Gower Bibliography

The Cardinal Virtues and the Structure of John Gower’s Speculum Meditantis

Olsson, Kurt O. "The Cardinal Virtues and the Structure of John Gower’s Speculum Meditantis." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1977), pp. 113-148.


The MO, according to Olsson, "is more than an encyclopedia" (113). It is also a unified spiritual quest with a clear poetic structure, and it is this structure that Olsson aims to demonstrate. As a kind of penitential work, the MO teaches the sinner by what path he may come to a recognition of his Creator. This quest is symbolized by two stories that frame the work: the narrative of Adam's exile to a land of misery, and, at the end, the story of redemption through Christ and the Virgin. However, if the mood of the poem is devotional, why then does the middle section of the poem indulge in social complaint and estates satire? Olsson's answer is that the integrity of the poem rests on the fact that it provides a mirror of man's entire moral nature. More precisely, there are four mirrors that "gave Gower the moral coordinates for his poem" (116). These four perspectives are the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. While three of the virtues attend to personal life, the second, justice, is concerned with man's relationship with his neighbor, and with society as a whole. Olsson further reviews the literary tradition of the virtues to demonstrate that they are invariably seen as "interdependent" (117). As the second part of the MO's Latin title (the Speculum Meditantis) indicates, it is the reader's duty to meditate on the mirrors before him and to cultivate a moral disposition that in turn leads to a virtuous life. After this general introduction, Olsson next turns to a detailed analysis of Gower's allegory in relation to the work of such writers as Cicero, Alain de Lille, and Brunetto Latini, as well as to such vernacular works as The Book of Vices and Virtues. In the process, Olsson discusses a variety of related issues, ranging from Gower's alterations to the conventional debate of Body and Soul, to the lack of a pitched battle between the vices and virtues in Gower's account. Other issues that are discussed include Gower's predominant use of the Old Testament for his exempla, the MO's general progress from general knowledge to knowledge of the self (a progression that explains how the virtue of justice provides a bridge between the initial "psychomachy" and the self-application of the final mirrors), and the nature of kingship. Olsson further suggests that whereas the first two mirrors (prudence and justice) provide the knowledge to judge the reader's "amour seculer," the last two (fortitude and temperance) "show the potential for appeal" (139) and are "ordered as pleas for His [God's] grace, and as gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts of strength and wisdom" (139). Finally, Olsson argues that the work that most closely approximates the form of the MO is the brief twelfth-century poem, Le Livre des Manières by Etienne de Fougères, and that in relation to other medieval moral books, the MO's achievement lies in finding "a congruence of poetical form, inner or moral perception, and the idea of the cardinal virtues" (148). [CvD]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

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