John Gower Gower, John (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

John Gower c. 1330-1408

English poet.

A seminal figure of the Middle English verse tradition, Gower is considered one of the outstanding poets of the fourteenth century. Together with his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, Gower is credited with originating the genre of the poetic frame-narrative in the English vernacular. Gower's most acclaimed work, the Confessio Amantis (c. 1390-92), features a selection of tales in verse somewhat similar to Chaucer's well-known Canterbury Tales. Principally composed in English with Latin glosses, the Confessio Amantis treats the theme of love as narrated by Genius, an underling of the goddess Venus and personal confessor to the work's protagonist, Amans. The work is among the more influential in the canon of English literature, and includes within its many tales the story of Apollonius of Tyre that was to inspire Shakespeare's Pericles.

Biographical Information

Despite the survival of a considerable amount of documentary evidence pertaining to Gower, relatively few solid facts of his biography are known. Scholars believe that the poet was born around 1330 and was the member of a landholding English family of the middle class from either Kent or Yorkshire. Of his education and early career very little is certain, although sixteenth and seventeenth-century biographers claim that Gower pursued the vocations of lawyer and civil servant. Extant documentation also suggests that he was actively involved in the trade of real estate for much of his career. Gower's first verse compositions were probably made in his youth, and likely included an assortment of balades, carols, and virelais (love songs) suitable to the age. No works that may be attributed with certainty to Gower's early period survive, although many of his minor verse compositions from about 1350 onward are extant. Gower's first major work of poetry, Mirour de l'Omme (also referred to as Speculum meditantis), was written around the period from 1376 to 1379, and initiates the salient period of his poetic career. From this time, Gower appears to have spent a good deal of his life in London, as his works attest to his intimate familiarity with the English capital and its inhabitants. At least one of his biographers suggests that Gower was the member of the London Pui, an all-male religious and musical organization devoted to charitable and social activities. Gower likely would have composed songs for the guild as part of his membership. In 1381 London endured a citywide insurgence known as the Peasant's Revolt, a popular uprising of provincial workers incensed by war taxation. The revolt prompted a scathing response by the author in the latest revisions of his moral elegy Vox Clamantis (c. 1377-81; The Voice of One Crying). While Gower probably began the composition of what is deemed his finest poem, Confessio Amantis, in the late 1380s, scholars date the final revision and completion of the work between 1390 and 1392. Initially dedicated to King Richard II, whose favor Gower pursued prior to the king's abdication in 1399, subsequent redactions indicate Gower transferred his allegiance to Henry of Lancaster, Richard's successor as King Henry IV. Gower's connections to the courts of both monarchs, however, appear to have been rather limited. Nearing the age of seventy, Gower married Agnes Groundolf in January of 1398. They lived together at Saint Mary Overeys Priory, a structure Gower was instrumental in rebuilding decades after its destruction in a fire. Some internal evidence from Gower's works has also led scholars to speculate that he may have been married previously, although this assertion cannot be proven. After his death in 1408 Gower was buried in the Saint John the Baptist Chapel of the Priory Church at Saint Mary Overeys.

Textual History

Modern scholars enjoy access to a varied and rich manuscript collection of Gower's poetic works. Of the forty-nine extant manuscript versions of Confessio Amantis many have been excellently preserved and display a remarkable level of textual consistency, despite numerous variations in design. Most of these pieces originate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the acknowledged high point of Gower's acclaim as a poet. Fine, if far less plentiful, manuscript copies of Mirour de l'Omme, Vox Clamantis, “In Praise of Peace” (c. 1400), and other minor works are also available. Only examples of Gower's juvenilia (known because they are mentioned in his later works) are thought to have been irretrievably lost. While numerous textual advances to this corpus have been made by a host of contemporary scholar-editors, the standard English edition of Gower's collected poetry remains George C. Macaulay's four-volume Works of John Gower (1899-1902).

Major Poetic Works

Gower's poetic oeuvre features three extended works of special merit and interest—crowned by his lengthy Confessio Amantis,—as well as a selection of shorter lyrical, political, and occasional pieces. Written entirely in twelve-line octosyllabic stanzas, Mirour de l'Omme is a long moral-allegorical poem on the subject of the seven deadly sins and their progeny. Its rhymed French text concerns the subject of humankind's responsibilities and failings in a fallen world. The work begins by introducing the deadly sins in allegorical detail. According to the poem, Lucifer and his daughter, Sin, spawn Death, who in turn produces seven daughters—Pride, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Ire, Gluttony, and Lechery. Death sends these sinful daughters to earth for the purpose of despoiling humanity. Further sections of the poem consider an even broader diversity of evils, characterized as Death's grandchildren, who tempt the hearts of men and women, leading to suffering and corruption at all levels of society. Similar in theme if not manner, Gower's Vox Clamantis is likewise a moral treatise, here rendered in Latin verse. While the poem was composed in the years prior to the Peasant's Revolt, the first book of Gower's final revision contains a lurid vision of commoners transformed into destructive beasts, clearly meant to echo events in the city of London during the pivotal year of 1381. The title of the work alludes to the solitary voice of the biblical John the Baptist, and makes use of the apocalyptic vision from the New Testament Book of Revelations. The poem itself is divided into seven parts and decries the rife corruption and social disorder Gower saw in his own age, from the acquisitiveness of the clergy to the immorality of members of the knighthood and civil service. Later attached as a coda to the Vox Clamantis, Gower's Cronica tripertita (c. 1400), offers another allegory of beasts, in this case on the topic of immoderate rule. Gower's contemporaries recognized this work as a thinly veiled and vehement attack on the monarchy of Richard II.

Differing markedly in structure and content from both the Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis, Gower's English and Latin poem Confessio Amantis treats the overarching theme of love. Its principal figure is a woeful lover named Amans, whom Gower identifies as himself in the later portions of the poem. Frustrated by his faulty understanding of love, Amans/Gower seeks the aid of Venus. The goddess appears to him and, in response to his request for aid, sends her clerk, called Genius, to act as Amans's confessor. After learning of his subject's problems, Genius launches into a lengthy bout of literary instruction, reciting a number of illustrative and cautionary tales on the topic of love and its perils. Within this framework, Gower includes poetic versions of classical and medieval tales featuring such figures as Apollonius of Tyre (on incest), Constance (on martial fidelity), Narcissus (on self-love), and many more, all dealing in some fashion with a significant facet of love or its perversion. Gower's only departure from this otherwise sustained theme in the Confessio occurs in the poem's seventh book, which includes a lengthy digression on the qualities of ideal kingship.

Additional works composed by Gower include two balade sequences. The first, Traitié pour Essampler les Amantz Marietz (c. 1397), contains eighteen pieces celebrating the sacrament of marriage. The second, Cinkante Balades (c. 1350-1400) was dedicated to King Henry IV, and includes fifty-one short, elegantly crafted poems. Gower's Latin collection of Laureate Poems (c. 1400) is comprised of several works praising the newly crowned monarch, including “Rex celis deus” and “O recolende,” as well as a number of devotional pieces. His last poem, also addressed to Henry IV, is entitled “In Praise of Peace” and rejoices in wise, moderate rule and the benefits of social tranquility.

Critical Reception

Since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when appreciation of Gower's verse reached its zenith, the poet has generally been placed in a subordinate position to his friend and contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer. Still, while he has steadfastly retained the epithet of “moral Gower” once given to him by Chaucer, Gower and his writings have struck some contemporary readers as far more subtle and complex than this simple name would suggest. Indeed, renewed scholarly interest in Gower's poetry at the end of the twentieth century has sparked a resurgence in Gower studies and a restatement of the poet's significance to the early development of English vernacular verse. Particular attention has been focused on Gower's masterpiece, the Confessio Amantis. In contrast, Mirour de l'Omme is usually considered the least accomplished of his three major works, although it is nevertheless thought to anticipate the later poem as a major source text. While scholars have tended to agree that the Confessio Amantis is Gower's most sophisticated and technically innovative work, it has frequently been studied in relation to both the Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis, as well as in regard to varied Latin and French sources, from Ovid's Metamorphoses to the medieval Roman de la Rose. Critics have also examined the unique qualities of Gower's Latin glosses to the predominately English text of the Confessio, or have taken an interest in Gower's late medieval perceptions of love, intimacy, marriage, and sexuality. The elaborate array of genres in the tales in the Confessio Amantis has likewise attracted scholarly attention. Finally, a number of critics at the turn of the twenty-first century have been drawn to the specifically political element of Gower's work, particularly visible in his shifted allegiance from Richard II to his usurper/successor Henry IV. Overall, while Gower's reputation has been overshadowed by those of his acclaimed fourteenth-century contemporaries, especially Chaucer and William Langland, the poet is now considered one of the most exceptional English literary figures of his age.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Cinkante Balades c. 1350-1400

*Mirour de l'Omme [The Mirror of Mankind] (poetry) c. 1376-79

Vox Clamantis [The Voice of One Crying] c. 1377-81

Confessio Amantis c. 1390-92

Traitié pour Essampler les Amantz Marietz c. 1397

Cronica tripertita [Tripartite Chronicle] c. 1400

“In Praise of Peace” c. 1400

Laureate Poems c. 1400

John Gower: Balades and Other Poems, Printed from the Original Manuscript of the Marquis of Stafford at Trentham [edited by Earl Gower] 1818

The Works of...

(The entire section is 112 words.)

Katherine R. Chandler (essay date winter 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Chandler, Katherine R. “Memory and Unity in Gower's Confessio Amantis.Philological Quarterly 71, no. 1 (winter 1992): 15-30.

[In the following essay, Chandler stresses remembrance as a unifying theme of the Confessio Amantis.]

A new focus of attention informs recent discussion about the artistic unity of Confessio Amantis. Hugh White has proposed that John Gower uses divisiveness as a means to organize the poem's heterogeneous materials. White argues:

Gower is profoundly sensible of the unhappy dividedness of things, which he regards as perhaps the most significant feature of man's existence in this...

(The entire section is 5431 words.)

Charles A. Owen, Jr. (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Owen, Charles A., Jr. “Notes on Gower's Prosody.” Chaucer Review 28, no. 4 (1994): 405-13.

[In the following essay, Owen considers the French influence on Gower's methods of versification, particularly on his stylistic use of rhyme.]

Courtly poetry in English had its birth in the mid-fourteenth century under the influence of the Roman de la Rose and of contemporary French poets, especially Guillaume de Machaut. As R. F. Yeager has shown,1 English poets did not simply imitate their French mentors. Gower in particular reacted against the ideals implicit in fin amour and developed in the Confessio Amantis a moral vision deeply...

(The entire section is 3400 words.)

Kurt Olsson (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Olsson, Kurt. “Love, Intimacy, and Gower.” Chaucer Review 30, no. 1 (1995): 71-100.

[In the following essay, Olsson explores the dynamics of power and love traced in the intimate personal relationships Gower treats in the Confessio Amantis and Mirour de l'Omme.]

Recent discussions of intimacy and the “terrible desire for intimacy”1 reflected in our culture often center on questions about sexuality, and that tendency should not surprise us. Throughout its history as an English word, “intimacy” has been used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and since Freud, we have become accustomed to looking for sexual undercurrents in other...

(The entire section is 13916 words.)

Kathryn McKinley (essay date fall 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McKinley, Kathryn. “Kingship and the Body Politic: Classical Ecphrasis and Confessio Amantis VII.” Mediaevalia 21 (fall 1996): 161-87.

[In the following essay, McKinley regards Book Seven of the Confessio Amantis as a digressive “excursus on ideal kingship” that temporarily departs from the central theme of the poem in a rhetorical manner that echoes those of classical poets Homer, Ovid, and Virgil.]

At the turn of this century, in describing some of the most serious defects in John Gower's Confessio Amantis, the eminent G. C. Macaulay had this to say about Book VII, Genius' excursus on the education of Alexander:


(The entire section is 9783 words.)

Siân Echard (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Echard, Siân. “Pre-Texts: Tables of Contents and the Reading of John Gower's Confessio Amantis.Medium Aevum 66, no. 2 (1997): 270-87.

[In the following essay, Echard examines the early practice of compiling tables of contents and glosses for the numerous manuscripts of the Confessio Amantis as establishing frames for reading and understanding the poem.]

The forty-nine surviving English manuscripts1 of John Gower's Confessio Amantis are noteworthy for their remarkably high quality and consistency, features which have shaped much of the investigation of the manuscripts since. In his 1900 edition, G. C. Macaulay detected in...

(The entire section is 9467 words.)

William Robins (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Robins, William. “Romance, Exemplum, and the Subject of the Confessio Amantis.Studies in the Age of Chaucer 19 (1997): 157-81.

[In the following essay, Robins analyzes the intersection of narrative romance and moral exempla in the Confessio Amantis, studying this juxtaposition within the critical contexts of reader subjectivity.]

The version of the story of “Apollonius of Tyre” that John Gower presents in book 8 of the Confessio Amantis is an ancient romance construed according to the expectations for an exemplum.1 Many of the other medieval adaptations of this ancient romance may have been “exemplary” in a...

(The entire section is 9892 words.)

Andrea Schultz (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Schultz, Andrea. “Absent and Present Images: Mirrors and Mirroring in John Gower's Confessio Amantis.Chaucer Review 34, no. 1 (1999): 107-24.

[In the following essay, Schultz describes Gower's use of the metaphor of mirrored self-reflection in the Confessio Amantis in conjunction with the poem's themes of self-knowledge, self-delusion, and self-awareness.]

John Gower's Confessio Amantis fits a number of medieval genres. It is a consolation poem, a dream vision, a “love allegory,” and, most obviously, a confession. As such, despite the social commentary of the Prologue, the poem's most important feature is its unhappy title...

(The entire section is 7816 words.)

Diane Watt (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Watt, Diane. “Sins of Omission: Transgressive Genders, Subversive Sexualities, and Confessional Silences in John Gower's Confessio Amantis.Exemplaria 19, no. 2 (2001): 529-51.

[In the following essay, Watt asserts the presence of subversive homosocial, homoerotic, and transgender elements in the Confessio Amantis, placing particular emphasis on the motif of cross-dressing featured in the poem.]

The relationship between confessional discourse, interiority or self-consciousness, and the regulation of sexuality is well established.1 Yet, while in orthodox Christian thought the soul itself was held to be sexless, the penitential literature of the Middle Ages was gendered: it was written by and primarily for men. As Jacqueline Murray has explained “confession and penance was in itself a singularly androcentric sacrament … whenever women enter the discussion it is as a marked category, a signal of difference, exception or emphasis.”2 Further, if, as Michel Foucault famously claimed, confession is “one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth,”3 the medieval church demanded that some truths—and specifically some sexual truths—should be produced only partially. As Allen J. Frantzen puts it, “confession was a site of contradictory demands and impulses.”4 Frantzen's comment refers specifically to sins which were considered to be contrary to nature, such as bestiality, self-abuse (or masturbation), and sodomy—all subjects which, within a confessional context, had to be broached indirectly, if they were to be broached at all. The fourteenth-century Book of Vices and Virtues, for example, demanded that unnatural vice should be confessed, but described it as “so foul þat it is abhomynacioun to speke it.”5 Sinful acts specific to sodomites as well as to women (and the two categories were not mutually exclusive in the Middle Ages),6 remained unspoken or only partially articulated in the discourse of the medieval confessional.

John Gower's English poem, Confessio Amantis, makes use of a penitential framework within a fictive and secular context. The unsuccessful lover, Amans, confesses his sins to Genius, the servant of Venus, while the priest elaborates his taxonomy of vices through a series of exemplary narratives.7 As might be expected, this text is revealing about medieval notions of masculine heterosexuality, while its exploration of femininity seems somewhat superficial. It is my argument, however, that Gower is also concerned within this text with the examination of other gendered identities—effeminacy and female masculinity in particular—which we might describe as “transgressive” because they cross over and obfuscate the divide between male and female. Furthermore, with its foregrounding of incest as the exemplary vice in its eighth book, Confessio is also a site for the exploration of what might be termed “subversive” sexualities, both male and female (subversive in the sense that they challenge societal norms and expose their inconsistencies).8

In the final chapter of her recent book, Covert Operations, Karma Lochrie stresses the importance of examining the intersection of gender ideology and sexual oppression in order to counter-balance what she describes as “the dangerously narrow focus on sexuality in the Middle Ages that either excludes gender from its analysis or worse, posits gender as the conservative constraint that sexuality subverts.”9 In her analysis, sexuality (whether normative or otherwise) is actually supported by conservative gender ideology. The current article develops Lochrie's thesis in some directions, but in my analysis of Confessio Amantis I come to rather different conclusions. According to Lochrie's reading of Confessio, Gower “fails to make clear distinctions between natural and unnatural forms of love, much less between heterosexuality and homosexuality.”10 She goes on to contend, however, that Gower adheres to a conservative gender ideology even as he reveals the inconsistencies, and she concludes that “for all its perversions, Gower's text is not finally subversive.”11 Lochrie's opinion that “John Gower is on the side of order, unity, and social hierarchy” is one with which I do not entirely concur.12 Gower does not shy away from discussing some forms of gender transgression and sexual subversion; as will be seen, “unnatural” female desires are examined, or even countenanced within Confessio; however, throughout this extremely long text, male sodomy remains taboo.13 In this essay, I begin by examining the homosocial and potentially homoerotic relationships between Amans and Cupid and Amans and Genius, before focusing on three exemplary narratives embedded within the text of Confessio which are linked by the theme of cross-dressing.14 In what follows, I suggest that these narratives reveal Gower's concerns about the unstable distinctions between the categories of male and female, masculine and feminine, manliness and effeminacy, ethical and unethical behavior, and natural and unnatural love. In the final section, I examine the meaning of Genius's silence on the subject of sodomy between men.


Recent studies of sodomy in the Middle Ages have illustrated that it was widely viewed as a manifestation of feminine (and thus degenerate) and immature impulses, and thus not essentially different from immoderate and uncontrollable heterosexual desire.15 From this perspective, Amans's excessive if frustrated longing might be seen to bear some similarity to medieval homosexuality. The object of Amans's desire—the beloved lady—remains absent from Confessio, while the frame narrative is dominated by the homosociality, or ho(m)mo-sexuality,16 of the relationships between Amans and Cupid, and between Amans and Genius. Only one other figure makes a significant appearance in the frame narrative of Confessio: Venus. Gerald Kinneavy is of the view that, like the priest and the sinner, the goddess of love has a function within the poem's penitential structure.17 He points out that proper penance demands cognizance of divine presence; the confessor only serves as an intermediary when the sinner bares his or her soul to the omniscient Creator. Kinneavy argues that in having Venus judge Amans and prescribe his penance at the end of the poem, “Gower employs a kind of deus (or dea) ex machina.” Venus is privy to the truth of Amans's condition to an extent that Genius cannot be, since he relies entirely on what Amans chooses to tell him. Kinneavy fails, however, to acknowledge that Cupid's presence is more problematic.

Cupid's position is ambiguous; true, he relieves Amans's suffering, but he also is ultimately responsible for it. Cupid is, then, both tempter and redeemer, and his relationship with Amans is deeply homoerotic. At the start of the poem, Amans falls victim to Cupid's phallic arrow:

Bot he that kyng with yhen wrothe
His chiere aweiward fro me caste,
And forth he passede ate laste.
Bot natheles er he forthe wente
A firy Dart me thoghte he hente
And threw it thurgh myn herte rote.


Cupid's disdainful demeanor, while entirely conventional, anticipates that of the distant and dismissive lady to whom the lover devotes himself. In his supplication to Venus and Cupid in book 8, Amans compares his own powerlessness in the face of love to that of Pan, “which is the god of kinde” (8.2239), but who is, of course, also traditionally associated with lechery.19 Amans describes his inner conflict as a perpetual wrestling match which he can never win:

For evere I wrastle and evere I am behinde,
That I no strengthe in al min herte finde,
Wherof that I mai stonden eny throwe;
So fer mi wit with love is overthrowe.


This metaphor points towards the emotional, if not physical, encounters between men which are at the heart of Confessio. Some twenty-five lines further on, the lover reiterates that it is Venus's son rather than his lady who is responsible for his pain:

The which hath love under his governance,
And in his hond with many a fyri lance
He woundeth ofte, ther he wol noght hele;
And that somdiel is cause of mi querele.


Consequently, it is only Cupid who is finally able to release Amans from his passion:

This blinde god which mai noght se,
Hath groped til that he me fond;
And as he pitte forth his hond
Upon my body, wher I lay,
Me thoghte a fyri Lancegay,
Which whilom thurgh myn herte he caste,
He pulleth oute.


While Cupid's healing touch suggests that the aged Amans's infatuation is a debilitating disease, comparable to the king's-evil, the choice of language is noteworthy as “grope” clearly has erotic connotations which may extend in this context to “lancegay” (especially in the context of a gesture of withdrawal).21 Indeed Rictor Norton has gone so far as to argue that Cupid, like the more familiar figure of Ganymede, is a coded trope within the homosexual tradition.22

The relationship between confessor and penitent is less sexualized than that between Cupid and Amans, but more fraught. Genius's fictive narratives are ostensibly used for exploring the lover's inner psyche and for bringing about his cure. Yet, as Genius himself is quite literally the first to admit, his own role is divided between that of servant to Venus and that of priest. Consequently he

… mot algate and nedes wile
Noght only make my spekynges
Of love, bot of othre thinges,
That touchen to the cause of vice.


As a result, there is often a marked disjunction between Amans's account of his unsuccessful love affair and Genius's exposition of the seven deadly sins. While Genius's discourse moves gradually if unevenly towards the instruction on ethics and self-government found in book 7 and (more implicitly) in book 8, Amans's own story fails to make any clear progress. His desire for guidance about how to achieve his love is frustrated and in the conclusion he is instead forced to abandon his pursuit. While he is made to admit his own inadequacies as a ridiculous senex amans and to give up his “unwise fantasie” (8.2866), Gower's impotent and increasingly isolated poetic persona continues to fall far short of Genius's ideal of the chaste and rational married man outlined in 7.4215-37.

Indeed, if it is at times tempting—although anachronistic—to think of the relationship between Genius and Amans not only as that of priest and penitent, but also as that of psychoanalyst and patient,24 it is evident that the two often appear to be speaking at cross purposes. Sometimes—most notably in book 7 where Genius directs his attention to the conduct of princes—it is not even clear that he is talking to Amans at all, except in so far as the monarch is intended to be read as a representative or everyman figure. Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise that the “talking cure” seems to fail in this instance. As I will explain toward the end of this article, it is in the context of this communication failure between Genius and Amans that Genius's silence on the subject of male sodomy can begin to be understood. First, however, I will look at some of the occasions in which Genius discusses other forms of effeminate and immature behavior and transgressive desire.


In the course of the eight books of Confessio Amantis, the priest Genius relates to the penitent Amans three stories about transvestism, transgendering and transsexuality: the tales of “Deianira and Nessus” (2.2145-2307), “Achilles and Deidamia” (5.2961-3201), and “Iphis” (4.451-505). Genius intends each of these narratives to exemplify a different vice or virtue. In none of them is the act of cross-dressing immediately relevant to the sin in question, nor for that matter, to the lover's own transgressions. The story of “Deianira and Nessus” in book 2, for example, is narrated by Genius as a warning to Amans against the sin of “Falssemblant,” or False Appearance. “Falssemblant” is a vice associated with masquerade and artful words; it is aligned with hypocrisy, and like hypocrisy it is a form of envy. Ostensibly, it is the giant Nessus who is guilty of this vice in his deception of Hercules and Deianira: he offers to carry both across a deep river, but abandons the former, and attempts to abduct the latter. But the story doesn't end here. Hercules both survives the river and shoots his foe with a poisoned arrow. Yet even as he is dying Nessus continues to behave deceptively. He gives Deianira his bloody shirt, falsely promising that it will rekindle Hercules's love, should it ever fail.

The cross-dressing occurs in the continuation of the story, and it has the effect of undermining the moral. Suddenly Hercules is no longer an innocent victim. He abandons Deianira for another woman, Eolen, and his new love makes him so “nyce” (“foolish, delicate,” 2.2268) and “assote” (“besotted,” 2.2269) that the adulterous couple take to dressing up in each other's clothing (2.2270-71).25 At this point Deianira remembers Nessus's gift of the shirt and contrives to make Hercules wear it. However, this shirt, which metaphorically causes Deianira to burn with joy (“Hire thoghte hire herte was afyre,” 2.2256) is a pyrogen. Hercules's subsequent suffering drives him to such a state of madness that he destroys himself in a self-made fire. From this, it seems that Hercules's death is less the consequence of Nessus's deception, and more the punishment for his own subsequent foolishness. Hercules's act of cross-dressing is itself a form of “Falssemblant.” The image of Hercules wearing a woman's coat is symbolic of his self-emasculation and loss of identity; as the narrator states: “thus fieblesce is set alofte, / And strengthe was put under fote” (2.2272-73).

This first cross-dressing narrative clearly illustrates the connection between cross-dressing and effeminacy. Effeminacy is condemned outright by Gower on a number of occasions. In Vox clamantis, for example, the reader is warned that

Demon femineos et molles diligit actus,
Quando viri virtus omne virile negat.

Whenever a man's virtue will have no part in anything virile, the Devil highly favors his weak, womanly behavior.26

In book 7 of Confessio, Genius begins to discuss love in terms of kinde or natural law; he asserts that “It sit a man be weie of kinde” to love, but it is “it is noght kinde” (“it is unnatural”) for a man to lose his wits for love (7.4297-99), and that such effeminate folly, which renders the strong feeble, is like frost in July, heat in December, or, significantly, in a sartorial context, the hose worn over the shoe (7.4300-4307).

The first of the “olde ensamples” Genius cites to illustrate the error of those who “for love hemself mislede, / Wherof manhode stod behinde” (7.4310-12) is that of King Sardanapalus. Sardanapalus was so overcome by the fiery rage of love that he became “womannyssh” quite against “kinde,” like a fish living on the land (7.4321-23).27 Shutting himself in his chamber in the company of women, he learned dainty sewing, how

… a Las to breide,
And weve a Pours, and to enfile
A Perle.


When his enemy Barbarus discovered “hou this king in wommanhede / Was falle fro chivalerie” (7.4336-37), he took his chance to invade his kingdom.28 The moral of this exemplum, which occurs within a larger discussion about the importance of chastity, is unquestionably that luxuria (lust, or, in a broader sense, inordinate desire and intemperance) threatens masculinity. As is appropriate enough with the advice to princes section of Confessio, Genius, as Gower's mouthpiece, directs his warning to the monarch:

Therfore a Prince him scholde avise,
Er that he felle in such riote,
And namely that he nassote
To change for the wommanhede
The worthinesse of his manhede.


Genius avers that the only solution is for a man to “love streite” (7.4280) and then he will not be bound by women. “Streite” love in this context appears to mean moderate love.

Immoderate desire—or love which is not “streite”—is literalized by male cross-dressing; a travesty of masculinity, like all forms of effeminacy it is a symptom of ethical misgovernance. The conclusion of the “Tale of Nessus and Deianira” reveals that identity is known or constructed as much through knowing what one is not, as through knowing what one is. Hercules—renowned for his physical prowess and courage—has undermined his greatness, his very selfhood, by donning the apparel of a weak woman. Seeming to be what he is not brings about an ontological crisis, which can only be resolved by self-destruction.29


The story of Hercules raises questions about gendered identity, which are explored elsewhere in Confessio Amantis. In book 5, in the “Tale of Achilles and Deidamia,” notions of masculinity are interrogated further. Once again there is a disjunction between the topic of discussion and the exemplary narrative. This exemplum is intended to illustrate the evils of “Falswitnesse,” a form of covetousness. “Falswitnesse” is a vice not dissimilar to “Falssemblant” in that it too profits from lying and treachery: it is another form of verbal masquerade. In this case it is Thetis, Goddess of the Sea, who (indirectly) deceives another woman, Deidamia, daughter of King Lichomede. Thetis, in an attempt to prevent his going to Troy, disguises her son Achilles as a maiden and sends him to Lichomede's household, where he becomes Deidamia's bedfellow and then lover. According to Genius's earlier definition, “Falswitnesse” in love is a form of secret procuration—not only in the sense of inducing or urging, but also in the sense of pimping (5.2903-13).30 Thus, Thetis is, by implication, further guilty of “Falswitnesse” in so far as she effectively procures Deidamia for her son by bringing it about that he sleeps in her bed.

And one might argue that, just as Hercules is guilty of “Falssemblant” in dressing up in his lover's clothes, so Achilles is guilty of “Falswitnesse” in pretending to be a maid. Although not aware of his mother's motives, Achilles “buxomly” (“obediently, submissively, willingly”) colludes with her plan (5.3030), smiling to himself at the success of his disguise (5.3012-13), or even, as Rosemary Woolf suggests, relishing “a moment of sexual indeterminacy.”31 As Woolf observes, at this point Gower adapts his source (Statius's Achilleid), in which Achilles is disgusted at having to dress as a woman and does so only with reluctance. However, it should be noted that Gower may be influenced here by a version of the story found in Alain de Lille's Anticlaudianus, in which Achilles is censured as degenerate because he deliberately took upon himself the role of a woman.32 At any rate, in Gower's version, Achilles reveals his duplicitous nature once and for all when he abandons his lover to join the Greek army.

Interestingly, the third figure in this story who might be accused of “Falswitnesse” alongside Thetis and Achilles is Ulysses, who is sent with Agamemnon to seek out the hidden boy. Here eloquence reveals itself as a form of “Falswitnesse,” when Ulysses, “which hath facounde” (5.3126) greets Lichomede, but disguises his true intent, choosing to discover the young hero's identity by trickery rather than exhortation. Ulysses's presence reinforces the link between gender transgression and ethical misgovernance, since elsewhere in Confessio, this smooth-talking hero is revealed to be guilty of effeminacy. In book 4, Ulysses is accused by Nauplus of dishonoring his reputation by feigning madness and staying at home with his wife rather than fighting like a man:

“… that thou for Slouthe of eny love
Schalt so thi lustes sette above
And leve of armes the knyhthode,
Which is the pris of thi manhode
And oghte ferst to be desired.”


Genius then contrasts Ulysses with Protesilaus, who exemplified manly prowess, refusing to pay attention to the “wommannysshe drede” (4.1924) of his spouse and embracing the prospect of losing his life in battle.

However, while still associated with effeminacy, Achilles's cross-dressing is also linked to immaturity. Whereas Hercules's death is vividly, if briefly, described, the story of Achilles breaks off at the point of his departure for the Siege of Troy. Unlike Hercules, Achilles is not punished for dressing as a woman. His sin of “Falswitnesse” is apparently forgiven. One likely explanation for this seeming discrepancy is that Achilles is not held culpable because his cross-dressing is engineered by his mother and because he indulges in it when he is not yet fully a man. Indeed, the narrator emphasizes that his appearance and manner are actually those of a child (5.3014-21).33 Consequently, Achilles's masculinity, unlike that of Hercules, is never really in question. His feminine appearance [“wommannysshe chiere”] is something which he quite consciously puts on, and his manliness is something which has to be restrained (5.3050-55). The subsequent adoption of his masculine identity is represented as maturation. This does not occur, as we might expect, when he sleeps with a woman, even though this is described in terms of Nature and “kinde” asserting themselves (5.3058-69). Rather, Achilles only fully assumes a traditional male identity when he is made to choose between women's dress and the trappings of chivalry (5.3152-67). In an episode derived from Statius (Achilleid) and Ovid (Ars amatoria),34 but perhaps also reminiscent of the romance of Perceval,35 Achilles is entranced by the shining gear and hastens to arm himself (5.3168-85). Achilles's female disguise signifies his childhood, when he remains under the influence of his mother. His arming is a rite of passage. He forgets his promise to his mother, and joins Ulysses and Diomedes. It is significant that it is at this stage in the narrative (and not earlier) that we are told that Deidamia is going to have his child (5.3194-95).


So far, these stories have focused on the effect of transvestism and transgendering on men. In the story of Hercules, the narrator did not comment on Eolen's cross-dressing: there was no suggestion that she was punished for putting on a man's clothing. This might indicate that women's cross-dressing has a different meaning from men's, a theory that is strengthened by Gower's “Tale of Iphis and Ianthe.” This narrative bears some resemblance to that of Achilles. Once again the mother plays a central role: on the instructions of the goddess Isis, Iphis's mother brings up her daughter as a boy, in this case, to save her from her father, who vowed that he would have the infant slain at birth if it were a girl. At the age of ten the child Iphis is wedded to a Duke's daughter, Ianthe, and eventually the two girls become lovers, a union memorably described by Christopher Ricks as “‘sche and sche’: it is magnificent, but it is not marriage.”36

The narrative of Iphis is far from straightforward and has resulted in some critical confusion. Whereas Rosemary Woolf defines the relationship between Iphis and Ianthe as homosexual, Patrick J. Gallacher claims that “nature prohibits physical expression of their love.”37 Gallacher's reading of the narrative seems unlikely given that Gower adapts his source (Ovid's Metamorphoses 9.666-797) so that both the marriage has taken place and the sexual relationship has developed before the conflict surrounding Iphis's sex has been resolved. However a clue to Gallacher's reading lies in Gower's Latin commentary. In the marginal gloss at 4.455 we are informed: “Set cum Yphis debitum sue coinage vnde soluere non habuit, deos in sui adiutorium interpellabat” (“But when Iphis did not have it in her power to honor the debt owed to her spouse, she prayed to the gods in their oratories”). This commentary is at odds with the English text, which does not mention Iphis's prayer, and which seems to suggest that Iphis does have it in her power to honor her marriage debt. We are told that Iphis and Ianthe, lying side by side in bed, find themselves compelled not only by proximity, but also by Nature (possibly meaning simply “sexual instinct” in this case) “so that thei use / Thing which to hem was al unknowe,” “a thing unknown or alien to them” (4.486-87).

The discrepancy between the Latin and English verses is symptomatic of the confusion that lies at the heart of Gower's telling of this story. Woolf argues that “Gower has obscured the moral issue … by some unclear generalizations.”38 Whereas in Ovid Iphis laments that her desire for another woman is monstrous and unnatural, in Gower's Middle-English version she makes no such complaint, implying perhaps that neither she nor Genius views it as such. Nonetheless, in the next few lines, Cupid's intervention39—his decision to transform Iphis into a man—is described in terms of reasserting the supremacy of “kinde” and “kinde love” (4.488-505). In other words, although driven by nature (“Nature … Constreigneth hem,” 4.484-86), the love shared by Iphis and Ianthe is, paradoxically, now defined as an offense against natural law:

For love hateth nothing more
Than thing which stant ayein the lore
Of that nature in kinde hath sett.


The resolution of the tale is indeed, as Genius asserts, a “wonder” in the sense of “a marvel” or “a miracle”, but possibly also in the sense of an “evil” or a “disaster” (4.445).41

Genius's confusion reflects medieval attitudes to sex between women. Even though such sex came under the definition of sodomy, it seems to have been more or less invisible in Gower's own society: there is little or no surviving evidence in England or Wales of women being examined about sexual misconduct with women.42 Despite his later assertion that the “madle” is made for the “femele” (7.4215), Genius seems unwilling to condemn Iphis. The age of her betrothal (thirteen in Ovid) is changed to ten, and although it is suggested that time passes before the two women have sex (4.481: “withinne time of yeeres”), Iphis would not have been considered old enough to bear criminal responsibility.43 Furthermore, her innocence, or rather ignorance, is explicitly commented upon. As with the story of Achilles, childhood seems to be a space of legitimate transgression. Nonetheless, within a Christian moral framework neither Achilles nor Iphis would be entirely exonerated from blame, because from the age of seven (the age of reason) children were believed to be able to distinguish good from evil.44 But if Gower is ambivalent about lesbian sex, he does not represent as problematic Iphis's transformation into a man (it is, in fact, anticipated by his, albeit inconsistent, use of masculine pronouns from the start of the story). One explanation for this is that according to certain theories of medicine, the one sex model, the transformation from female to male was not in itself contrary to nature.45 Indeed because women were perceived to be inferior to men, such a transformation could only be seen as an improvement, a change from an imperfect state to a perfect one; it could bestow on the woman a potency she would otherwise lack. It must be said that Iphis does not undergo any sort of identity crisis.

Whereas male cross-dressing poses a problem for Genius because by implicating the heroes, Hercules and Achilles, in the sins of Nessus and Thetis, the morals of the exemplary narratives become confused as the boundary between ethical and unethical behavior is crossed, the same is not true of female cross-dressing. Unlike Hercules, Iphis suffers no punishment for cross-dressing (quite the opposite, as she is rewarded for her perseverance as for a virtue), and, unlike Achilles, she does not grow out of it. In fact, Iphis appears as one of the few desiring female subjects and exemplary female lovers in the text; exemplary, perhaps, because she exhibits virtues constructed as masculine rather than feminine. In her story, unlike those of Hercules or Achilles, cross-dressing is not intended to exemplify the evils of deception. Rather, the tale illustrates the vice of Pusillanimity or Faint Heartedness, that lack of determination that is a form of Sloth. According to Genius, pusillanimity detracts from masculinity: the lover guilty of this vice “woll no manhed understonde, / For evere he hath drede upon honde” (4.325-36). Later in the same book, Genius encourages Amans with the words

Mi Sone, it is wel resonable,
In place which is honorable
If that a man his herte sette,
That thanne he for no Slowthe lette
To do what longeth to manhede.


Iphis is apparently cited as the opposite of pusillanimity, as a positive example of the strength of character necessary to win love:

And thus to take an evidence,
It semeth love is welwillende
To hem that ben continuende
With besy herte to poursuie
Thing which that is to love due.


Iphis can be usefully compared to the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who, inspired by the twinned chivalric ideals of love and honor in war, came to the rescue of Hercules in the siege of Troy (4.2141-42).46 While Penthesilea's attire is not specifically mentioned, it can be assumed that she dons armor before entering battle.47 Penthesilea's significance should not be underestimated. She is mentioned three times in all: here as an example of Prowess (4.2135-82), and again as an example of wealth (5.2547-51), and as a member of the Company of Youthful Lovers (8.2525-27). Penthesilea, then, can be cited as another example of a (presumably) cross-dressing heroine who is intended as a positive role model for Amans, and as another woman who exemplifies masculine virtue.48


In my analysis so far I have concentrated largely on issues of gender difference (specifically effeminacy and female masculinity), and the question of homosexuality or sodomy has been addressed only in relation to the “Tale of Iphis.” However, as I have already indicated, Gower's infamous preoccupation with incest suggests the centrality of sexuality—especially subversive sexuality—to the text as a whole. It is a significant point, then, that out of all of these cross-dressing narratives, which in their different ways explore the interconnection of transgressive gender and subversive sexuality, only one discusses a same-sex sexual relationship. And it is equally significant that the “Tale of Iphis and Ianthe” is one of only two stories retold by Gower out of the eight Metamorphoses tales which focus sympathetically on same-sex desire.49 The other is the “Tale of Narcissus” (1.2275-2366).

Gower's treatment of this narrative draws our attention to what he is omitting. In Ovid's Metamorphoses 3.344-510, the proud and beautiful Narcissus, at the age of sixteen, is between boy- and manhood. He is extremely attractive to both boys and girls, but only the nymph Echo dares approach him. After his rejection of Echo, he is punished for his selfish chastity by Nemesis, who causes him to fall in love with his own reflection. As he comes to the realization that the boy whom he desires is his own image, he is consumed by an inner fire. Mark Jordan has argued that Alain de Lille adapted the story as an implicit condemnation of irregular sex, “to illustrate the danger of self-love, that is, the danger of the love of a body for another of the same kind.”50 From Genius's conclusion it might seem that Gower's English version has a similar moral: the flower that springs up on Narcissus's sepulcher and grows in winter

… is contraire
To kynde, and so was the folie
Which fell of his Surquiderie.


Yet Gower's reshaping of the narrative removes the possibility of interpreting Narcissus's love as homosexual. We are told,

He sih the like of his visage,
And wende ther were an ymage
Of such a Nimphe as tho was faie,
Wherof that love his herte assaie
Began, as it was after sene,
Of his sotie and made him wene
It were a womman that he syh.


The Latin gloss goes further still, and identifies the image with Echo: “ipse faciem suam pulcherrimam in aqua percipiens, putabat se per hoc illam Nimpham, quam Poete Ekko vocant, in flumine coram suis oculis pocius conspexisse” (“seeing his own very beautiful face in the water, he thought himself to be in the presence of that Nymph whom the poets call Echo, rather than gazing into his own eyes”).51 Siân Echard suggests that this explanatory allusion to Echo “could be seen as an attempt to efface possible homoerotic implications in the original version of the tale.”52

This is certainly not the only instance when Gower, or Genius, avoids the homosexual or homoerotic possibilities of his sources. For example, Genius does not make any allusion to Hercules's love for the youth Hylas,53 or to Achilles's reputation as the friend and possibly lover of Patroclus (surely known to him through his reading of Benoît de Sainte-Maure, or perhaps even Alain de Lille).54 Indeed the nearest Genius comes to discussing a male act of sodomy is in the “Tale of Hercules and Faunus” in book 5 (6807-6935). Here Genius returns to the affair between Hercules and Eolen, and on this occasion the exchange of clothing is described in almost loving detail with the hero being represented as submitting to his woman's playful whims: Eolen dresses in her lover's lion skin, ties his mace to her belt, and winds a wimple around his face. In this instance, cross-dressing serves to protect the woman (although not the man) from sexual assault when the lustful Faunus mistakenly climbs on top of a sleeping Hercules. However, the homoerotic potential of this confusion is undeveloped, or at any rate displaced into virile physical aggression: Hercules wrestles Faunus to the floor and leaves him lying there humiliated.55 This episode might be dismissed as a humorous interlude, but it gains significance from resonances elsewhere in the text. Faunus was often identified with Pan,56 and, as we have already seen, Amans likens himself to Pan and considers himself doomed to fight a losing battle against love in an eternal wrestling match.

I suggested earlier that Genius's evasion of the subject of male sodomy relates in some way to the communication failure between Genius and Amans. It is not simply that Genius is an inept confessor, whose choice of exempla sometimes appears bizarre, whose meaning is often unclear, and who frequently loses sight of the circumstances of his penitent (an obvious example being Genius's discussion of incest, which is manifestly irrelevant to Amans's own situation, as the lover himself points out at 8.2034-39).57 The silence about male sodomy relates to a larger problem within penitential literature more generally: how to be specific about sexual sins, without leading either the confessor or the penitent into a sin which they might not otherwise have imagined, or into a (sexual) relationship which would not otherwise have developed.58 Near the start of book 1, Genius outlines to Amans his confessional procedure:

Of my Presthode after the forme
I wol thi schrifte so enforme,
That ate leste thou schalt hiere
The vices, and to thi matiere
Of love I schal hem so remene,
That thou schalt knowe what thei mene.
For what a man schal axe or sein
Touchende of schrifte, it mot be plein,
It nedeth noght to make it quiente,
For trowthe hise wordes wol noght peinte:
That I wole axe of the forthi,
My Sone, it schal be so pleinly,
That thou schalt knowe and understonde
The pointz of schrifte how that thei stonde.


In confession, plain style, Genius asserts, is the order of the day, and indirect or figurative language is to be avoided. But, as his own use of exemplary narratives illustrates, such an ideal cannot always be sustained; didacticism has to be clothed as entertainment, “lore” has to be dressed up in the language of “love.”

In many instances, the indirect approach proves to be the most acceptable, if not the most effective. As I have already suggested, sodomy is one such instance. Chaucer's Parson referred to it as “thilke abhomynable synne, of which that no man unnethe oghte speke ne write.”59 Similarly, John Mirk instructed priests that they should not raise the issue of the “synne aȝeynes kynde” but only warn penitents indirectly that to “do hys kynde other way, / þat ys gret synne wyþowte nay.”60 When it came to sodomy—and sodomy committed by men in particular—priests could only “grope” in the dark, in the Middle-English sense of hearing confession or examining someone's conscience.61 As a consequence, there was always the possibility that their warnings would go unheard, that their words would be misunderstood. This is what seems to happen in Confessio. Genius avoids the subject of sodomy in relation to the practices of men because it might prove too close to the bone. Because this poem, like so many other confessional texts, is limited by its masculine perspective, the same difficulties do not apply to the sodomitical practices of women. But because Genius does ignore the subject of male sodomy, Amans has, quite simply, no idea that it might be an issue.

In conclusion then, Genius's position on gender transgression and subversive sexuality is ambivalent: while “honeste love” (marriage) and self-governance are praised, transvestism, transgendering, and transsexuality are explored and even, at times, allowed to undermine norms of gender and sexuality. They are treated differently according to context, and according to the ethical issues raised. Hercules is viewed as effeminate because he is besotted with a woman and because, in dressing as a woman, he is guilty of “Falssemblant.” He can thus be compared to negative exemplary figures like Sardanapalus, or even Ulysses. Achilles's cross-dressing is legitimized by his youth and because his chivalric masculine identity asserts itself. It is not a form of “Falswitnesse” in so far as he remains true to himself. Iphis, like Penthesilea, is taken as a positive “masculine” role model. These narratives destabilize not only male/female boundaries but also the oppositions of manliness and effeminacy, the ethical and the unethical, and the natural and the unnatural. Confessio presents the reader with a series of paradoxes: Nature can inspire unnatural desires and actions; it is possible, even desirable for a woman to behave like or to turn into a man; the most manly of heroes can become effeminate; the most exemplary of figures can behave immorally, and vice versa. Yet, while neither female cross-dressing nor female homosexuality is condemned out of hand, male sodomy remains taboo. Although not divorced from other types of failure of self-governance or from other forms of excessive desire, male homosexuality is a topic which is silenced within confessional discourse, and which can endanger the relationship between priest and penitent. From the very beginning of the poem, doubts have been raised as to Amans's sincerity.62 Although Genius probes deeply, if not very effectually, and continually stresses the importance of not deceiving oneself,63 one question remains. Is it simply Amans's folly as a senex amans, or a more deeply hidden sin, which ultimately constitutes the “unwise fantasie” of which he must rid himself?


  1. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1979); and also Jeremy Tambling, Confession: Sexuality, Sin, the Subject (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), especially 35-65.

  2. Jacqueline Murray, “Gendered Souls in Sexed Bodies: The Male Construction of Female Sexuality in Some Medieval Confessors' Manuals” in Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages, ed. Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1998), 79-93, at 80-81.

  3. Foucault, History, 59.

  4. Allen J. Frantzen, “The Disclosure of Sodomy in Cleanness,PMLA 111 (1996): 451-64, at 455.

  5. W. Nelson Francis, ed., The Book of Vices and Virtues, EETS o.s. 217 (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 46.

  6. St. Thomas Aquinas defined sodomy as intercourse “with a person of the same sex, male with male and female with female” (Temperance [2a2ae], q.154, a.11) in Summa theologiae, ed. and trans. Thomas Gilby (London: Blackfriars, 1964-1976), vol. 43.

  7. On the poem's penitential framework, see John J. McNally, “The Penitential and Courtly Tradition in Gower's Confessio Amantis,Studies in Medieval Culture 1 (1964): 74-94; Mary Flowers Braswell, The Medieval Sinner: Characterization and Confession in the Literature of the English Middle Ages (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983), 81-87; Gerald Kinneavy, “Gower's Confessio Amantis and the Penitentials,” ChauR 19 (1984): 144-61; and Edwin Craun, Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 113-56, especially 115-18.

  8. There have been a number of fascinating recent readings of Confessio which focus on the treatment of women and incest, but the studies most relevant to my own approach are Rosemary Woolf, “Moral Chaucer and Kindly Gower,” in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 221-45, and chapter five of Karma Lochrie's Covert Operations: the Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 177-227.

  9. Lochrie, ibid., 226.

  10. Ibid., 221.

  11. Ibid., 225.

  12. Ibid., 226.

  13. Lochrie acknowledges the absence of sodomy in Gower's text, but only in passing. She does not explore the significance of this silence.

  14. On the cultural significance of cross-dressing, see Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (London: Penguin, 1993).

  15. See for example, Elizabeth B. Keiser, Courtly Desire and Medieval Homophobia: The Legitimation of Sexual Pleasure in Cleanness and Its Contexts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 85. For a fuller analysis, see Lochrie, Covert Operations, 177-227.

  16. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1985); and Luce Irigaray, “Women on the Market” and “Commodities among Themselves,” in her The Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 170-97.

  17. Kinneavy, “Gower's Confessio Amantis,” 152.

  18. All references to Confessio Amantis are to The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, EETS e.s. 81, 82 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1900-1901), by book and line number. Compare Troilus and Criseyde 1.206-10, in which Cupid's dart is immediately responsible for Troilus's sudden passion. All Chaucer references are to The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988).

  19. See Patricia Merivale, Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).

  20. Compare 8.2287-90.

  21. “Gropen” can mean “to feel with the hand or fingers, touch, stroke” and “to touch amorously, play with, fondle” (MED 1a and 1d). For the possible figurative use of the word “launce” to mean “penis” see MED (3e). For a detailed discussion of “gropen”, see Catherine S. Cox, “‘Grope wel bihynde’: The Subversive Erotics of Chaucer's Summoner,” Exemplaria 7 (1995): 145-77; especially 154-55.

  22. Rictor Norton, “Lovely Lad and Shame-Faced Catamite,” section 5 of The Homosexual Pastoral Tradition (1974; 1997).

  23. Compare 1.267-69.

  24. Braswell draws this comparison in Medieval Sinner, 82. In his History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that confession and psychoanalysis were part of the same tradition; see also “The Confession of the Flesh” in Foucault's Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper (Brighton: Harvester, 1980), 194-228, at 209-22.

  25. This episode does not occur in Ovid's Metamorphoses 9.101-210, Gower's main source for the tale, but analogues can be found in Ovid's Heroides and Pierre Bersuire's Ovidius Moralizatus; see Carole Koepke Brown, “The Tale of Deianira and Nessus” in John Gower's Literary Transformations in the Confessio Amantis, ed. Peter G. Beidler (Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), 15-19, at 18; and Conrad Mainzer, “John Gower's Use of the ‘Mediaeval Ovid’ in Confessio Amantis,Medium Ævum 41 (1972): 215-19, at 217.

  26. Vox clamantis III.xxvi.1977-78, in The Latin Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902); translations are taken from The Major Latin Works of John Gower, trans. Eric W. Stockton (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962).

  27. “Wommanysshe” is glossed by Macaulay as “womanly” or “effeminate.”

  28. Other examples of such folly include the Lydians (7.4361-4405) and the Hebrews (7.4406-45). The folly of the Hebrews is also described in Vox clamantis VI.xii.871-902, in the context of an admonition to the King to marry and to avoid the allurement of sins of the flesh.

  29. Gower's portrayal of Hercules's divided nature is traditional. From the Classical period onward, Hercules was renowned known not only for his great strength but also for his intemperance and lascivious nature: see G. Karl Galinsky, The Herakles Theme: The Adaptations of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972). As Robert Yeager puts it, Hercules's reputation is “piebald”: John Gower's Poetic: The Search for A New Arion (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990), 89.

  30. By the seventeenth century to “procure” could mean “to obtain (women) for the gratification of lust” (OED 5b), and a “procurer” could have the sense of “one who procures women for the gratification of lust; a pander” (OED 4). The MED does not offer comparable definitions, but Gower's use of the word “procurours” to refer to false “provisours” of love in this passage suggests that in the late Middle Ages it had similar connotations.

  31. Woolf, “Moral Chaucer and Kindly Gower,” 224. See also Lochrie, Covert Operations, 216-17.

  32. Alain de Lille, Anticlaudianus 9.265-69, ed. R. Bossuat (Paris: Vrin, 1955); Alan of Lille, Anticlaudianus, trans. James J Sheridan (Toronto: PIMS, 1973), 211.

  33. For another, briefer, analysis of Achilles's effeminacy, see Ad Putter, “Arthurian Literature and the Rhetoric of Effeminacy,” in Arthurian Romance and Gender: Selected Proceedings of the XVIIth International Arthurian Congress, ed. Friedrich Wolfzettel (Amsterdam: Rodolphi, 1995), 34-49, at 42.

  34. See Katherine Callen King, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), especially 180-84.

  35. See for example Chrétien de Troyes, “Perceval: The Story of the Grail,” Arthurian Romances, trans. D. D. R. Owen (London: Everyman, 1993), 374-495, at 375-78. For a reading of the Middle English Sir Perceval of Galles which argues that Perceval moves from the maternal sphere into the paternal and then back into the maternal, see F. Xavier Baron, “Mother and Son in Sir Perceval of Galles,Papers in Language and Literature 8 (1972): 3-14.

  36. Christopher Ricks, “Metamorphosis in Other Words” in Gower's Confessio Amantis: Responses and Reassessments, ed. A. J. Minnis (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1983), 25-49, at 43.

  37. Woolf, “Moral Chaucer, Kindly Gower,” 225; Patrick J. Gallacher, Love, the Word, and Mercury: A Reading of John Gower's Confessio Amantis (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), 67. See also Lochrie, Covert Operations, 213-16, and Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 10-11.

  38. Woolf, “Moral Chaucer, Kindly Gower,” 225.

  39. In Ovid it is Isis, the goddess of good hope, who intervenes (Metamorphoses 9.782-84). Cupid's intervention here points outward to the Confessio frame narrative in which Cupid's interventions both cause Amans's obsession and release him from it.

  40. For an attempt to resolve the confusion surrounding Nature and “kinde” in the Tale of Iphis and Ianthe, see R. F. Yeager, “Learning to Read in Tongues: Writing Poetry for a Trilingual Culture,” in Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange, ed. R. F. Yeager, ELS monograph series 51 (Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria Press, 1991), 115-29, at 120-26. For more recent responses, see Lochrie, Covert Operations, 214-15, and Dinshaw, Getting Medieval, 10-11.

  41. OED s.v. “wonder,” 1a, 2a, 5a, and 5b.

  42. For an overview of surviving evidence in Europe, see Jacqueline Murray, “Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages,” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Garland, 1996), 191-222; most of the examples cited are from continental Europe.

  43. Twelve seems to have been the crucial age for girls (fourteen for boys); see Shulamith Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages, trans. Chaya Galai (London: Routledge, 1992), 24-26. If found guilty of a sexual sin, a child under the age of legal responsibility would usually be treated more leniently than an adult would.

  44. Ibid., 23-26, 77-120 and 162-82. Gower does not specify Achilles's age when he is cross-dressing, but despite his childish appearance he is evidently not in his infancy, because (all other factors, including sexual maturity, apart), in the Middle Ages, girls and boys would generally have been dressed the same in the first age of childhood. For a further important example of childhood as a space for legitimate transgression (in this case, incest), see the story of Canace (Confessio 3.143-336).

  45. See Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), especially 134-42; but also Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), especially 3.

  46. Another example of a desiring female subject is the daughter of the king of Pentapolis, who sends a secret letter to her father telling him that she has resolved to marry Apollonius of Tyre (Confessio 8.894-903). However, her anonymity reveals the extent to which she functions simply as an object to be exchanged between men (her father and husband), and is thus marginalized within the narrative as a whole. For a recent analysis of Gower's Tale of Apollonius of Tyre which is sensitive to the representation of women, see Larry Scanlon, “The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality,” in Re-Visioning Gower, ed. R. F. Yeager (Asheville, N.C.: Pegasus, 1998), 93-127.

  47. See William Blake Tyrrell, Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1984), 49-52.

  48. Lochrie views Gower's Iphis more negatively, arguing that by cross-dressing she becomes a caricature of a prince, and “of the masculinity it implies” (Covert Operations, 216).

  49. I use the list of Metamorphoses episodes provided by Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 81 n70: Narcissus, Athis and Lycabas, Cycnus and Phyllius, Iphis and Ianthe, Orpheus, Cyparissus and Apollo, Ganymede and Jupiter, and Hyacinth and Apollo.

  50. Ibid., 83.

  51. Gloss on 1.2279, translated by Siân Echard, “With Carmen's Help: Latin Authorities in the Confessio Amantis,Studies in Philology 95 (1998): 1-40, at 36.

  52. Ibid., 37. Echard's main point is, however, that at the same time Gower is “drawing attention to the unreliability of both the English and the Latin parts of the text” (Echard's emphasis). Again my reading of this episode can be compared to that by Lochrie, Covert Operations, 219-21.

  53. See Galinsky, Herakles Theme, 109-22.

  54. Jordan claims that the “literate reader” would automatically think of Achilles in terms of his relationship with Patroclus (Invention of Sodomy, 73-74); but see also King, Achilles, 171-72. For the passage in Alain de Lille which seems to refer to Achilles's homosexuality, see metrum 1, lines 55-56, of De planctu Naturae, ed. Nikolaus M. Häring, Studi Medievali 3.19 (1978), 797-879; Alan of Lille, The Plaint of Nature, trans. James J. Sheridan (Toronto: PIMS, 1980), 72.

  55. Lochrie does not see any homoeroticism in this passage, but observes that the narrative functions to trivialize rape and thus overlooks the violation of women inherent in the medieval ideology of romantic love (Covert Operations, 218-19).

  56. Merivale, Pan, 8-9.

  57. I see many more of Genius's failings as a confessor than Kinneavy does in “Gower's Confessio Amantis.

  58. Pierre J. Payer, “Sex and Confession in the Thirteenth Century” in Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Joyce E. Salisbury (New York: Garland, 1991), 126-41, at 127.

  59. The Parson's Tale, X.909.

  60. John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Gillis Kristensson, Lund Studies in English 49 (Lund: Gleerup, 1974), lines 223 and 230-31.

  61. MED s.v. “gropen,” 5b and 5c.

  62. See, for example, Venus's observation at 1.173-76.

  63. See, e.g., 8.2140-41.

Jenny Rebecca Rytting (essay date spring 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rytting, Jenny Rebecca. “In Search of the Perfect Spouse: John Gower's Confessio Amantis as a Marriage Manual.” Dalhousie Review 82, no. 1 (spring 2002): 113-26.

[In the following essay, Rytting discusses Gower's depiction of marriage and its attendant virtues in the poetic tales of the Confessio Amantis.]

John Gower's Confessio Amantis is many things—a social commentary, a poem of consolation, and a treatise on the seven deadly sins, to name a few.1 It is also an exploration of love, in which Venus' priest Genius leads the woeful, rejected lover Amans through an exercise of confession and in so doing teaches him about love by...

(The entire section is 5639 words.)

Siân Echard (essay date 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Echard, Siân. “Gower's “bokes of Latin”: Language, Politics, and Poetry.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 25 (2003): 123-56.

[In the following excerpt, Echard maintains that Gower's use of Latin in his Vox Clamantis and other works represents an integral part of the poet's expression of complex political ideas in a verse medium.]

The head of John Gower's effigy in Southwark Cathedral rests on three books, their titles presented to the viewer as Speculum Meditantis, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis. While Gower's three major works are in three different languages—French, Latin, and English—Latin here inflects the final...

(The entire section is 11070 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Allen, Elizabeth. “Chaucer Answers Gower: Constance and the Trouble with Reading.” ELH 64, no. 3 (fall 1997): 627-55.

Stresses the moral complexity of Gower's poetic narratives in the Confessio Amantis, concentrating on the “Tale of Constance” as viewed through the lens of Geoffrey Chaucer's dedication to Troilus and Criseyde and the “Man of Law's Prologue” in the Canterbury Tales.

Ashton, Gail. “Her Father's Daughter: The Re-Alignment of Father-Daughter Kinship in Three Romance Tales.” Chaucer Review 34, no. 4 (2000): 416-27.

Compares the problematic social position of...

(The entire section is 726 words.)