Review of Week 14 (Nov 21) and Preview of Week 15
Review of Week 14 (by Austin Heustess)
In our one day of class this week (Thursday was Thanksgiving) we began with a bit of housekeeping relating to the various assignments that were coming up, namely the creative presentations that are due next week. While the presentations themselves are due next Monday and Wednesday, each student must email Professor Seaman the night before the day of their presentation with a title for their project so that she can get an idea of the sorts of things that people are planning on doing. This means that while Sunday night may still feel like a holiday, if you signed up for a Monday presentation you need to email in your title and for those people going on Wednesday the deadline is Tuesday.
In addition we made note of the fact that paper proposals were going to be due on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at 11 and that Professor Seaman had graded and returned our annotated bibliographies via OAKS.
Next we moved on to a discussion on the manuscript culture that is present in Medieval scholarship which contributes to the compiling of the various lays (both Marie and the Middle English) that we have been reading throughout the semester. While Professor Seaman had planned to show us pictures of the primary manuscripts from which the works we are reading were derived, technical difficulties forced us to improvise. We discussed the fact that each of these lays are derived from a limited number of available manuscripts (e.g. there are two copies of Gowther in circulation and Beowolf was based on one text that was recently damaged in a fire). [Note from Dr. Seaman: We’ll see the presentation on the last day of class, during our party/discussion of the final exam.]
From this point we narrowed our focus to Gowther’s manuscripts. Stylistic and content differences can be seen between the two different manuscripts which have been used by scholars to identify one manuscript as being intended for reading at a court and another manuscript that was likely intended for a non-courtly audience. The royal scribes who compiled the Royal manuscript of Gowther edited out some of the more violent and racy aspects of the story (eg. Gowther’s rape and murder of nuns) while the other version told the entirety of the story. Scholars of these manuscripts have speculated that the Royal manuscript was likely written in this way in order to accommodate the tastes and decorum of royalty. Though we didn’t get to see the picture, apparently the Royal manuscript can also be identified as courtly just by looking at it and seeing the ornate detail that it employs and comparing it to the practical and barebones look of the more modest manuscript.
We then segued into the main discussion of the class, the lay Gowther. We began by breaking the story down into five basic plot points: Gowther’s birth and the details surrounding it, his youth, his revelation about his true nature, the penance he has to go through, and finally his reincorporation into Christian society.
The story begins with us meeting Gowther’s mother and father and finding out that his mother has been unable to bear children. This presents an issue for the father because he needs to produce an heir and so the couple is faced with a dilemma of how to do this. One day his mother prays for some way to bear children and soon after her prayers are answered, though not in the way she would have hoped. Not long after her prayer she is out in an orchard and comes across a figure who looks like her husband under a tree and they make love. After they finish she discovers that it was not her husband though, but was actually an incubus demon and so she runs off screaming. She arrives at home and decides to make the best of the situation that she has been put in by telling her husband that an angel visited her and told her that she will conceive. The two then have sex and when she gives birth he believes that the child is his.
During Gowther’s youth several events happen that show he is more than human, that he is the son of the devil. First, he kills several milk nurses while they are breastfeeding him when he sucks the life out of them. Next when his mother tries to breastfeed him, he bites her nipple off. By doing this Gowther is symbolically showing his innately evil nature and how powerful that evil is by breaking the associations people have between the human connection inherent in motherhood. Interestingly though Gowther is actually christened and this means that he is Christian and can be redeemed which is in reality the focus of the story and not the adventure and acts of evil he does, which are only included to make the redemption seem more miraculous.
Around 15 we hear that he has made a curved, iron sword (a weapon often associated with the eastern style of sword that would have been common in the Ottoman Empire and thus linked to medieval readers’ idea of heathen). By doing this it shows that he sees himself as needing a weapon and being a kind of knight even though he does very unknightly things like rape and kill nuns. He grows very fast and very large, showing he is unnatural, not human and is a threat to society. This scares his father (or at least the man who thinks he is his father after his wife lied about the incubus) and his father dies but before he does Gowther forces him to knight him. At this point Gowther’s mother flees and Gowther kills any of her guards when he comes across them. Throughout this point in the story he is described as enemy of the church–that he “works his father’s will” (his true father’s will) and he works like a monster. He did harm to anyone Christian by doing a lot acts that were very similar to his attack on the nuns. He attacks every vulnerable person he comes across in a kind of animalistic rage. It is understood though that he isn’t doing it on purpose but is just expressing his nature which he inherited from the incubus who sired him.
Gowther becomes duke of his lands, though he has no idea that his father was an incubus until an earl in his court says he must be satan’s son. He doesn’t kill the earl right away but threatens to kill him if it isn’t true and goes to visit his mother to check to see if it’s true. She lies at first, but he threatens her at sword point and then she tells the truth of his birth. He responds by wanting to go and see Pope for penance. He wants to learn Christianity as soon as he hears his origin. Often how conversion scenes are shown in text like this is similar to this and it is about learning and understanding the proper order of the world God rules. He calls on God to save him. It’s like his real nature wants knowledge and without the awareness of God, he was evil because he didn’t know he was actually a servant of God meant to do good. Automatic conversion shows this idea that if anyone is given opportunity to know about Christ then they will convert, even if he is the son of the devil because human nature is to choose Christ over all others. This act of revelation proves he is human because of his Christian nature. Humanity is about belief in God and to not believe in God means you aren’t human.
After speaking to the Pope, he is told he may not speak and that whatever he swallows must first have been in the mouth of a dog for a period of time until he is set free by God. Gowther begins to wander and eventually settles in a place for three day. On each of the three days he is fed by greyhounds but on the fourth day no dogs come nothing and that’s what when he leaves because he sees that as a sign. This penance seems to be about dehumanizing him, about breaking him down so that he can be built back up to society societies standards. He ends up at a castle where he forgoes his right to sit at the head of the table where his status dictates he should and instead eats with the hunting dogs at castle. This seems to be meant to humble him. Also his inability to express himself makes him more like animal who lacks any kind of reason.
There is a war between the Holy Roman Emperor of the castle he is staying in and a sultan (again a reference to the heathen non-Christians).Gowther is unable to ask for equipment to help him fight so he prays to God for armor and weapons and a horse and is granted those things. He then goes to fight each day incognito and when he returns home each day the things he prayed for vanish. No one knows that he is doing this except the Emperor’s daughter, who is mute and is impressed with his actions. Each day his armor changes colors and he seems to be getting more and more pure until on the last day he is in white armor. Finally Gowther kills the sultan and saves Christendom. He returns home and is given the right to marry the Emperor’s daughter but in her excitement the daughter jumps out of window of the castle and she is basically dead. The Pope arrives to officiate her funeral. At the funeral though she wake up and speaks, telling everyone that God has forgiven Gowther and that she and he may speak again. The Pope agrees that this is true, absolves Gowther and the two are married. When the Holy Roman Emperor dies Gowther becomes the new emperor and decides to make the earl who told him of his origin into the duke of his old land and also to marry him to his mother.
After we had gone through the story proper we began to discuss the nature of the prayers in the story. We questioned why the mother’s first prayer that leads to incubus why and Gowther is rewarded for prayer? She asks for something and she gets it but just not quite in the way she wants it to but he got just what he wanted and needed. Is this all for the glory of God to the point that and even the incubus and the suffering that Gowther causes are part of God’s will on earth? Gowther is a vehicle for this glory, even if there are moments of ambiguity along the way. Why must these bad things happen? Is it because they are needed to exert God’s will? What is interesting about Gowther is that it is written like a saint’s life, with Gowther acting as a saint who finds redemption and sainthood after a really weird life where he did much evil. Gowther shifts from the son of Satan to the messenger of God.
Preview of Week 15 (by Dr. Seaman)
This week, our last full week of class, we will spend presenting and experiencing creative responses to the semester. Please remind yourself of the expectations of the assignment again before presenting it to the class. Here is the schedule for the week: