Friday, October 31, 2014

John Gower (following the trend of discussing important interpreters of the parables who deserve more attention)

One of the goals of the book is to represent a diversity of parables and a diversity of responses to the parables. A key element of this goal is to discuss people/works that are important but which are not as “famous” today as they deserve to be. Macrina the Younger is an example of someone in that category, as are Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist, and others I have already discussed on this blog.

The next two people I will discuss also fall into that category: John Gower and Hildegard of Bingen.

John Gower (for some reason I often type “Gowler” when I write his last name) has been greatly overshadowed by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer. I remember many years ago, when I visited Southwark Cathedral for the first time and saw his tomb (see the photo above), I had not read any of his works and did not have a good appreciation of his true importance. In the meantime, my appreciation of his work has grown.

A brief introduction about John Gower.

John Gower (1327/30-1408) was a medieval poet whose fame and influence during his lifetime rivaled his friend and contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer. Until the 17th century, Gower was considered to be as influential as Chaucer (note, for example, Shakespeare’s use of Gower as a chorus before each act of his Pericles, since Gower’s Confessio Amantis was one of the two major sources Shakespeare used). In later years Gower’s reputation suffered by comparison to Chaucer, and he slipped into relative obscurity until the 20th century.

Gower most likely was born in Kent or Yorkshire into an affluent and prominent family. Records indicate that he bought an estate in Kent in 1365 and acquired a manor in Suffolk (other properties would follow), so he was certainly economically prosperous. Around 1377, Gower began to live in St. Mary Overeys Priory, and he is often credited for financing the repair and restoration of the damaged priory. Chaucer thought highly enough of Gower that when Chaucer traveled to Europe, he gave Gower and Richard Forester power of attorney over his affairs. Chaucer also dedicates his work, Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385) to “moral Gower” (and “philosophical Strode”), because of Gower’s concern for social mores and ethics. Gower married Agnes Groundolf in 1398, a marriage—possibly his second—that some scholars speculate was prompted by his need for care in his latter years, since he was around 70 years of age and likely becoming blind—in 1400, he describes himself as “old and blind” (Peck 2006: 38-41). Gower was buried in the church of the priory—in today’s Southwark Cathedral, London—and the inscription notes that he has been called “the first English poet.”

In the next post, I will give an overview of Gower’s major works and then in the following posts discuss his use and interpretation of the parables to discover how “moral Gower” utilized them.

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