|O moral Gower, this book I directe|
To the and to the, philosophical Strode,
To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to correcte,
Of youre benignites and zeles goode.
Troilus and Criseyde (Book 5, l. 1856-1859)
Richard II was a great patron of the arts and a literary culture flourished at his court in the second half of the Fourteenth Century. Chaucer was widely known amongst the literati of the day, and his circle included influential figures such as Sir Lewis Clifford, Sir Richard Stury and Sir John Montagu. He was also friendly with other contemporary writers, including Thomas Hoccleve, Henry Scogan, Ralph Strode and John Gower. He seems to have been particularly close to ‘Moral’ Gower, as he dubs him in Troilus and Criseyde, giving him power of attorney when he left for Italy in 1378. In the first version of his Confessio Amantis, Gower makes a flattering reference to Chaucer as composing ‘ditees and songes glad’ in the flower of his youth.
Often referred to as the ‘Father of the English Language’ Chaucer’s poetry and use of English inspired a whole generation of poets. The dominance of French following the Norman conquest of 1066 had impeded the growth of English as a literary language for hundreds of years, and it was not until the Fourteenth Century that the vernacular came once more to be used as the language of choice in all areas of society, including at court and in business. Nonetheless, most writers – such as Gower – still wrote fluently in French and Latin, as well as in their native tongue. Chaucer proved that English could be written with elegance and power and it is thanks to his works that its prestige grew as a medium for serious literature. His poetry naturally inspired praise and imitation from his contemporaries. Of these admirers, the prolific John Lydgate is probably one of the best known today. A monk at the great Benedictine Abbey of St Edmund at Bury, he emulated Chaucer’s style, and in the prologue to his Siege of Thebes even portrayed himself as meeting Chaucer’s pilgrims at their inn in Canterbury. Although Lydgate’s work has suffered from adverse criticism (the antiquarian Joseph Ritson famously dismissing him as a ‘voluminous, prosaick, and drivelling monk’) he played a crucial role in ensuring Chaucer’s popularity throughout the Fifteenth Century
John Gower Confessio Amantis
MS Hunter 7 (S.1.7)
The Confessio Amantis is Gower's most acclaimed English work. Completed in its first version in 1390, when Gower was about sixty, it is a lover's account of his confession to Genius, the priest of Venus, under headings supplied by the seven deadly sins. Like The Canterbury Tales, Gower uses this narrative framework to tell a series of tales which in this work explore the general nature of each sin together with the particular forms it may take in a lover. Chaucer undoubtedly knew the work well. According to the original prologue, Gower wrote the book for Richard II after the king asked him for a poem on the theme of love. Two or three years later, the reference to Richard was cut out, presumably because of his growing unpopularity. Gower then wrote another version of the prologue in which he says that the work was written for ‘Engelondes sake’.
The decorative scheme in this manuscript was for the beginning of each book to be marked by an illuminated and decorated page. The opening of the third book is displayed to the left; it is adorned by a spraywork border incorporating floral and leaf motifs. Several of these pages (including the beginnings of books one, two, six, seven and eight) are missing, and this may suggest that they originally included miniatures as well. There is a seventeenth century inscription in the book indicating that it was owned by the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmonds: if this is correct, then this copy is likely to have been read by John Lydgate.
Ranulf Higden Polychronicon (translated by John of Trevisa)
MS Hunter 367 (V.1.4)
Originally composed in Latin, this universal history is a chronicle of the period from the Creation to 1357. Its author was a Benedictine monk who arranged the work into seven books, in imitation of the seven days of Genesis. This translation was made by John of Trevisa (c.1330-1412) and completed in 1387. There was an increasing interest in history throughout the late medieval period, and Trevisa’s version was just one of several standard vernacular histories available. His translation is interesting for the additional comments that he makes to update the original text. Where Higden, for example, discusses the fact that children learn their lessons in French, Trevisa comments that the situation has changed by the time he is writing, and that lessons are now conducted in English. He acknowledges that this has its advantages for speed of learning, but points out rather disapprovingly that now children ‘know no more French than their left heel, and that is harmful for them if they should pass the sea and work in strange lands’.
This copy is one of some fourteen surviving manuscripts of the translation. It also includes Higden's preface to the work, the Dialogue of the Lord and the Clerk. The manuscript is well written on vellum and is skilfully decorated with illuminated initials and floreated pages. To the left is the opening of the first chapter of Book Five which deals with the reign of Vortigern in Britain and the arrival of the Saxons Hengist and Horsa.