The Confessio Amantis by John Gower was written between 1386 and 1390. Gower was a contemporary and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, and was a trilingual poet who wrote in three languages – French, Latin and Middle English. The Confessio is his major Middle English work. The poem was popular in its own day: it survives in 59 manuscripts, which is a high number for the period. This manuscript is slightly unusual in that it contains some illustrations.
Who was the poem written for?
According to the poem’s prologue, it was written for Richard II (1367–1400). There are three different versions of the poem, which is divided into a prologue and eight books. In the first version (known as the first ‘recension’), Gower describes how he met the king on a barge on the river Thames:
Out of my bot whan he me syh
He bad me come in to his barge
[When he saw me in my boat,
he told me to get into his boat]
Gower completed the poem in 1390. Between 1390 and 1392, he reworked Books V, VI and VII, revised the conclusion with its praise of Richard II, and added a dedication, in the prologue, to Henry of Lancaster – who is better known as Henry Bolingbroke, the cousin of the king, who replaced Richard II when he was deposed in 1399.
What is the poem about?
The Confessio is a poem of consolation, akin to Pearl, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy. The frame of the story is an ageing lover who makes a confession to the chaplain of Venus. Around this story, Gower pegs a series of other stories.
The poem opens with the narrator, who is in a restless state of mind and pained with woe. It is May and he sets out on a walk, feeling far from his beloved. He wanders into a wood to cry, and he cries out to Cupid. At this point the character of Genius, who is the chaplain of Venus, appears. The narrator, who is named Amans, makes a confession to Genius, asking that he be absolved of his sins against love.
What is the structure of the poem?
The text is similar to tale-collections, such as The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron, which contain lots of different narratives knitted together in a single work. It is also a socially engaged poem which casts a critical eye over contemporary society. Specifically, it is critical of the ‘Three Estates’, which were thought to make up the three parts of medieval society: the nobility, the clergy and commoners.
The first image you can see here (f. 5r) is an image of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, which is described at the end of the prologue of the poem. The episode is described in the Bible in the Book of Daniel. It describes how King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw a gigantic statue made of four metals.
Gower had an influence on the writers who followed him. The story of Apollonius from the Confessio was used by Shakespeare in Pericles; in fact, John Gower himself appears as a character at the start of that play.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.