Gower Bibliography

Thomas Berthelette and Gower's Confessio.

Machan, Tim William. "Thomas Berthelette and Gower's Confessio." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996), pp. 143-166.


Berthelette's two editions of CA (in 1532 and 1554) have an importance unequalled by any single early edition of Chaucer: not reprinted until 1810, and superseded only by Pauli's edition of 1857, they were the only means of access to Gower's English poem (apart from Caxton's even earlier edition of 1483) for more than 300 years. Machan is less interested in causes than in effects, in the consequences of Berthelette's providing the "preliminary interpretive frame" (p. 145) for most readers during this long period. His description of the book as handsome and carefully produced is confirmed by his reproduction of a single page from the volume (from Book 5); and with its title page, its dedication to Henry 8, the publisher's letter to the reader, and the detailed ten-page table of contents, Berthelette has done everything he can to render Gower's long and complex poem accessible to his readers. Machan identifies several ways in which the book is a typical product of its time. The dedication to Henry invokes a "nobuls and commons" united under the moral and literary authority of the king. The poem itself serves both a moralizing and a nationalistic purpose, edifying its readers "in the way humanist literary paradigms require" (p. 148), and testifying to the greatness of England itself. In his address to his readers, Berthelette recasts Gower as a conservative preserver of the language against the linguistic novelties of his own time, where earlier he had been praised, with Chaucer, for the eloquence of his rhetoric. And Berthelette's claims about restoring an authentic text, while to some extent true, also constitute a typical gesture of sixteenth-century publishers and serve his rhetorical purpose of inscribing both the conservativeness and antiquity of his author and the reliability of his own edition. Machan identifies two major ways in which Berthelette shaped the later reception of the CA, in the judgment of the relative merits of Gower with Chaucer and in the characterization of Gower as primarily a moral poet. Berthelette's own comments implicitly make Gower subservient to Chaucer; and he evidently consciously decided to present him as the author of only a single work, omitting even the colophon to CA in which his other works are described, where Chaucer was already known for the variety of his compositions. What little he says about Gower's life, moreover, cast Gower as "resolutely Roman" (p. 155) during the time when Chaucer was becomingly increasingly Protestant. In his prefatory material he praises Gower for his morality. His presentation of the poem, moreover, with the Latin glosses incorporated directly in to the text, inserts an authoritative moral voice that directs the reader's responses and preempts interpretation, in contrast to the apologetic and self-deprecating Chaucerian persona. The reception of the work was also shaped by Berthelette's own reputation as a serious and conservative moralist. And finally, by remaining for so long the only available edition of Gower's works, Berthelette's established Gower as an increasingly antiquated figure, undeserving of new editorial attention, where Chaucer, regularly revived and re-presented, was forever modern, a trap from which Gower was not freed until he attracted the attention of the philologists of the middle of the nineteenth century. In an appendix, "Printed History of Latin Glosses in the Confessio" (pp. 164-66), Machan argues that "any new scholarly edition" of CA "needs to return the glosses to the status they hold in the manuscripts and early editions" (p. 166), that is, it must present them within the same column as the text rather than placing them in the margins as Pauli and Macaulay did. Echard (in her essay in Studies in Philology) also objects to seeing the relation between text and gloss only as Macaulay presented it, but she gives a fuller consideration of the variety of alternatives in the MSS. In making his own choice of a single format, Machan neglects to point that in all of the earliest copies of the poem, and all that Gower might have had any hand in, including Bodleian Fairfax 3 and Bodley 902, which he cites, but also Cambridge Univ. Mm.2.21 and Huntington Ellesmere 26 A 17, which he doesn't, the glosses are placed in the margin. That the incorporation of the glosses into the text is a later scribal or editorial choice is indicated by the fact that many get placed in different places in different copies, often with no regard at all to the sense of the English text that they interrupt. Machan's advice is defensible, but it forces us to consider what we mean by "edition." If we mean an effort to present the text more or less as the poet left it, then Macaulay got it right; it we mean an effort to represent it as some group of later readers saw it, then one might agree with Machan. Even in Macaulay's text, of course, the relation between Latin and English is still open to interpretation, on which again see Echard above. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 17.2]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Facsimiles, Editions, and Translations
Biography of Gower
Confessio Amantis
Manuscripts and Textual Studies

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