Back to top

John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Jump to

For a full-text version, see the following online edition by Russell A. Peck provided by the Middle English Texts Series: Confessio Amantis.


The works of John Gower, the Confessio Amantis in particular, contain several references to the crusades. Several scholars have assessed Gower's perspectives and perceptions of the crusades and, more broadly, the nature of just warfare in general.

Gower's writings ultimately support the idea of crusading while criticizing the way in which such campaigns are so often enacted in reality. As Siberry observes, Gower laments in Vox Clamantis that wars between Christians are preventing crusades against the Muslim as a means of restoring Christendom's rightful claims to the Holy Land:

They (the clergy) are not willing to battle with pagans in the cause of their faith, nor even to spread the gospel according to the Holy Scripture. But if one were to oppose them in regard to their worldly kingdoms, they then put up a savage fight. ... The lineal descent by right of his mother proclaims Christ as the heir of the land in which he was born ... But a pagan interloper holds it now ... we do not carry on war against these men by attacking either their persons or their property ... Instead we are fighting open battles over worldly possessions with our brothers. (Trans. Siberry 130)
Siberry also notes that the poem "In Praise of Peace" conveys very similar sentiments:
Thus were it good to setten al in evene,
The worldes princes and the prelatz bothe
For love of Him which is the King of Hevene,
And if men scholde algate wexe wrothe,
The Sarazins, whiche unto Christe be lothe,
Let men ben armed agein hem to fighte,
So mai the knyht his dede of armes righte. (246-52)
In essence, Gower argues that men who are inclined to fight should wage war against those who deserve it (i.e. the Saracens who actively threaten Christendom) rather than fight their fellow Christians.

But while Gower's views on warfare—the crusades specifically—seem rather positive in these works, readers are presented with a far more complex and, at times, contradictory set of assertions on warfare in Confessio. The two voices of Genius and Amans consistently play off one another and contradict each other so frequently that Robert Yeager has observed they could be read as representative of a "profound division in Gower's own heart" (105).

Critics such as Steven Runciman and Terry Jones, for instance, have championed Gower as a critic of the crusades, because of the disapproval for such martial ventures lodged by Amans (see lines 1659-1682 below).

Scholars frequently caution against reading either Amans or Genius (the two speakers in the poem) as mouthpieces for Gower himself, or as bold critics of the crusades. Gower carefully constructed both speakers, and their conversation throughout the whole of the Confessio serves as a progression in knowledge, one that mimics and inspires a soul's journey to a state of wisdom as it resolves, or at least contemplates upon, conflicting viewpoints and perspectives. According to James Simpson, Confessio is characterized

by profound structural incoherences, which provoke intriguing difficulties for a reader. In attempting to understand the sense behind these incoherences, we as readers are invited to participate in the construction of meaning, and to participate ourselves, therefore, in the processes of learning represented in the poems. The ultimate aim of ... Gower is not so much to represent the formation of the soul, but to enact that formation in the reader. The meaning of [the Confessio] is to be located less in [its] represented narratives, than in the sense of [that] narrative ... a sense which is understood only through the reader's act of interpretation.  [Its] mode of meaning is, in short, literary rather than discursive.  So although [Confessio] provide[s] philosophic and educative 'information' in the more neutral sense of that word, that is not [its] prime function; the essential and, I think, intended effect of [Confessio] is to inform the soul of the reader — to bring the soul of the reader to its own ideal state, or 'form'.  [Confessio seeks] to realize a self-knowledge in the reader through the reader's act of interpretation. (14-15)
Approaching Confessio in this "literary" way facilitates an understand of the seemingly discursive, and occasionally contradictory, commentary on just war and the crusades that occur throughout the work.

Shortly after the story of "Alexander and the Pirate" in "The Tale of Telephus and Teucer" (Book III), Amans brings up the problem of Saracens, asking Genius whether it is lawful to wage wars against them (2486-2490). Genius answers cagily, stating that allowances for warring against the Saracen are not found in Scripture, whereas the exhortation to preach the Good News certainly is:
Mi fader, understonde it is,
That ye have seid; bot over this
I prei you tell me 'nay' or 'yee,'
To passe over the grete see
To werre and sle the Sarazin,
Is that the lawe?"
      "Sone myn,
To preche and soffre for the feith,
That have I herd the Gospell seith;
Bot for to slee, that hiere I noght.
Crist with his oghne deth hath boght
Alle othre men, and made hem fre,
In tokne of parfit charité;
And after that He tawhte Himselve,
Whan He was ded, these othre tuelve
Of Hise Apostles wente aboute
The holi feith to prechen oute,
Wherof the deth in sondri place
Thei soffre, and so God of His grace
The feith of Crist hath mad aryse.
Bot if thei wolde in other wise
Be werre have broght in the creance,
It hadde yit stonde in balance.
And that mai proven in the dede;
For what man the croniqes rede,
Fro ferst that holi cherche hath weyved
To preche, and hath the swerd received,
Wherof the werres ben begonne,
A gret partie of that was wonne
To Cristes feith stant now miswent.
Godd do therof amendement,
So as he wot what is the beste.
Bot, sone, if thou wolt live in reste
Of conscience wel assised,
Er that thou sle, be wel avised.
For man, as tellen ous the clerkes,
Hath God above alle ertheli werkes
Ordeined to be principal,
And ek of soule in special
He is mad lich to the Godhiede.
So sit it wel to taken hiede
And for to loke on every side,
Er that thou falle in Homicide,
Which senne is now so general,
That it welnyh stant overal,
In holi cherche and elles where. (III.2485-2529)
In this passage, Genius nearly critiques the very idea of crusading by observing that while such wars might have brought the faith to foreign lands, they ultimately did not result in the establishment of permanent Christian kingdoms in the Levant (2512-13). Genius suggests that there might be ways to wage a just war against the Saracens, but he also warns that killing them can render a man guilty of murder, which is a grave sin. He warns Amans, therefore, to "loke on every side" (2525). Crusading, according to Genius—and warfare more generally—is not necessarily homicide but it can easily transform into that mortal sin if one's motives are less than pure. Importantly, however, Genius does not condemn the concept of crusading itself here, but instead calls into question the motivations that inspire such campaigns.

The matter of crusading is brought up again in Book IV:
And for to slen the hethen alle,
I not what good ther mihte falle,
So mochel blod thogh ther be schad.
This finde I writen, hou Crist bad
That no man other scholde sle.
What scholde I winne over the se,
If I mi ladi loste at hom?
Bot passe thei the salte fom,
To whom Crist bad thei scholden preche
To al the world and his feith teche.
Bot now thei rucken in here nest
And resten as hem liketh best
In all the swetnesse of delices.
Thus thei defenden ous the vices,
And sitte hemselven al amidde;
To slen and feihten thei ous bidde
Hem whom thei scholde, as the bok seith,
Converten unto Cristes feith.
Bot hierof have I gret mervaile,
Hou thei wol bidde me travaile:
A Sarazin if I sle schal,
I sle the soule forth withal,
And that was nevere Cristes lore.
Bot nou ho ther, I seie no more. (1659-1682)
Amans argues here that killing the Saracen is wrong and that, as a result, there is no use in journeying abroad on crusade. He argues that men like himself should be converting Saracens instead of killing them. Genius responds in kind, introducing the next tale in the process:
 Mi sone, I have herd thi matiere,
Of that thou hast thee schriven hiere.
And for to speke of ydel fare,
Me semeth that thou tharst noght care,
Bot only that thou miht noght spede.
And therof, sone, I wol thee rede,
Abyd, and haste noght to faste;
Thi dees ben every dai to caste,
Thou nost what chance schal betyde.
Betre is to wayte upon the tyde
Than rowe agein the stremes stronge.
For thogh so be thee thenketh longe,
Per cas the revolucion
Of hevene and thi condicion
Ne be noght yit of on acord.
Bot I dar make this record
To Venus, whos prest that I am,
That sithen that I hidir cam
To hiere, as sche me bad, thi lif,
Wherof thou elles be gultif,
Thou miht hierof thi conscience
Excuse, and of gret diligence,
Which thou to love hast so despended,
Thou oghtest wel to be comended.
Bot if so be that ther oght faile,
Of that thou slowthest to travaile
In armes for to ben absent,
And for thou makst an argument
Of that thou seidest hiere above,
Hou Achilles thurgh strengthe of love
Hise armes lefte for a throwe,
Thou schalt another tale knowe,
Which is contraire, as thou schalt wite.
For this a man mai finde write,
Whan that knyhthode schal be werred,
Lust mai noght thanne be preferred;
The bedd mot thanne be forsake
And schield and spere on honde take,
Which thing schal make hem after glade,
Whan thei ben worthi knihtes made.
Wherof, so as it comth to honde,
A tale thou schalt understonde,
Hou that a kniht schal armes suie,
And for the while his ese eschuie. (1771-1814)
Here, as well as in the ensuing tale ("Nauplus and Ulysses"), Genius instructs Amans to put his martial duties ahead of his desires and duties as a lover. This advice directly contradicts his previous warnings about fighting the Saracen in Book III, warnings that precede the story of Telephus and Teucer, a tale in which mercy and patience triumph over warfare. In this passage, however, the lover debates whether he should journey across the sea to fight the heathen and risk losing his love while he is away. Gower focuses here on the motivation behind the lover's decision, not the decision itself. Amans does not refuse to kill Saracens out of sense of charity, patience, or any of the virtues he was encouraged to embody in Book III. Rather, Genius finds fault with Amans in this case because he is guilty of a form of sloth that directly conflicts with this duties as a knight. To help Amans remedy this moral shortcoming, Genius offers up Ulysses as a model who, though he suffered from a similar misplacement of priorities, eventually agrees to leave his family and join the Greeks in the Trojan War.

It is not until Book VII of Confessio that Gower arrives at a coherent resolution of the matter of warfare. In the ending segment of the work, he marries the notion of justice to warfare by way of several biblical analogues (Gideon, Saul and Agag, David, etc.). Prior to these anecdotes, however, he paraphrases a famous passage from Ecclesiastes:
King Solomon in special
Seith, as there is a time of pes,
So is a time natheles
Of werre, in which a prince algate
Schal for the comun riht debate
And for his oghne worschipe eke. (3594-3599)
He continues, stating that the King must be virtuous and inhabit a “middle weie” between the extremes of pity and cruelty, wherein he will find and exhibit true bravery. A king, Gower states, must direct his heart to that middle ground when deciding whether or not to go to war; if he does so, he will discern correctly. The ensuing biblical anecdotes support this idea of careful discernment while highlighting the wisdom that a good king should possess when making such difficult decisions.

Thus, by the end of Confessio, audiences have been guided through a detailed consideration of the complexities of war; they are presented with war's atrocities, the frequent abuses and excess use of warfare by Church and State, and the fact that warfare runs counter to Christ’s message. At the same time, they are presented with an awareness that war is sometimes necessary and can be justly initiated. Nevertheless, by refraining from providing audiences with a single, clear answer or solution to the complexities of war in the Prologue or even in Book IV, Gower suspends overt didacticism. In doing so, he allows audiences to consider the complexities of warfare and eventually arrive at the amorphous conclusion that wars can be just if the motives for them are pure and if they are waged only after the wise and just ruler endeavors to "loke on every side" (Confessio Amantis, Prologue 895).

Peck, Russell A. Kingship & Common Profit in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Runciman, Steven. "The Decline of the Crusading Ideal." The Sewanee Review 79 (1971): 498-513.

Siberry, Elizabeth. "Criticism of Crusading in Fourteenth-Century England." In Crusade and Settlement. Ed. Peter W. Edbury. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press, 1985. Pp. 127-134.

Simpson, James. Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry: Alan of Lille's Anticlaudianus and John Gower's Confessio amantis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Stockton, Eric W., ed. The Major Latin Works of John Gower. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.

Yeager, R. F. "Pax Poetica: On the Pacifism of Chaucer and Gower." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 9 (1987): 97-121.