Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 21): John Gower (1327/30-1408)

John Gowler, er, Gower

Just eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity (according to Oxfam). In that light, this series on the reception of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus continues. It's relevance is enduring. Some of the other posts before and after this one will address that point more fully (e.g., Theophylact, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the peasants of Solentiname, etc.).

John Gower 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.

I wrote about Gower a couple years ago on this blog, but here is a brief refresher before I get to his Rich Man and Lazarus interpretation.

Gower was most likely born in Kent or Yorkshire into an affluent and prominent family. Records indicate that he bought an estate in Kent and acquired a manor in Suffolk (other properties would follow), so he was certainly economically prosperous. Around 1377, Gower began to life in St. Mary Overery's Priory, and he is often credited for financing the repair and restoration of the damaged priory. He was buried in the church of the priory—in now what is called Southwark Cathedral, London—and the inscription notes that he has been called “the first English poet.”

Gower wrote a number of works, but is best known for three extended poems, all of which explore the responsibility of human beings within society: Mirroir de l’Omme (“Mirror of Man”) was written in French during 1376-79 (Gower later changed the name of this work twice, first to Speculum Hominis and then to Speculum Meditantis), Vox Clamantis, (“The Voice of One Crying Out”), was written in Latin during 1377-1381, and Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”) in 1390 and dedicated it to King Richard and to Chaucer (The work was revised both in 1391 and 1393; e.g., a dedication to King Henry was added, and the previous praise of King Richard was deleted, as were the dedications to Henry and Chaucer), so it exists in three recensions/versions. 


Confessio Amantis, containing over 33,000 lines, is an allegory based on the Christian sacrament of confession. After the Prologue, each of the seven books focuses on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, which are illustrated with a treasury of stories from different historical periods. The stories, which are supposed to illustrate moral behavior antithetical to the seven deadly sins, often describe the immoral behaviors associated with those sins. The eighth book includes a description of the duties of the king and a prayer for England.

The sixth book of Confessio Amantis treats the deadly sin of gluttony, and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the stories used to illustrate it (6.975-1150). This book is the shortest of the eight books; despite the numerous subtopics that could be covered, the text focuses on two main ones: Drunkenness and Delicacy (i.e., an immoderate attachment to sensual pleasure, especially that connected to the love of excessively fine or exotic food).

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