By the Will of the King: Majestic and Political Rhetoric in Ricardian Poetry
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The stories we tell give meaning and coherence to our political situation; they reproduce, interrogate, and, at times, challenge the discourse of authority. Thus, when the political situation changes so do our narratives. In the thirteenth century, responding to a majestic rhetoric of vis et voluntas (force and will), the barons strengthened the community of the realm by turning it into a powerful collective identity that fostered political alliances with the gentry. By The Will of the King demonstrates how Ricardian poetry was shaped by and responded to the conflict between majestic and political rhetoric that crystallized in the politically turbulent years culminating in the Second Barons’ War (1258-1265). By placing Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in dialogue with this political tradition, I demonstrate how narrative became a site of conflict between vertical, cosmic descriptions of power and horizontal realities of power, a conflict from which the contours of a civic habit of mind began to emerge. Over the past twenty years, scholars have begun to investigate the evolution of this habit of mind in the late Middle Ages. By looking at the narrative practice of Gower and Chaucer through the lens of thirteenth-century political innovation, I extend and fill in this depiction of a nascent political imaginary. Each poet responds to the new political circumstances in their own way. Gower, placing the political community at the center of Book VII of the Confessio, rigorously reworks the mirror for princes genre into a schematic analysis of political power. For Chaucer, political rhetoric becomes visible at the moment that the traditional majestic rhetoric of kingship collapses. The Canterbury Tales, as such, restages the conflict of the thirteenth century in aesthetic terms—giving form to the crisis of authority. Ultimately, Ricardian poetry exposes and works through an anxiety of sovereignty; it registers the limits of a majestic paradigm of kingship; and reshaping narrative, aesthetic, and hermeneutic practice, it conjures a new political imaginary capable of speaking to and for a community which had emerged during the reign of Henry III.