Gower Bibliography

Love and Marriage in the Age of Chaucer

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. "Love and Marriage in the Age of Chaucer." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975


Kelly's book takes the middle road between the doctrine of courtly love as formulated by critics like Gaston Paris and C. S. Lewis and the sharp critique of such a tradition by exegetical critics like D. W. Robertson, Jr. Kelly disputes the idea that courtly love had to be adulterous and summarizes the medieval literary ethos as follows: "preference for marriage, but priority to love" (34-35). The book is rooted in an analysis of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, but has a chapter on John Gower as well as important sections on the Ovidian tradition, clandestine marriage, and canon law. Kelly argues that Gower and Chaucer both tie love and marriage to "trouthe" or loyalty. Yet, while Gower praises marriage, he does not always condemn adultery. The reason "lies in the nature of the exemplary technique … [as] an exemplum is normally told to illustrate one lesson alone, without much worry about whether it contradicts earlier or subsequent lessons" (131). Some characters also appear in multiple stories, which creates further inconsistencies. But Gower did not feel it necessary to iron out all the problems, since he clearly sets out his views on marriage elsewhere in the poem (135). For instance, at CA 7.5372-5383, Gower describes how reason is to modify nature and its instincts, although reason does not exclude pleasure. This does not resolve all the difficulties in stories such as those of Iphis or Canace, but Kelly feels that Gower generally believes that reason has to put a limit to nature. In discussing the treatment of incest in CA 8, Kelly returns to the question whether nature is not itself reasonable. His answer keeps nature and reason separate: "Natural law usually includes the moral law, but Gower makes it clear that for him, at least at times, it does not. Rather, natural law is the same law that God has given to men and animals alike; and positive law in this context refers to the law of reason that God has given only to men" (143-44). Nevertheless, nature does not merely consist of compulsive desire, and Kelly dismisses Genius's comments about the "absolute irresistibility of nature" in the story of Canace: "But the conclusion that we should draw from this is simply that Gower has once again let his confessor run away with himself; by overenforcing one lesson [against wrath] he damages another" (144). Kelly discusses at some length why the end of Book 8 seems to turn away from love. Certainly, the sudden turn away from love is not atypical for medieval narratives: "particularly at the end of treatises of spiritual instruction . . . one is to be left looking at the shortest way to heaven" (159). This focus on the foolishness of love may also explain why Gower omitted in later copies of the poem Venus's request to Chaucer to make his testament of love. Despite the concluding turn to charity as the better love, "We must not, however, allow this concluding description to make us forget that the treatise also marks out a via media of honest love, 'That alle lovers myhten wite / How ate laste it shal be sene / Of love what thei wolden mene' [8.2000-2002]" (160). Kelly also sees this via media in other parts of the CA, such as the story of Sara and Tobias (275-80). Similarly, Ballade 4 of the Traitie presents a good example of how the theoretical view of marriage (that its purpose is for companionship, children and the avoidance of lechery – according to MO 17197ff.) runs counter to more instinctive attitudes, namely that marriage is based on love, loyalty, beauty, and virtue. In this Ballade, the Latin rubric speaks of procreation, but the ballade speaks of the second set of motives (295-97). Marriage and love were thus seen as compatible in the Middle Ages, and Kelly is skeptical about whether the moralists' stern views against love where believed by the rest of the population. Instead we often see "an ideal of marriage as at once passionate and virtuous, in which both the sexual and the spiritual delights of love are unashamedly sought and enjoyed. That such an ideal could coexist with moralistic inhibitions is evident from the writings of both Chaucer and Gower" (334). [CvD]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)
Traité pour Essampler les Amants Marietz

Gower Bibliography Editors Only: edit metadata