John Gower's Poetry and the 'Lawyerly Habit of Mind'

Yeager, R.F

John Gower's Poetry and the 'Lawyerly Habit of Mind'

Yeager, R.F. "John Gower's Poetry and the 'Lawyerly Habit of Mind'." In Theorizing Legal Personhood in Late Medieval England. Ed. Boboc, Andreea. Medieval Law and Its Practice . Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 71-93. ISBN 9789004284647

"Whether he was formally trained or simply taught himself, the better to trade properties," Yeager writes, "whether he practiced or didn't, what is clear from his poetry in all three languages is how thoroughly the legal perspective guided, even governed, Gower's way of looking at the world" (73); and in contrast to "the commonplace view of 'moral Gower,'" Yeager describes what he calls Gower's "lawyerly habit of mind," by which he means a sharp ability to see both the strengths and weaknesses in both sides of any argument. "Every situation has more than one side for the 'lawyerly mind,' every side can be painted more or less favorably, and in the end the court should uphold the best presented and the most persuasive--albeit not always the right, the guiltless, or the deserving" (74). Such a habit of mind, Yeager asserts, better accounts for what others--notably David Aers--have described simply as unresolved contradictions in Gower's ethical and political beliefs. As his example, Yeager offers a subtle rereading of Gower's Cronica Tripertita, not just as an anti-Ricardian tract but also as a muted warning to Henry. Throughout the CT Gower carefully distinguishes between humanly created law and justice, which proceeds from God. Gower shows Richard manipulating the law in order to corrupt justice, while the Appellants are consistently described as "just." Upon Henry's accession, one of the new king's first acts is to pardon Richard's counselor and intimate William Bagot, an act of mercy that also "quite clearly re-established the superiority of royal will over the law" (89), and his attempt "to emulate Christ by extending his newly acquired power supra-legally, even to show mercy, exposes a potential in him to become Richard . . . . Gower withholds little in his praise of Henry, . . . Yet at the same time he knew Henry to be a man, as vulnerable at bottom as are all men" (90). The poem thus offers both praise and "caution to ambition" (91) and reflects "both a skeptical wisdom borne of worldly disappointment and a hope rejuvenated at new beginnings" (88). [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 34.2.]


Gower Subjects
Biography of Gower
Cronica Tripertita