11 - Gower and the Epic Past
from III - The Classical Tradition
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2014
Marc-René Jung, the distinguished scholar of the fortunes of the classical tradition in medieval French literature, tells of traveling to London to examine a particularly important manuscript of the Histoire ancienne, that extraordinary amalgamation of the romans d'antiquité and semi-legendary vernacular historical writings, only to discover that the manuscript was inaccessible, because it was on display as part of an exhibit entitled “Fakes, or the Art of Deception.” It had been chosen for this exhibit, together with manuscripts of more famous medieval fictions like Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, because its account of the history of Troy was drawn from the fictional eyewitness accounts of Dares the Phrygian and Dictys of Crete, rather than from Homer and Vergil – who, as Jung wryly observes, were somehow assumed to be more truthful witnesses to the history they report.
I sympathize with Jung as I prepare to examine Gower's representation of the world of ancient epic; for if here too the test of authenticity is fidelity to the classical tradition as embodied in ancient poetry, then Gower is also a fake. Jean de Meun, Dante, Chaucer all name the poets of Roman epic, and draw on them at will. Gower mentions only Ovid, and though he has the opera omnia of that poet at his finger-tips, epic for Ovid is a provocation, something lofty to be challenged and cut down to size.
- John Gower in England and IberiaManuscripts, Influences, Reception, pp. 165 - 180Publisher: Boydell & BrewerPrint publication year: 2014