Gower, Lydgate, and Incest.

Scanlon, Larry.

Gower, Lydgate, and Incest.

Scanlon, Larry. "Gower, Lydgate, and Incest." In Russell A. Peck and R. F. Yeager, eds. John Gower: Others and the Self. Publications of the John Gower Society XI (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017), pp. 156-82.

For Chaucer (or at least, his fictional Man of Law), the sin of incest is unspeakable because "unkynde," that is, unnatural, an "abhominacion" (158). Eschewing such repression, Gower presents a detailed accounting of incest as wholly natural and yet not natural: sibling marriages were necessary for the children of Adam and Eve; natural law does not forbid it, only positive law; siblings Canace and Machaire were drawn to their fatal union by a natural desire--yet the poet proceeds to contradict his own dispassionate analysis, as he excoriates Amon's rape of his sister Tamar as "ayein kinde," thus an object of horror (164, referring to CA VIII.215). Both Chaucer and Gower express an anxiety over incest consistent with the late medieval "tectonic shift" to the ideal of "companionate marriage" as natural and proper (166), but "it is Gower whose poetic is the fuller and more searching" (168). Scanlon discusses "three moments in particular in Lydgate's poetry where he confronts the legacy of Gower in the form of the problem of incest" (172). In the story of Oedipus, Lydgate dwells on the grisly unnatural union of mother and son as it gave rise to the unnatural crime of fratricide, but paradoxically notes the free choice of the brothers to sin (174). Departing from Gower, he darkens the union of Canace and Machaire as "unnatural," even as he appears to celebrate the "meek[ness]" of Canace as she obeys her father's murderous command (177). In the unfinished allegory Reason and Sensuality, the goddess Diana (as moral instructress) advises the protagonist to reject illicit unions, including the unnatural sin of incest (178); his reward will be marriage, uneasily "naturalize[d] . . . as the true consummation of erotic desire" (180). Lydgate has not resolved the contradictions in Gower's conflicted treatment of incest, but the tension may be strategic on his part as it is inherent in the topic. [LBB. Copyright. John Gower Society. JGN 36.2].


Gower Subjects
Confessio Amanti
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Influence and Later Allusion