex) as a projection, into the poem, of Gower’s self-appointed role as exponent of prophecy. In this scene, Gower in effect reads prophecy to himself.

I suspect the Visio Anglie shows the influence of the mid fourteenth-century Latin Prophecy ascribed to John of Bridlington, as Anne Middleton suggested (Justice 213n74). This was a widely disseminated topical poem, rarely read these days. It traveled with a Latin commentary, a textual form that clearly appealed to Gower, who wrote many Latin glosses, headnotes, and colophons to guide interpretation of his own poetry. Bridlington’s Prophecy and Gower’s Visio Anglie both feature a disturbed visionary narrator, animal symbolism, and pessimism about national politics. More sleuthing is needed.

further reading

Cornelius, Ian. “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt.” Representations 131 (2015): 22-51.

Fonzo, Kimberly. “Late Medieval Authorship and the Prophetic Tradition.” Diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013.

Fonzo, Kimberly. “Richard II’s Publicly Prophesied Deposition in Gower’s Confessio Amantis.” Modern Philology 114 (2016): 1-17.

Gower, John, and David R. Carlson, ed., and A. G. Rigg, trans. Poems on Contemporary Events. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011.

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1911.

tyrannical curriculum

The more and more I teach at the college level, the more and more I appreciate how intertwined teaching and research are for professional academics. This is not immediately obvious when reading through scholarship on the page. Periodization ensures that fields don’t connect, because courses within those fields don’t connect.

The same dynamic plays out within the fields of literary study. Features of the intellectual landscape in my own field that puzzled me as an undergraduate and PhD candidate are readily explained with reference to the need to teach in a curriculum. The overwhelming centrality of Chaucer in late medieval English studies corresponds to the provision of Chaucer courses at nearly every college and university. We offer “Chaucer” ostensibly because Chaucer is uniquely important, and because undergraduates most want to take these courses. I have grown skeptical of both of these implicit rationales, the first about Chaucer’s intrinsic worth and the second about students’ preferences. I now think it’s the other way around: Chaucer remains canonical and well-known because every English-department medievalist shares an experience of taking and/or teaching a class on his work. It’s just easier to have something to say about texts that you regularly discuss with students. And the Chaucerian texts that get the most attention in scholarship, in turn, are those that are easiest to teach and most commonly taught to undergraduates: the Wife of Bath’s Tale, less so Troilus, still less the Boece or most of the lyrics. It’s understandable.

There are more subtle examples. The first part or visio of Langland’s Piers Plowman (A.Prologue-8 / B.Prologue-7 / C.Prologue-9) receives far more scholarly attention than the rest of the poem, which makes up about two-thirds of Piers Plowman by volume. That is because the visio is a blueprint for the whole poem, but it is also because it’s typically not possible to read beyond the visio in the undergraduate (or often even the graduate) classroom. The visio is all we have time for when we teach Piers Plowman in a course on alliterative poetry, or political poetry, or religious literature, or multilingualism, etc.

This is true for Old English, too. Beowulf dominates this field for many reasons, and a major reason is that it is nearly always the spring semester text, after a fall introduction to the language. It’s the right size to get through in one semester at a fast clip, but there’s no room to read other texts in that semester. For the same reason, a handful of short texts (the ones in Eight Old English Poems, ed. R. D. Fulk) also get a lot of play: they are bite-sized and easy to work through in a non-Beowulf spring Old English seminar.

Texts that, on paper, ought to be central to our assessment of medieval English literary culture are often relegated to the status of specialized topics because they are difficult to squeeze into a semester: the Paris Psalter (the longest poem in Old English), Lawman’s Brut (the longest poem in Early Middle English), the Prick of Conscience (the most-copied poem in Middle English), the so-called Wycliffite Bible. Not to mention the many important medieval English texts not composed in English, which must be taught in translation, if at all, in the US: Richard Rolle’s Latin writings, Gower’s Vox clamantis, Froissart’s dits amoureux. Medievalists whose training is in a different language tradition are always on about the single-minded prioritization of the English language in English departments, and they have a point. It’s a point less about the individual moral rectitude of researchers in this field than it is about the pragmatism of keeping a research career spinning while teaching a full courseload.

(Now, it’s always possible to do research on texts that you never teach, but it is much harder to maintain that split-brain for long.)


Here is an opposite framing of all this. I have the incredible privilege of learning with my students about texts that I then analyze in scholarship. The feedback loop between teaching and research is both professionally convenient and intellectually fulfilling. Just this semester, rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my students generated two small new ideas about the poem, which are now under consideration as two scholarly notes. One must, after all, teach something, and, unbelievably, I get paid to read and think about the literature that I already want to read and think about. If that has to include Chaucer, well, fine, I’ll think of something to say about him, too.

The problem arises, I think, as it also does for periodization and linguistic nationalism, when the boundary-line between foreground and background sinks below the level of consciousness: when we forget the tyranny of the curriculum and mistake a field of study for a self-sufficient and essentially disinterested response to the past. Medievalists, like other humanists, have long since discarded the idea that historical work could ever really be disinterested, yet certain basic assumptions about what is a ‘major’ text, which poets had an ‘Age,’ seem to replicate the thinking that we claim to have transcended as a field. (This mirrors the situation with periodization, whereby the political-historical boundaries that, we all agreed long ago, should not deterministically govern English literary history still do so in the curriculum, and therefore in the distribution of fields, hiring, scholarly organizations. . .)


What to do? I don’t know. In a small way, I’ve been trying to be a bit more experimental in what I assign to undergraduates, partly in order to be a bit more experimental in what I can speak about in my research. I teach anonymous political prophecies in English and Latin, Welsh poetry in translation, Gower alongside Chaucer, Piers Plowman beyond the visio. This has meant foreshortening some other, expected components of my course offerings.

Experimentalism is a decision that I have the luxury of making as a tenured professor rather than a graduate candidate, a job-seeker, or a junior colleague. Ideally, though, experimental teaching can in turn change expectations, reflecting a different vision of the field back into research, hiring, etc. The prospects for this shift in perspective seem to me good: postmedievalists don’t know all that much about our texts, anyway, so I think they are just as happy to hear about an anti- or non-Chaucerian book as a Chaucerian one–as long as you promise to teach “Chaucer” one way or another.

politics as prophecy

to understand why political discourse today is so furious, look to medieval England

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. With this vote, the political situation would appear to inch closer to the result that liberals have been expectantly predicting since 2016.

There’s more than a little anxiety about defeat baked into liberals’ expectations of victory. From the prospect of Brexit to climate catastrophe, from Elizabeth Warren’s “I Have A Plan For That” to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” predictions about the future are the bread and butter of political discourse. They are more than campaign promises, wishful thinking, or a scientific consensus, though they are these things, too. Like predictions of the apocalypse in various religious traditions, political predictions instill the sense of a common cause, galvanizing believers to agitate for the future they demand. Thinking of politics today as a form of prophecy clarifies why political dialogue can be so furious—and so impervious to fact-checking. It also means politics today is not as different as we might wish from politics in the European Middle Ages, when a more overt type of prophecy energized political action.

In pre-Enlightenment Britain, this political prophecy was associated with a particular strand of history writing, the one whose cast of characters included King Arthur and Merlin. Merlin was, among other things, a prophet. People took very seriously the obscure “prophecies of Merlin,” which represented political and ethnic conflict between the English and the Welsh in terms of dragons, lightning bolts, and rivers of blood. From the Wars of the Roses to the English Revolution, people experienced contemporary political developments through the prism of a vast and complicated future imaginary. You can read the binding real-world force of prophecy in any number of historical episodes: Richard II fleeing to Ireland in 1399, because he feared that certain lines in a popular prophecy referred to himself; the prophecy book that nearly convinced Anne Boleyn not to marry Henry VIII; the Benedictine nun Elizabeth Barton, hanged in 1534 for spreading “false” prophecy.

Political prophecy is supposed to be something that we cast off, like a sheath of skin, on the way to becoming modern. The German social historian Reinhart Koselleck, who has perhaps the best claim to being the theorist of prophecy, associated apocalyptic prophecy with the Middle Ages and a special kind of self-fulfilling secular prophecy with modernity. According to Koselleck, thinking primarily of northern Europe, only during and after the Enlightenment did it become possible to imagine a future and then work to make that future real. Koselleck’s ideas are powerful, but they are incomplete. The cultural dynamic he described as quintessentially modern was already in place in the fifteenth century, in the reign of Henry VI, when supporters of Henry’s rival, the once and future Edward IV, commissioned manuscripts of prophecy in order to stoke partisan rage and redirect English political history.

Prophecy is still with us, but we no longer call it by that name. Following the religious and political persecutions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe—a new phase of cultural absolutism that we are still working through—prophecy came to be concealed inside the seemingly rational machinery of political platforms, advertisements, speeches, and negotiations. Prophecy went underground.

The subterranean history of political prophecy extends right through the 20th century. In that century, communism, fascism, and liberalism laid claim to three mutually exclusive visions of a utopian future, and the world went to war over them. Or think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line about “the arc of the moral universe.” What is this if not political prophecy? King’s phrase orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized. His commitment to prophecy (biblical as well as political) lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.

The politics of climate change have a similar structure. I am not the first to notice the religious overtones of the debate, with charges of apocalypticism on one side met by charges of denialism on the other. A more apt comparison would be with medieval political prophecy. Human-caused global warming is scientifically indisputable at this point, but that fact can’t explain the intransigence of people and corporations with an interest in denying that there is a problem. What unites these groups is a belief in the future of capitalism, the infinite scalability of exploitation: a dangerous idea, challenged by the approach of an increasingly uninhabitable future.

Another example is the spectacular failure of pollsters’ predictions in the ramp-up to the 2016 US presidential election. For Trump’s opponents on the left as well as his backers on the right, in opposite ways, the inaccuracy of most pre-election polling lent his victory the stature of a singularity, an extension of American history into an unplanned-for future.

Trump seems particularly at ease in the prophetic mode. In his inaugural address, he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” During the campaign, Trump had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, the hollowing out of the blue-collar professions, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” His critics’ tendency to focus on Trump’s lies and opportunism is understandable, but it misrecognizes the source of his political appeal. In 2008, Barack Obama was the chosen prophet for a leftish alliance (an alliance later riven by the discrepancy between prophecy and reality). Trump has consistently nominated himself as a counter-prophetic voice for those backward-looking, mostly white American voters who could experience not only 2008 Obama’s predicted future but even the political present of the Obama years as an apocalypse scenario.

Looking back to the European Middle Ages is a sobering reminder of the political power that imagined futures hold over the present. When it comes to politics, the choice has never been between facts and imagination. (This is what the term post-truth, the word of the year for 2016, gets wrong about our political and cultural moment.) Every political proposition implies a new future. We are still learning this essential lesson of the 20th century, and every century before that: choose a future, or a future will choose you.

Melisandre’s prophecy is, like, totally medieval

Real medieval prophecy in “Game of Thrones”

In last week’s episode of Game of Thrones (7.2), the priestess Melisandre reiterated a prophecy about “The Prince That Was Promised,” applying it to Daenerys Targaryen.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.12.25 PM

a scene from HBO’s Game of Thrones, season 7, episode 2

The books and the TV series have mentioned this prophecy before, in relation to Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow, but the scene early in 7.2 with Melisandre, Daenerys, Missandei, and Tyrion Lannister bears a particularly strong resemblance to the political use of prophecy in actual medieval Britain.

Political prophecy was a vast literary and cultural enterprise in early Britain, from the 12th century all the way to the 17th. Prophecy guided monarchs and landed people in jail. The Game of Thrones scene captures many of its distinctive features.

First of all, the prophecy in 7.2 exists as an authoritative (written?) text to be quoted. Melisandre is not announcing the prophecy in real time but repeating a disembodied historical claim charged with faith in the Lord of Light. This is precisely how medieval British prophecy worked. The texts of prophecies are littered with tags like “according to Merlin,” “as Thomas of Erceldoune tells,” etc. In one 15th-century alliterative verse prophecy, the Vision of William Banastre, the title character retrieves information about the future of British politics through an interview with God.

The scene also dramatizes the language politics of prophecy. Melisandre delivers the prophecy in High Valyrian, a learned language enjoying similar cultural prestige to Latin in early Europe. Significantly, the conversation between Melisandre and Daenerys is conducted bilingually, in English and Valyrian. Medieval British prophecy took off in the 12th century with the publication of a lengthy Latin prose work, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey’s book served as a textual authority for all subsequent prophecy down to the 17th century.

In addition to depicting multiple languages, the scene in 7.2 makes an issue of the translation of prophecy. Missandei points out that the High Valyrian word that Daenerys translates as “prince” has no gender and could refer to a prince or a princess. Actual British political prophecy was always in transition between languages. Geoffrey mentions that he translated his book from “a very old book in the British tongue.” Though probably just a rhetorical flourish, this claim shows the power of translation to generate prophetic discourse.

Before and after Geoffrey, prophecy existed in and between Welsh, Latin, Anglo-Norman/French, English, and Scots. For instance, an English prophecy called the First Scottish Prophecy was translated into Latin soon after it was composed in the middle of the 15th century. This was the opposite of the usual direction of translation. The same prophecy was also translated into Welsh. Multiple surviving books of English and Welsh medieval prophecy were produced in Wales, not England. Texts were constantly crossing linguistic and political lines.

Tyrion remarks that the gender-neutral translation “doesn’t really roll off the tongue,” to which Daenerys responds, “No, but I like it better.” This heavy-handed dialogue illustrates the political expediency of prophecy, its ability to refer to multiple claimants and flatter the powerful.

In the real Middle Ages, the potency of prophecy lay in its capacity to be reinterpreted over and over again as political conditions changed. Geoffrey’s History was published in the 1130s. Just 40 years later, a writer named Alanus (probably the French theologian Alain de Lille) complains that people are misinterpreting Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s prophecy of a savior king was eventually made to refer to every English king from Henry IV to Henry VIII.

Game of Thrones exists between history and fantasy. Critiques of the overwhelming whiteness of the cast, in light of the well-documented presence of people of color throughout the European Middle Ages, including Britain, demonstrate what is at stake in the show’s reimagination of the past. It does not aim for historical accuracy, but it does court historicity through detailed correspondences of geography and names between Westeros and Britain. (For Starks and Lannisters, think Yorkists and Lancastrians. For King’s Landing, think London.)

Melisandre’s prophecy is one way in which the show reflects the medieval cultures that inspired it. The manipulation of public opinion through medieval prophecy is obvious to us today in retrospect and in watching Game of Thrones, but it holds an urgent lesson: public discourse shapes, and is shaped by, the interests of the most powerful. As Melisandre says, “Prophecies are dangerous things.”