"The toun is wast": Middle English Literature and the Western Schism, 1378-1414

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0003-4006-3834
Stone, Zachary, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

The Prologue of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis presents a world beset by division. Of these divisions, one looms particularly large: the Western Schism. The “slitte” (CA, P.338) that cut the western church in half between 1378-1418 carved Christendom into rival camps, loyal to either the Urbanist (Rome) or Clementine (Avignon) pope. Torn between “tuo stoles,” (CA, P.335) the Schism compromised that which later medieval ecclesiology understood as “the most important mark of the vera ecclesia”: unity. Uncertain of where “to sitte,” or in which pope one ought invest their faith, confusion reigned, much to the detriment of all (CA, P.335-9). Given Gower’s representation of the stakes of this crisis, it is surprising how little attention modern readers of his poetry have paid to the Schism. In fact, although scholars of Middle English literature habitually enumerate the Schism as one of the crises besetting later Medieval England, there have been few efforts to explore the degree to which this specific crisis informed the English literary imagination. This dissertation corrects this misconception. It argues that English writers did address the Schism, often in depth and with great imagination.

My dissertation centers on John Gower’s trilingual trilogy—the Mirour de l’Omme (Anglo-Norman) the Vox Clamantis (Latin) and the Confessio Amantis (Middle English)—and his last major poem, “In Praise of Peace.” From its terrifying emergence in the Mirour to the cautious optimism of “In Praise of Peace,” the Schism permeated Gower’s literary imagination; his oeuvre constitutes the most sustained English exploration of the church’s contemporaneous division. Recovering Gower’s representations of the Schism has both textual value—i.e. it enables us to date versions of each poem more precisely—and literary significance, as it indexes the ways English writers addressed the Schism. Chapter 1 focuses on Gower’s revisions to the Vox and the Mirour as well as the Confessio’s account of “the status of the clergy, as they call them, in regard to spiritual matters, in the time of Robert of Geneva, who took to himself the name Clement, at that time the antipope,” [De statu cleri, vt dicunt, secundum spiritualia, videlicet tempore Roberti Gibbonensis, qui nomen Clementis sibi sortitus est, tunc antipape] (CA, P.194-9). While these texts draw on the same sources, their representations of the Schism track the evolution of the crisis from the fall of 1378 to the mid-1380s.

Chapter 2 steps away from Gower so as situate his representation of the Schism in relationship to the imaginative contours of Christian Rome in later medieval England. To that end, the chapter explores Christedom as a literary phenomenon. Focusing on the reception of Martinus Polonus’ Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, the single most popular continental history in late medieval England, I examine the relationship between ideological form and bibliographic format in the Chronicon tradition, specifically in two Middle English translations/adaptations—the Chronicle of Popes and Emperors and the Lollard Chronicle—and the manuscript that contains the version of Latin text on which these versions were based: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 712. Together these texts bear witness to the ways in which fourteenth-century English scribes and writers could create and contest competing ‘Christendoms’ via their reformations of Martinus’ Rome. It is this collection of persons, places, ideas, and topoi that constitutes ‘the Matter of Christendom.’

Chapters 3 and 4 return to the Confessio to explore Gower’s engagement with this ‘Matter of Christendom’ during the later years of the Schism. Together, these two chapters focus on the last two tales of Book II: the “Tale of Boniface” and the “Tale of Constantine and Sylvester.” Beginning with the Prologue’s lengthy interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar from Daniel 2 and concluding with the “Tale of Boniface,” Chapter 3 traces Gower’s association of church “tempore Roberti Gibbonensis” and the ‘Matter of Christendom.’ This chapter illustrates Gower’s periodization of Christian history by situating his version of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in conversation with other medieval versions of Daniel 2, especially that of the twelfth-century German historian Otto of Freising. Specifically, I argue that Gower associates the “feet of erthe and stiel” (CA, P.827) with the Schism so as to transform the the crisis of Christendom into a question of papal embodiment.

Chapter 4 addresses Gower’s “solutions” to the Schism: the “Tale of Constantine and Sylvester” and his last major poem, “In Praise of Peace.” While the Confessio introduces the “Tale of Constantine” as a cure for a divided church, the tale concludes in crisis and reveals Gower’s putative prescription or “phisique” (CA, P.3163) to be a malignant tumor. This conclusion puzzles critics as Gower seems to advocate for a mode of disendowment similar to that embraced by the Lollards he consistently repudiates. Situating the “Tale of Constantine” in the context of English experiences with the Schism c. 1385-95 resolves this tension. In the Confessio, Gower works to exhaust the church’s internal resources of reform so as to create the preconditions for a mode of secular intervention that does not seek to dismantle Christendom but rather to affirm it. While Gower does not explicitly endorse a general council as a solution, the consensual, constitutional tone of “In Praise of Peace” resonates with the evolution of English attitudes towards the Schism in the 1390s. This evolution emerged, in turn, from the failure and gridlock that characterize the Confessio’s accounts of Constantine. Only extreme circumstances, argued canonists, permitted laypersons to convene a general council. From this perspective, then, Gower’s cautious embrace of royal intervention no longer seems to conflict with his dogmatic opposition to Lollardy, rather it seems inline with his wider poetic ambitions.

The dissertation concludes with a Chaucerian coda in which I argue that Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale deploys the ‘Matter of Christendom’ to a different end than his friend Gower. Chaucer uses the well-known story of Saint Cecilia to imagine the possibility of literary history after Christendom. His vision of the early church works against precisely the idea that Gower sought to locate and retrieve: the ecclesia primitiva, or the myth of a Apostolic Church. Where Gower sought to invoke the idea of the early church so as to reunify a broken whole, Chaucer rewrites the story of Cecilia so as to ensure that his own poetry will be to English literature what the ecclesia primitiva was to the church: a generative myth of perpetual reform. For Chaucer, the Schism provided an opportunity to use the ‘Matter of Christendom’ to imagine the idea of poetry after, outside of, or beyond Christendom, to imagine the idea of literary history itself.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Medieval, Chaucer, Gower, Schism, Papacy, Church History, Middle English
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