Gower Bibliography

Lay Readers and Hard Latin: How Gower May Have Intended the Confessio Amantis to be Read

Coleman, Joyce. "Lay Readers and Hard Latin: How Gower May Have Intended the Confessio Amantis to be Read." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 24 (2002), pp. 209-234.


Coleman takes another look at the different components of the text of CA from the point of view of reception. Each portion - the English poem, the Latin glosses, and the Latin verse epigrams - not only serves a different function but also presumes a different linguistic capability and thus a different audience. The primary audience of the poem - its two dedicatees - would have been at home with the English, and they probably could have made out the gist of the glosses but would not necessarily have had the experience with textual interpretation to discover the disjunction between text and gloss that some modern scholars have observed. With their limited Latin, they would have been completely at sea with the epigrams. The "secondary audience" that Gower may have had in mind, the knights and civil servants that included several men with real interest in literature such as Usk, Hoccleve, and Chaucer, were evidently only slightly better equipped in Latin. The poets among them wrote exclusively in English, and only Strode, Coleman surmises, if he was the man that we suppose, would have been able to make sense of the Latin verses. (It is a bit of a shock to realize that they were probably out of reach of Chaucer.) Only trained clerics of the sort for whom Gower intended VC would have been fully able to appreciate the Latin verse, but they could not have been the intended audience because they would have had little desire for a poem in English and little need for the particular sort of wisdom that it offers. The solution to this complex riddle, Coleman suggests, lies in imagining an oral reading of the text by a clerical "prelector" to an audience of those who were only truly functional in English. Both the English and the Latin verses, she notes, refer to the text as being heard by others, but only the lector or interpres would have access to the entire page. He would interpret - both translate and comment upon - the Latin verses after reading them aloud, and he would use the glosses as a guide to commenting on the morality that is offered by the English text. Such a performance would vary not only according to the skill of the reader but also to the tastes and predilections of the audience that employed him and whom he was trying to please. By this account, the last line of the first epigram in CA - "et interpres stet procul oro malus" ["and let the interpretor evil in speech stand at a distance"] - becomes a plea, rather like Chaucer's to "Adam Scriveyn," for the proper oral transmission of his text; and the poet's lack of direct control over the performance is, as Coleman notes, a challenge to many of the assumptions that we all tacitly make as we derive meaning from our own silent and private reading. As part of her argument, Coleman has some interesting observations on the precedents for both the glosses and the epigrams, suggesting that the former are more homiletic in flavor than academic and tracing the latter to a tradition of Latin disputation that originated in verse contests in the schools; and in the most speculative part of her essay, she suggests the names of several men attached to John of Gaunt's household who might have served as the original prelectors of Gower's poem. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society: JGN 22.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Language and Word Studies
Confessio Amantis
Manuscripts and Textual Studies

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