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John Gower’s Handwriting identified

John Gower, considered to be one of the greatest poets of medieval England, left behind several remarkable works. A scholar has now been able to identify poems that were written by his own hand, including a poignant piece about how he was going blind.

British Library, Add. MS 59495, fol. 39v. - image from the International John Gower Society

British Library, Add. MS 59495, fol. 39v. – image from the International John Gower Society

These findings, by Sebastian Sobecki, appear in the article, “Ecce patet tensus: The Trentham Manuscript, In Praise of Peace, and John Gower’s Autograph Hand” which is published in the latest issue of Speculum. Sobecki, Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture at the University of Groningen, reveals that he discovered that the British Library’s Additional MS 59495, known as the Trentham manuscript would have belonged to John Gower until the time of his death in 1408. Furthermore, he believes that one of the scribes who produced the manuscript was Gower himself.

Sobecki tells Medievalists.net, “I had been working on and off for a couple of years on In Praise of Peace when I decided to inspect the Trentham manuscript in the British Library. In a nutshell, my findings were made possible by the difference between the digitised images and the physical manuscript or, rather, by what digitisation couldn’t capture: I had a hunch about the last two words of the ownership inscription on folio 42r, but it was only when I unfolded the dog-ear on that folio that I found the full inscription – “Will Sanders un Just D P.”. Then it only took me a couple of days to identify Saunders and realise that he was in charge of dissolving St Marie Overie, the Southwark monastery where Gower had spent the last years of his life.

“Finally, over the course of another week I started thinking through the consequences of this find, and it was then that I realised that this manuscript must have stayed with Gower until his death, and that the last scribe to write in it must therefore enjoy some degree of authorial approval. When I looked at the hand of this scribe, and his only other, equally brief, stint in British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A IV, the handwriting struck me as insecure and characterised by eyesight problems. That’s when it dawned on me that I had most probably identified Gower’s autograph hand.”

In the article Sobecki argues that the Trentham manuscript was originally written in order to be presented to Henry IV, who had recently overthrown Richard II and become the King of England. Gower was hoping to influence the new king and his poem In Praise of Peace advocated that Henry renew the truce with France. However, when Henry agreed to a twenty-eight-year truce on 18 May 1400, this project “lost its urgency” and the manuscript wound up becoming the English poet’s own book.

Gower the Archer, Vox Clamantis: Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 59 [T.2.17] folio 6v.

Gower the Archer, Vox Clamantis: Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 59 [T.2.17] folio 6v.

Sobecki goes on to explain that the one of the two scribes who wrote the manuscript was likely John Gower, and that with his own hand he added in two poems. This would have happened between the years 1400 and 1402, a period when the poet was slowly going blind, perhaps as a result of cataracts.

One of the items Gower included was an early version of a poem about how he was losing his eyesight. He writes:

It was in the first year of the reign of King Henry IV
When my sight failed for my deeds.
All things have their time; nature applies a limit,
Which no man can break by his own power.
I can do nothing beyond what is possible, though my will
has remained;
My ability to write more has not stayed.
While I was able I wrote, but now because stooped old age
Has troubled my senses, I leave writing to the schools.
Let someone else more discreet who comes after me write,
For from this time forth my hand and pen will be silent.
Nevertheless I ask this one final thing, the last of my words:
That God make our kingdoms prosperous in the future.
Amen

“It’s a beautiful poem,” Sobecki explains. “I had read it many times before, but only in the third and final version, when the modern title shifts to “Quicquid Homo Scribat (In fine)” [To Whatever a Man Writes’]. But the Trentham version does not share the finality of blindness with the two later re-workings; it’s not about having lost eyesight, but about losing it. Taken together, the three versions of the poem show how one of medieval England’s most talented writers tries to capture his personal misfortune in a formal and public context. The result is a struggle against form, where the personal gradually gains the upper hand over the conventional.”

Sebastian Sobecki’s article, “Ecce patet tensus: The Trentham Manuscript, In Praise of Peace, and John Gower’s Autograph Hand” is found in the October 2015 issue of Speculum (Volume 90, Number 4). You can access the article through Cambridge University Press Journals.  You can read more of Sebastian Sobecki’s research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @SebSobecki

You can also view the Trentham manuscript online at the International John Gower Society website.

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