Gower Bibliography

Literature of 1388 and the Politics of Pity in Gower's Confessio Amantis

Galloway, Andrew. "Literature of 1388 and the Politics of Pity in Gower's Confessio Amantis." In Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England. Ed. Steiner, Emily and Barrington, Candace. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002, pp. 67-104.


Galloway has two aims in this essay: first, to situate the account Gower gives of the Merciless Parliament in his "Cronica Tripertita" in the body of literature about the "literature of 1388," most of it much closer to the event; and second, to argue that Gower's responses to some of the ethical and political issues aroused by these events are also detectable in Confessio Amantis, though Gower does not refer to them directly. Galloway begins with a survey of the procedural novelties and irregularities of the parliamentary trial, discussing too some of their precedents, including one initiated in 1384 by the hapless Thomas Usk, who was to be one of the Appellants' first and most gruesome victims. He then discusses three principal texts, the Westminster Chronicle, the chronicle of Henry Knighton, and the satirical tract of Thomas Favent, all strongly pro-Appellant yet each revealing, in a different way, some possibility of alternative responses to the events that they describe. Gower's account in "Cronica Tripertita," in its "epic somberness" (85), is most like the Westminster Chronicle in tone. Writing from a perspective fifteen years after the event, Gower offers a "thematic history" (86) focused on pietas versas impietas, embracing in the first term both "pity" and "piety," allowing pietas "to define both compassion and pious adherence to justice" (87). Gower demonstrates some of the first quality in his account of the deaths of some of the men whom the Parliament convicted: in contrast to the earlier, more ironic accounts, "Gower's view of the Ricardian party is governed by an almost Virgilian sense of the victims of history" (88). The "piety" that is attributed to Henry, however, is extended to include his "humility in the face of divine judgment, . . . carrying out the 'common cry' for justice by executing the traitors of 1388" (89). "Pious pity now covers a large ground of royal policy. Springing at first from the author's own perspective, the ethic has expanded to fill all the needs of a damaged kingdom. At the end it is an extension of Henry's power, rather than his or anyone's sympathy. So reconstituted, violent purgation has been redeemed as an act of mercy, a species of compassionate justice. A parliament without mercy has been made into a parliament embodying pietas" (90). It strains belief, Galloway notes, that Gower should have been thinking about such issues only in 1400, though there were some obvious risks in commenting on them explicitly in the early 1390's, as he composed CA. Rather than a direct commentary, Galloway therefore finds in CA evidence of the development of the idea of "pite" as "just punishment," with some of the ambiguities that this implies. Even in praising Richard for his pity, for instance, in *8.2992-97, Gower states that "he yit never impitously" sought vengeance against his subjects, implying that "royal pity . . . is predicated on a suspension of cruelty. As such, it is an expression of power, good or evil, and it therefore demands a careful if tenuous distinction between its good and bad forms" (93). Richard's later behavior, Galloway suggests, granting and denying his pardon both extravagantly and unpredictably, justified Gower's concerns. Gower's writing from 1390 on, Galloway claims, is characterized by an increasing emphasis on "pity as a principal element of the social contract of monarchy" while also displaying "an equally vigorous effort to disparage and crush 'pite' used as an oppressive instrument in the service of corruption, all the while advancing a sense of true 'pite' as including, indeed mainly being, justice, vengeance, even extreme violence" (95). In CA, "elaborate gestures or evocations of pity are revealed as hollow, inauthentic, or somehow inadequate," and "they are savagely exposed and crushed" (95). Galloway cites "The Trump of Death" as a prime example. Pity is directly associated with vengeance and upholding the law in several tales in Book 7, including "The Jew and the Pagan," evidently a late addition. The tale of "Apollonius of Tyre" "becomes in Gower's hands a vehicle for scenes emphasizing the connection between power and pity, where unjustly used pity is the object of savage retribution, and justly used pity the vehicle of enormous power" (100). The most complex presentation of "pity as vengeance" occurs in the poem's final scene. Amans' "absurd" supplication for relief leads to calls for "pity" from the procession of lovers in his vision, in a clamor that recalls scenes from the Parliament of 1388. The result "is that the Lover is subject to what amounts to a judicial punishment of castration, effectively if crudely carried out by the blind, 'groping' Cupid" (102). "Pity here becomes utterly merciless, a legal instrument of absolute power over individual subjects of a dictatorial parliament, however loudly the ethic's legitimacy is proclaimed by efforts to denounce a purge a putatively false and corrupt mirroring ethic" (103). In his conclusion, Galloway comments on Gower's efforts to reconcile the conflicting notions of pity that history offered him. "Charged as it became with enormous political and legal power, pity was a threat as well as a binding social ethic. Gower articulated both, and tried, in a dynamic dialectic and brilliant if ultimately impossible venture, to disentangle them" (104). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society: JGN 22.2]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Biography of Gower
Cronica Tripertita
Confessio Amantis

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