Gower Bibliography

The Source and Significance of The Jew and the Pagan

Ames, Ruth. "The Source and Significance of The Jew and the Pagan." Medieval Studies 19 (1957), pp. 37-47.


Ames opens her essay with Thomas Warton's comment in his History of English Poetry that Gower must have borrowed his Tale of "the Jew and the Pagan" (Book 7 of the CA) "from some Christian legend, which was feigned, for a religious purpose, at the expense of all probability and propriety" (37). Ames suggests instead that the story, particularly popular from the Secreta Secretorum tradition, was originally a piece of pagan propaganda against Judaism. Ames' evidence for a pagan origin includes the tale's geography (even Gower's version is set in Egypt), the frequent identification of the Pagan as one of the (Persian) Magi, and the fact that Christians never charged the Jews or Judaism with an unethical code since they themselves were invested in the validity of the Mosaic law. Medieval authors therefore took up the story not necessarily as part of an anti-semitic agenda (although Ames does not deny some element of prejudice), but rather because of the non-religious meanings that might be ascribed to the story. For instance, James Yonge’s prose translation of the Secreta (dating from 1422) employs the exemplum to illustrate his advice that a prince should not trust his enemy. As it turns out, the Jew is most like the Irish, whose treachery is well-known (45-46). Likewise, Gower's account tells us more about his politics than about his attitude to the Jews. After all, Moses is mentioned in Book 7 as one of the first lawgivers, and in Book 5 Gower praises the beliefs of the Jews in contrast to the worship of idols. Gower was thus more interested in making the point that mercy is greater than justice. In this he followed the Secreta, in which the Pagan was associated with Aristotle, who advised Alexander on the principles of kingship. The only medieval adaptation that Ames has difficulty explaining is John Bromyard's Summa Predicantium, where the Mosaic Law is simultaneously praised and condemned. Ames' conjecture about this troubling mixture is that “the friar nodded, and garbled half-recollected stories and sources" (45). Despite the opacity of Bromyard’s motives, the general pattern Ames finds is that medieval Christians were less interested in the validity of Jewish law than in promoting an Aristotle who conformed to their own aims in writing mirrors for princes. [CvD]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

Gower Bibliography Editors Only: edit metadata