Gower Bibliography

'Principis Umbra': Kingship, Justice, and Pity in John Gower's Poetry

Kobayashi, Yoshiko. "'Principis Umbra': Kingship, Justice, and Pity in John Gower's Poetry." In On John Gower: Essays at the Millenium. Ed. Yeager, R.F. Studies in Medieval Culture (46). Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2007, pp. 71-103.


Traces the development of Gower's notions of pity and of the king's responsibility for justice through his three major works, beginning with the opposition between the tyrant and the merciful but just ruler in his discussion of Pitė as the daughter of Patience in MO (13897 ff). Even Pity, in that passage, faces the necessity of imposing the death penalty when circumstances warrant. Gower thus uses Pity as a way of creating an idealized portrait of the just and merciful king, and he implies that "only those who are capable of reconciling these competing moral demands can truly qualify as just rulers" (78). Under the force of later events, however, his later comments on pity "become increasingly complex and ambiguous" (72), and he finds it difficult to sustain this moral framework as the test of a good king. Later in MO he offers a warning against too much pity in the king (23029 ff.): pity is reduced to mere "misericordia," or as Gower later names it, "pusillamite" (CA 7). In VC 1, the patience that is allied to pity is depicted as weakness and powerlessness in the face of rebellion; the virtue of strong, swift justice that Gower advocates instead (as illustrated in the summary execution of Wat Tyler) "bears some unsettling resemblance to the figure of the angry tyrant" in the first passage in MO. In VC 6, the pity for his poorest subjects that Gower urges upon Richard II embraces a vehemence against those who take advantage of them and includes a severe punishment of evil counselors. In the tale of "Alexander and the Pirate" (CA 3.2363 ff.), in which the emperor grants a pardon in exchange for military service, Gower alludes to an actual practice: in the broader distribution of pardons near the end of Richard's reign, pity creates an opportunity for an abuse of justice. In the tale of "Orestes" (CA 3. 1885 ff.), on the other hand, Genius's apparent approval of the punishment of Clitemnestra is problematized by the Latin gloss at the beginning of the tale, by the fact that only Orestes is described as "wroth," and by the careful legal proceedings that precede the execution of Egistus. The tale thus "throws doubt on Gower's advocacy in other places of the absolute prerogative of the prince" (96) and "suggests that it may not be enough to limit the king's authority at the personal level of his conscience alone" (97). These last two tales together raise questions about the king's relation to the law that cannot be answered satisfactorily within the terms that Gower first proposes in MO. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 27.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Vox Clamantis
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

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