Gower Bibliography

'Misframed Fables': Barclay's Gower and the Wantonness of Performance

Barrington, Candace. "'Misframed Fables': Barclay's Gower and the Wantonness of Performance." Mediaevalia 24 (2003), pp. 195-225.


In the preface to his Mirrour of Good Maners (his otherwise forgettable translation of Dominique Mancini's De Quattuor Virtutibus), Alexander Barclay explained his refusal to submit to his patron's wish that he instead translate Gower's Confessio Amantis by dismissing the poem, rather surprisingly, for its "wantonnes." Barrington takes another look at this passage, and she argues that Barclay was not so much concerned that the poem was either immoral or lascivious. He used "wanton" in a different sense, "undisciplined, ungoverned; not amenable to control, unmanageable, rebellious" (OED), referring more specifically to three characteristics of CA that Barclay catalogs in the explanation in the lines that follow: the inappropriateness of an old man posing as a young lover, of a priest speaking of anything but faith and virtue, and of the poem's attempt to mix "lust" with "lore" or "to express moral truths in tales of lust and desire" (p.19). All three of these Barrington labels as examples of "excessive performance and inappropriate role-playing" (p.196) and of "uncontained and excessive display, both linguistic and theatrical" (p.207), and she finds an analogy and model for Barclay's response to the poem in the reactions of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More to the excesses of display and performance in the 1520 convocation of the French and English kings and of their highest nobility known as the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," contrived by Cardinal Wolsey both to enact and to celebrate the peace between England and France, an event for which Barclay himself was enlisted in a minor role. Barclay's reaction to the convocation is not recorded, but much implicit criticism of the court is contained in his Eclogues. Barclay's reading of Gower, Barrrington suggests, points to "an equally skeptical reading of Henry VIII's court, with its increasing emphasis on transgressive pomp, ceremony, and role-playing" (p.207), and using Fisher's and More's views as an index of Barclay's, Barrington concludes that Barclay "sees in Gower's courtly satire the dangers inherent in the closed culture where all scripts are written by and performed for the monarch" (p.220). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 27.2]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis
Influence and Later Allusion

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