Imagined Romes: The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Literature.

Benson, C. David.

Imagined Romes: The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Literature.

Benson, C. David. Imagined Romes: The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Literature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019.

Benson sets out to answer the question, "how did Middle English poets imagine the city of ancient Rome?" (1) His book is an attempt "to understand how each poet [John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and John Lydgate] makes use of the ancient city and its stories, reshaping and reimagining them for his own purposes." (7) "Gower," Benson states, "presents Rome as a model of civic governance--not because its leaders were always good, but because the wider community of Rome had the capacity to correct bad leaders and come together to repair damage done to the city." (8) Benson turns to consider Gower in his third chapter, "Civic Romans in Gower's ‘Confessio Amantis,’" noting that "Gower, Chaucer, Langland and Lydgate all focus on people rather than places, on ancient Romans rather than on the fabric of the city." (59) Gower's Rome is "almost always the ancient pagan city;" he "says little about its early Christian martyrs and has only a limited interest in the medieval city." (60) In general Benson's views very closely follow Winthrop Wetherbee's notion that central to Gower's idea of what Wetherbee has termed the "Rome world" (JGN 27.1) is "wise governance." Consequently, Benson claims that "Gower takes two general civic lessons from the ancient city: (1) leaders are strongest when they govern in harmony with the larger community, and (2) a good city is one that is able to sustain itself and its values even when a leader fails." (60) Benson develops these ideas in brief studies of "Mundus and Paulina," the "Policie" section of Book VII, wherein he highlights Maximin, Gaius Fabricius, Constantine, Trajan, Antonius, Pompey, the "Tale of Julius and the Poor Knight," the "Tale of the Emperor and the Masons," "Lucrece," and "Appius and Virginia" (63-74). In Constantine, especially (and interestingly) while he is a pagan ("Constantine and Sylvester") more than after his conversion, Benson finds a model for Gower's idea of a good ruler: "In addition to being a man of pity, the Confessio's pagan Constantine also practices three of the four points of policy that Genius in Book 7 says are required of a good ruler: truth . . . justice . . . and largesse." (75) Not surprisingly, Benson finds Gower's antithesis to Constantine in Boniface VIII, whose tale is told in Book II (77-78), and points out that Gower's critique of the Church of his time offered in the Prologue exhibits his belief that Boniface's corruption extended past his fall. [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 38.2.]


Gower Subjects
Confessio Amantis