the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Textual Authority and the Vernacular Manuscript

Posted by gninja on June 15, 2006

(In a previous post, I discussed how the use of rubrication to highlight the words of Christ and the application of embellished scripts to chapter headings and conclusions served as conventional indicators of a text’s authority. Simply put, the more important a text, the more effort by scribes and illuminators put into ensuring that its message was communicated clearly. This included highlighting significant words or verses and dividing the text or argument into visually and conceptually digestible units.)

If visual devices that proclaimed the high intellectual value and authority of a work were employed in manuscripts that contain scriputral texts and works by auctores, what are we to make of the presence of these devices in a manuscript whose principal content is neither?

Take a look at this image:


No doubt you notice how elaborate this folio is.


What is it?

This image comes from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (MS M126) and is a manuscript containing John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (my bibliopgraphy can be found here: thesis-bibliography.doc). This extended poem of 33,000 lines is divided into eight books and a prologue. It was begun–according to Gower, at the behest of King Richard II–in 1386. The text begins with the complaint of a lovesick youth called Amans, who is visted by Venus and a Confessor, known as Genius. Seeing that he is so despondent in both his lovelorn status and disappointment with the affairs of his world (the Confessio Amantis, in several sections, is fraught with political overtones) the pair compel the lover to confess his feelings. The following seven books, then, proceed as an alternation between the lover’s confession and traditional tales of love. These tales are broken up thematically into seven different books, each one devoted to a deadly sin. As the text is intended to be instructional, for Amans and ostensibly the reader, each book contains heavily moralized stories dealing with the protagonists’ embodiment or sagacious rejection of the Deadly Sin at hand.

None of these stories is original. However, Gower proves an adept compilator in the way in which he organizes the arrangement of these tales thematically, and in the way he uses language. The Confessio Amantis is a macaronic work: that is, it is a single work combining more than one language. In this case, Gower has written in both Middle English and Latin. It is important to note the use of Latin in this secular poem. True, the division of tales into the Seven Deadly Sins is informed by Christianity. And the moralization of the tales is also predicated upon a Christian system of behavioral regulations. However, the content of the tales is by and large secular, and, for a society so entrenched in and circumscribed by Christianity, this work could in no way be mistaken for a religious text. Returning to the language, then, the use of Latin (the language of authority and religion) would have been seen as highly irregular here. And indeed, the Latin verses are in prose form (thus distinguishing it from the rhyming, poetic Middle English verses), and they are the words of a narrator who provides overtly moralized synopses for each tale.


Why language and division?

I have focused here on the use of Latin and the the tematically organized arragement of the Confessio Amantis because these are the most glaring signs that the author, Gower, was up to something. In addition to various other aspects of the text, the circumstances of the poem’s commission, and Gower’s bibliography, it is clear to me that he had an agenda. That agenda was to heft up the reputation of this vernacular collection of love stories to that of something with intellectual merit and gravitas. And, indeed, there is a large section in the middle of the poem devoted to a scientific and philosophical discussion. Which brings up Aristotle– the medieval method par excellence of ensuring that people would find you serious serious. They were insane for Aristotle.


So…what’s with the image?

Returning (finally) to the image above, I can point out some ways in which Gower ensured that even the visual presentation of his text conveyed its lofty nature. (Gower almost certainly had a hand in devising the original mauscript for this text, and this manuscript is a close descendent, of the original one, from the same scriptorium– meaning it probably reflects or even emulates the original design.) Note the rubrication. Throughout the manuscript, it is used only for the Latin and for character markers, denoting lines spoken by Genius and Amans in their dialogues. This use of character markers is more than just convenient: the Dialogue was a literary and philosophical genre dating back to antiquity, which in the Middle Ages was considered pertinent to high intellectual matter. Then there is the embellished initial ‘A’ in gold, marking the beginning of this section of text. There is also the miniature, one among 110 in this manuscript–an extraordinarily rare, high number of minitaures for a vernacular manuscript. These, too, are used as tools for division, marking off the most significant tales. The one we see illustrated here comes from the prologue of the poem, a section recounting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, interpreted as representing the devolution of society or the four empires of man. However, since the miniatures merit a discussion of their own, for now, it is important to draw our attention to the way in which this manuscript contains visual devices, once reserved exclusively for scriputural and “serious” authoritative texts in order to confer authority upon Gower’s poem.

This method is something we see every day, and while it’s not necessary to research the manuscripts of John Gower’s works, doing so is one way of becoming keenly attuned to it. Watching something that looks like a news report but feels fishily like an endorsement for something (be it Product X, Candidate Y, or Issue Z)? Our way of fitting one kind of content into the estimable framework of something reliable and authoritative. Happens all the time. Well, many of our medieval ancestors were mavericks at that game.


NB: this post has been the briefest of brief summaries of an argument I made in my BA Honors Thesis, A Fifteenth Century Manuscript of the Confessio Amantis. I would like to post it online and provide a link to it from here, when I can. The content will be available for anyone to read and use for research. Although it is unpublished and lacks an ISBN I do ask that anyone who references it provide the appropriate citation.

One Response to “Textual Authority and the Vernacular Manuscript”

  1. gninja said

    Because I do not have the platform at the moment for hosting my bibliography, Iam including it here among the comments. I hope to have a word or pdf document of it available soon.

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