Article

John Gower

Andrew Galloway

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0017
John Gower

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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As emphatically shown by the sculpture on John Gower’s elaborate tomb in Southwark Cathedral, London—three massive, carefully titled books supporting the head of the poet’s robed effigy—Gower’s writing during his long life (b. c. 1335–d. 1408) featured three large poems, one in each of the three main languages of late medieval England: in French, Mirour de l’omme (Mirror of man; c. 1378), about 30,000 lines; in Latin, Vox clamantis (Voice of one crying; c. 1382), about 10,100 lines; and in English (plus some Latin verses and glosses), Confessio amantis (Confession of a lover; c. 1393), about 33,500 lines. Through the 15th century, the English Confessio amantis was by far the most widely copied of Gower’s works, with forty-nine surviving complete manuscripts and sixteen fragments and excerpts (compare eighty-two surviving medieval copies of The Canterbury Tales). At the other extreme only one copy of the French Mirour de l’omme survives, discovered by G. C. Macaulay in the late 19th century. Eleven copies of the Latin Vox clamantis survive. Also surviving are shorter poetry in French (the Cinkante balades [Fifty ballads; though there are actually fifty-three] and Traitié pour les amantz marietz [Treatise for married lovers]), in English (In Praise of Peace), and in Latin (Cronica tripertita [Three-part chronicle] and shorter Latin complaints and poems of praise). The evidence of Gower’s balanced commitment to all three major languages of late-medieval England is very strong, across nearly seventy-five thousand lines of verse comprising a wide array of genres and materials, most within a general order of vices and virtues, but all disposed with remarkable variety and distinctive poetic skills displayed in small and large ways. Gower’s poetic reputation, however, which seems to have never been as popularly established as Chaucer’s in the 15th century, collapsed in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely due to growing disapproval of the kind of overt exemplary didacticism and overt political and social commentary that he made central to literary production. Only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did a full critical edition of all his works appear, that is, Macaulay 1899–1901 (cited under Editions and Translations), which is still the only complete edition of his works, and only in the later 20th century did attention to Gower’s poetry as a whole begin to burgeon. Since then, Gower studies have continued to increase rapidly in breadth and depth, with critical focuses including not only his relations to Chaucer’s work and vice versa but also his political postures and advice, multilingual range, rhetorical craft, and emphatic if not necessarily predictable or simple range of ethical and social focuses. These concerns, central to late-20th- and early-21st-century critical interests in ways they were not in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, allowed Gower to reemerge as a major medieval poet noted for much more than simply his close association with Chaucer.

Article.  21050 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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