One of the challenges of writing from the viewpoint of John Gower, the first-person protagonist of A Burnable Book, has come in imagining and accounting for the poet’s historical blindness. We know that Gower was blind or nearly so by the early years of Henry IV’s reign (1399-1413), though there are no records of the potential cause of his affliction, nor does he say anything about whether his blindness came on over a number of years or appeared suddenly at the turn of the century. In A Burnable Book and its (yet-to-be-titled) sequel, set in 1385 and 1386 respectively, I have been working on the assumption that Gower lost his vision gradually, over a quite long period of time. This is an unprovable hypothesis, of course, though there is an intriguing hint at the end of the Confessio Amantis (completed circa 1390) that the poet was already suffering from impaired vision at the time he wrote his long Middle English poem: “Myn yhen dymme” (“My eyes dim”), Gower’s narrator avows, locating the visual condition among a wider catalogue of afflictions assaulting him in his old age. That Gower would live and write for another decade and more following the publication of the Confessio is a testament to the durability and richness of his literary imagination.
Gower writes openly about the failure of his vision in his Latin works, nowhere more movingly than in ‘Quicquid Homo Scribat’ (here in R.F. Yeager’s translation):
That was the second year of King Henry IV
When I stopped writing, because I am blind [cecus].
My ability serves me no further, although my will does,
But my physical agency lacks the means to write more.
While I was able to write, I wrote very many things with zeal;
This part clings to the world, that part clings to God.
Nevertheless I have left to the world its vanities still to be written,
And with a final poem I write and I go to die.
Let other, wiser men who come after me write on,
For from this time forth my hand and my pen will be silent.
Thus, because with my hands I can compose nothing of value,
It is my task to bear the burden of my toil in my prayers.
Therefore I plead with my tears, living and blind,
That you make our kingdoms prosperous in the future, O God,
And grant that I receive Your holy light. Amen.
With these and other passages from Gower’s work in mind, I’ve thought a lot about the implications of representing a blind character in a work of historical fiction, though I haven’t been able to comprehend the (ethical, literary, historical) stakes of doing so in any interesting or useful way.
Until today, that is. This afternoon I had the great pleasure of perusing Accessus: A Journal of Premodern Literature and New Media, a born-digital publication of the Gower Society edited by Georgiana Donavin and Eve Salisbury. Accessus will be dedicated to “theoretically informed readings of premodern literatures, demonstrat[ing] the impact of new media on these texts,” while “provid[ing] a venue for innovative work on John Gower’s poetry.” It goes without saying how thrilled I am to see a new and innovative venue for the study of Gower and his works. But what’s really brilliant about the inaugural volume (published just this week) is the seamless way it integrates a thematic focus on John Gower’s blindness with the many issues of scholarly access, accessibility, visuality, and so on implied in the journal’s title. The term accessus, borrowed from medieval literary theory, refers to the accessus ad auctores found in the commentary tradition. Accessus (pl.) were prologues or introductions to the works of classical poets covering such topics as the authors’ lives, the titles, intentions, and ethical usefulness of their works, and so on.
In this spirit, the editors write in their own provocative introduction, “We seek to retain the medieval notion of accessus as commentary on works for contemplation and study, commentary that challenges academic borderlines, binaries, and traditional ways of thinking.” I read the four essays in the inaugural volume in one sitting and learned an enormous amount that I didn’t know about Gower–a writer I’ve thought about every day for the last three years!
- Jonathan Hsy’s “Blind Advocacy: Blind Readers, Disability Theory, and Accessing John Gower,” which shows (astonishingly) the ways that Gower’s writing on blindness inspired nineteenth-century blind readers to advocate for changed perceptions and opportunities for the blind and other people with disabilities; or
- Tory Vandeventer Pearman’s “Blindness, Confession, and Re-membering in Gower’s Confessio,” which demonstrates convincingly that Gower’s great poem is all but fixated on blindness at certain points, linking physical and metaphorical blindness to sin, and thus division; or
- Candace Barrington’s “The Trentham Manuscript as Broken Prosthesis,” which proposes an intriguing historical relationship between the codex in which Gower’s blindness is first recorded and the prosthetic role of the manuscript itself in redressing Lancastrian illegitimacy; or
- Lynn Amer’s “Civility and Gower’s ‘Visio Anglie’,” which shows how this Latin work on the Rising of 1381 elaborates a “corporal regulatory system” to promote particular notions of citizenship and governance in late fourteenth-century England.
Along with the other valuable work of the John Gower Project and, of course, the ongoing efforts of the John Gower Society, Accessus represents a wonderful new resource for the study and comprehension of an immensely important figure in the literary history of disability. Indeed, as Hsy notes in his essay, Gower now appears as “a foundational figure in a newly configured English canon of blind writers and artists”–a tradition that the journal’s wonderful inaugural volume will do much to help recover.