Gower Bibliography

The Penitential and Courtly Traditions in Gower's Confessio Amantis

McNally, John J. "The Penitential and Courtly Traditions in Gower's Confessio Amantis." In Studies in Medieval Culture. Ed. Sommerfeldt, John R. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1964, pp. 74-94.


McNally argues that Gower's CA does not "mix water and oil" in combining the penitential tradition with the poetry of courtly love. To make this point, McNally carefully traces the gradual historical convergence of these two types of literature. He first outlines the origin of the seven (sometimes eight) deadly sins, the introduction of penitential tracts and confessional manuals, the use of exempla collections in preaching, the adoption of the confession as a literary model, and finally the eventual parody of the whole penitential system in comic literature (74-81). Next, McNally looks at the religious aspects of courtly literature. He points out, for example, that there are some significant similarities between the penitent and the lover. Both have a desire to receive the "grace" (82) of the beloved and both suffer from sickness (caused by sin or love). Penance and love were thus intimately related. McNally then charts this overlap in troubadour poetry, Dante (especially the Purgatory), Chretien de Troyes, Andreas Capellanus, Jean de Meun, and a number of other writers. In Dante, for instance, "the domna of the troubadours, transfigured and idealized [as Beatrice], is reached by the lover whose progress upward to her begins with the act of purgation, involving confession and the Seven Deadly Sins, both of which have structural functions in the work" (84). The final link between love and penance comes in the genre of the dream vision. McNally provides an elaborate comparison between a dream from Bede's Ecclesiastical History and a vision (of the afterlife of lovers) from Andreas Capellanus' De Amore. While the latter is also indebted to the tradition of the epithalamium (with its locus amoenus), the similarities are striking. Indeed, many of the elements of the religious and courtly dream vision come together in Alan of Lille's De Planctu Naturae, a significant source for Gower (94). McNally concludes, therefore, that Gower was "following an established tradition in which the Seven Deadly Sins, the confession courtly praecepta, a court of love, a quasi-religious vision, the petition of and judgment of the god or goddess, the instruction of the poet-lover-penitent, and tales and exempla for the purposes of instruction are conventional devices" (94). [CvD]

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

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