John Gower

John Gower (c. 1330 – 1408) was an English poet who wrote substantial works in three languages – Latin, French, and English. Along with Geoffrey Chaucer (whom he knew) and John Lydgate, he was seen by subsequent generations of poets as one of the three “laureate” English medieval poets; that is, as one of the founders of the English poetic tradition. This page gathers some images and links that will allow you to explore Gower and his works.

You might also be interested in the page Chaucer and Gower in Manuscript and Early Print.

Gower wrote long and shorter works in all three of his languages. His works include

  • Miroure de l’Omme (28,6o3 lines)
  • Cinkante Balades (51 balades, in 7- or 8-line stanzas)
  • Traitié pour essampler les amantz marietz (18 balades, each in 3 7-line stanzas)
  • Vox clamantis (10,265 lines)
  • Cronica tripertita (1,055 lines)
  • short Latin poems
  • Confessio Amantis (33,400 lines)
  • In Praise of Peace (55 rime royal stanzas)

Being a multilingual poet was clearly important to Gower. His self-designed tomb shows his head resting on these three books, the Vox Clamantis, the Speculum Meditantis (the Latin title for his French poem, the Mirour de l’Omme), and the Middle English Confessio Amantis. The tomb is in Southwark Cathedral in London: this cathedral was, in Gower’s day, the Priory of St. Mary Overeys, and Gower had a close association with it. The tomb has been moved from its original site in the church, and the repainting is modern, based on earlier descriptions.

Tomb of John Gower, Southwark Cathedral, London. My photo

The picture above shows the tomb as it appears today. Below on the left is a detail from the choir screen at Southwark. While the screen itself dates to the sixteenth century, it was from 1905 onwards that statues of figures associated with the cathedral were added. The photograph below on the left shows John Gower standing between Mary Magdalene and Bishop Peter des Roches of Winchester.

Below is the epitaph on Gower’s tomb. It seems likely to have been written by Gower himself. It also appears in Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 59, a manuscript of Gower’s major Latin works, the Vox Clamantis and Cronica Tripertita.

Glasgow, Glasgow University Library, Hunter MS 59, fol. 129r

G. C. Macaulay edited the poem from folio 129 of the Glasgow manuscript. His edition is below, along with my own rhyming translation; do note that the translation is not meant to act as a crib, but rather sometimes sacrifices literal translation in order to give an impression of the original’s effect.

Armigeri scutum nichil ammodo fert sibi tutum
Reddidit immo lutum mortu generale tributum
Spiritus exutum se gaudeat esse solutum
Est vbi virtutum regnum sine labe statutum

Henceforth the shield no shelter yields to th’arméd one.
Instead the clay grants death his day, the tribute done.
The naked soul rejoices all in its release:
In virtue’s realm it’s ’stablishèd, never to cease.

There is an increasing number of digitized Gower manuscripts online, as well as some copies of early printing. The images above are, reading left to right, from Osborn Fa1 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, in accordance with their Copyright and Permissions policy), and Royal 18 C xxii, Harley 7184, Harley 3490, and Egerton 1991 (all by permission of the British Library). The list below offers details of the extent of digitizations, along with links.

  • Cambridge, St Catharine’s College, MS 7Confessio Amantis
  • Cambridge, Trinity College Cambridge, MS R.3.2Confessio Amantis
  • Chicago, Newberry Library, Newberry MS f 33 5Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Glasgow, Glasgow University Library, Hunter MS 7Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Glasgow, Glasgow University Library, Hunter MS 59Vox clamantis (selected images)
  • London, British Library, Additional MS 59495 (the Trentham Manuscript), short poems in French, English, and Latin (selected images; for a complete scan from microfilm, see here)
  • London, British Library, Egerton MS 1991Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • London, British Library, Harley MS 3490Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • London, British Library, Harley MS 6291Vox clamantis and Cronica tripertita (selected images)
  • London, British Library, Harley MS 7184Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • London, British Library, Royal MS 18 C xxiiConfessio Amantis (selected images)
  • London, British Library, Stowe MS 950Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • New Haven CT, Yale University, Beinecke Library, Osborn MS fa1Confessio Amantis and other works
  • New York, Columbia University Library, Plimpton MS 265Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Morgan MS M.125Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Morgan MS M.126Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Morgan MS M.690Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Nottingham, Nottingham University Library, WLC LM 8Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Oxford, Balliol College, MS 54, a commonplace book including extracts from the Confessio Amantis
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 35Confessio Amantis
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 294Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 693Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 902Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 3Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 609Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 719, poems (selected images)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Lyell 31Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • Philadelphia, Rosenbach Library, MS 1083/29Confessio Amantis
  • Princeton, Princeton University Library, Taylor MS 5Confessio Amantis
  • San Marino CA, Huntington Library, MS EL 26 A 17Confessio Amantis (selected images)
  • San Marino CA, Huntington Library, MS HM 150Vox clamantis and other Latin poems (selected images)
  • Washington DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, V b 29Confessio Amantis (selected images)

Early Print

In the decades immediately following his death, Gower was routinely mentioned alongside other Middle English poets, most notably Chaucer and John Lydgate, as a founder of the English poetic tradition. The stanzas below, for example, are from The Goldyn Targe, lines 253-270, by Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1460 – c. 1520):

O reuerend Chaucere, rose of rethoris all,
As in oure tong ane flour imperiall,
That raise in Britane ewir, quho redis rycht,
Thou beris of makaris the tryumph riall;
Thy fresch anamalit termes celicall
This mater coud illumynit haue full brycht:
Was thou noucht of oure Inglisch all the lycht,
Surmounting ewiry tong terrestriall,
Alls fer as Mayes morow dois mydnycht?

O morall Gower, and Ludgate laureate,
Your sugurit lippis and tongis aureate,
Bene to oure eris cause of grete delyte;
Your angel mouthis most mellifluate
Our rude langage has clere illumynate,
And faire our-gilt oure speche, that imperfyte
Stude, or your goldyn pennis schupe to wryte;
This Ile before was bare, and desolate
Off rethorike, or lusty fresch endyte.

These three still appear together in this 1614 poem by Thomas Freeman:

Pitty ô pitty, death had power
Ouer Chaucer, Lidgate, Gower:
They that equal’d all the Sages
Of these, their owne, of former Ages,
And did their learned Lights aduance
In times of darkest ignorance…

William Dunbar, The Goldyn Targe, 1508

The image at the top of this page is a late 18th-century portrait of Gower, based on his tomb effigy. It may owe its existence as much to a growing antiquarian interest in old monuments as to any sense of Gower the poet, however, for Gower had fallen out of favour. The last full printing of his work was in 1554, and he did not appear again in print until 1810, when most of the Confessio formed part of the series of the works of English poets published by Alexander Chalmers. But by that time, he was clearly playing second fiddle to Chaucer (while poor Lydgate had disappeared even more completely…). Below is the title page of an 1810 collection of extracts from Gower and Chaucer.

Gower’s reappearance in print in the 19th century had to do with a combination of antiquarian interest and snob-appeal. It happened that the noble family of Gower believed themselves (erroneously) to be descended from John Gower the poet, and Henry J. Todd dedicates his Illustrations (above) to George Granville Leveson Gower, Marquis of Stafford. A few years later, in 1818, George Granville Leveson-Gower, Earl Gower and later 2nd Duke of Sutherland, edited a manuscript in the family’s possession, the Trentham Manuscript (now London, British Library Additional MS 59495) of some of Gower’s shorter pieces, for the aristocratic Roxburghe Club. The illustration below shows the reproduction of ownership signatures (from various parts of the manuscript) as a frontispiece to that Roxburghe Club edition. The signatures are taken to suggest that the book belonged to Henry VII; they also record the transmission of the manuscript to the Gower family in 1656. The title page of the 1818 printing features the names of both Gower the poet and Gower the earl.

The Roxburghe Club also printed an edition of the Vox Clamantis in 1850, and then in 1857, Reinhold Pauli published his edition of the Confessio Amantis.

Pauli’s edition was a beautiful book, but its text was suspect and its design, while visually appealing, was a mixture of styles, and not particularly readable. The woodcut initials and decorations are based on 15th- and 16th-century designs, while the main font is an 18th-century style, one that was often used, by the Press that printed this edition, for its gift book offerings.

The Cinkante Balades were re-edited in 1886, and in 1889, Henry Morley produced a modernized version of the Confessio, under the title Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins. He omitted the tale of Canace and Machaire because, as he notes in the Table of Contents, “Gower against his own habitual good sense has by some aberration of mind here made his Confessor tolerant of incest.”

The first complete edition of all of Gower’s works was edited by G. C. Macaulay and published by Oxford’s Clarendon Press in 4 volumes, from 1899-1902. Volume 1 is the French works; Volume 2 and 3 are the English works; and Volume 4 is the Latin works.

Macaulay is still the only complete scholarly edition, although the TEAMS Middle English text series, a series devoted to making available student editions of important but less readily available medieval texts, now includes several Gower volumes. They are freely available online:

Confessio Amantis: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 (note that these are not entirely sequential; the first volume contains the Prologue and Books I and VIII)

The French Balades (with translations)

The Minor Latin Works with In Praise of Peace (with translations)

Besides the TEAMS editions, there are a few new additions to the list of Gower’s works. There is a new print edition, with verse translation, of the Cronica tripertita and the first part (the Visio) of the Vox clamantis: see David R. Carlson and A. G. Rigg, John Gower: Poems on Contemporary Events (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011). There is a new online edition and translation of the Cinkante Balades. This edition and translation is hosted by the site of The International John Gower Society. This site hosts images, editions, a searchable annotated bibliography of Gower scholarship, and other useful tools.