In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Gower

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Life Records and Biographies
  • Collections of Essays
  • Editions and Translations
  • Language, Meter, and Style
  • French Works
  • Latin Works
  • Connections to Chaucer

Medieval Studies John Gower
Andrew Galloway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0017


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.

General Overviews

This section includes studies that aim to be comprehensive rather than particularly focused. Nicholson 1989 presents a detailed list of responses to each tale and a set of lines up to 1986; Fisher 1965 remains fundamentally useful for some earlier work though increasingly must be checked against and emended by later studies. Yeager 1990 presents the first full-scale overview since Fisher 1965, focusing especially on the poetic techniques; Wetherbee 1999 condenses years of study into a useful single essay. Echard 2004 offers a guide to the main topics in John Gower studies, with pithy essays in a wide range of topics.

  • Echard, Siân. A Companion to Gower. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2004.

    Balanced and up-to-date overview of key issues by experts: biography (John Hines, Nathalie Cohen, and Simon Roffey), social context (Robert Epstein), language (Jeremy J. Smith), manuscripts (Derek Pearsall), reception (Helen Cooper and Siân Echard), French works (Robert F. Yeager), Latin works (A. G. Rigg and Edward S. Moore), relation to French traditions (Ardis Butterfield), relation to antiquity (Winthrop Wetherbee), gender (Diane Watt), political ideals (Russell Peck), style and prosody (John Burrow). Includes chronology (not analytically sorted) of Gower criticism to 2003.

  • Fisher, John Hurt. John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. London: Metheun, 1965.

    Classic and still central study of Gower’s works, life, manuscripts, critical tradition, and relations to Chaucer. Much has been corrected and expanded, but most of the broad (often nuanced) claims as well as the details remain fundamentally orienting.

  • Nicholson, Peter. An Annotated Index to the Commentary on Gower’s Confessio amantis. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 62. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989.

    Tale-by-tale and passage-by-passage annotated index of criticism (except for “purely linguistic or textual” studies) on the Confessio amantis from 1901 to 1986. Introduction describes the themes of criticism in different periods, particularly useful on patterns of criticism from the 1970s on. Each tale’s annotation begins with source studies; other details about sources cited ad loc.

  • Wetherbee, Winthrop. “John Gower.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace, 589–609. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Consolidation of decades of Wetherbee’s study and writing about Gower. Stresses Gower’s works’ position within a span of philosophical issues and their literary expressions, from Boethius through Alan of Lille and Jean de Meun, whereby nature and love are forces to respond to by careful cultivation of social structures and the arts.

  • Yeager, Robert F. John Gower’s Poetic: The Search for a New Arion. Woodbridge, UK: Brewer, 1990.

    Overall study of Gower’s poetry as a sustained effort at poetic and ethical unity, focusing especially on the Confessio amantis. Discussion of prosody, sources, and structure show how Gower’s “transformations” of his materials adapted them to a broad project in pursuit of social and ethical harmony.

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