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Sir Gowther: Introduction


1 In his unpublished critical edition, Cornelius Novelli suggests that there are variations which indicate that the Royal is from the West Midlands, while the Advocates is more easterly.

2 See Shirley Marchalonis, "Sir Gowther: The Process of a Romance," Chaucer Review 6 (1971/2), 24, 27.

3 See Walter F. Schirmer, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century (London: Methuen & Co., 1952), p. 110.

4 See Laura A. Hibbard [Loomis], Medieval Romance in England (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), pp. 49-57; E. M. Bradstock, "The Penitential Pattern in Sir Gowther," Parergon 20 (1978), 3-10; Andrea Hopkins, The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 144-78; Margaret Bradstock, "Sir Gowther: Secular Hagiography or Hagiographical Romance or Neither?," AUMLA 59 (1983), 26-47; Florence Leftwich Ravenel, "Tydorel and Sir Gowther," PMLA 20 (1905), 152-78; M. B. Ogle, "The Orchard Scene in Tydorel and Sir Gowther," Romanic Review 13 (1922), 37-43.

5 See Laura Hibbard Loomis, pp. 49-51. The legend's influence on the fifteenth-century Middle English Sir Gowther, as well as the fourteenth-century Roberd of Cesile, marks the acknowledgment of the tale in England. The legend grows in popularity after its translation and printing in the sixteenth century.

6 See Ronald S. Crane, "An Irish Analogue of the Legend of Robert the Devil," Romanic Review 5 (1914), 55-67. As his title suggests Crane argues for an earlier Irish analogue for the Robert legend. Florence Leftwich Ravenel contends that Tydorel is the lost Breton lai indicated by the Gowther poet while Andrea Hopkins claims a close resemblance to the legend of Gregorius, a story about the life of a boy born of incest, who leaves home, grows up and inadvertently marries his mother. He discovers the error, undertakes seventeen years of penance on a rock in the sea, after which time he is elected to the papacy and becomes Pope Gregory. See also Margaret Bradstock, "Sir Gowther: Secular Hagiography?" for a discussion of the relation of the poem to the Life of St. Alexius.

7 See Jennifer Fellows, "Mothers in Middle English Romance," in Women and Literature in Britain 1150-1500, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 41-60. Fellows cites Octavian and Sir Gowther and traditional narratives such as Rapunzel, Thumbelina, Little Prince Ivan, The Witch Baby, and the Little Sister of the Sun. To the list of narratives which feature this motif we might add Marie de France's Yonec and the Middle English Sir Orfeo, though there is no evidence of pregnancy in the latter.

8 See J. A. MacCulloch, Medieval Faith & Fable (London: Harrap, 1932): "In Nennius' Historia Brittonum his mother has no idea how her child was conceived. Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154) makes Merlin's father a beautiful youth who talked with the girl invisibly . . . In Layamon's Brut (end of the twelfth century) Merlin's mother says, 'The fairest thing that ever was born, as it were a tall knight arrayed in gold; oft it kissed me and oft it me embraced. I know not whether it were evil thing or on God's behalf dight"' (p. 54).

9 See J. A. MacCulloch in Medieval Faith & Fable, who claims that writers such as Caesarius of Heisterbach, Gervase of Tilbury, Giraldus of Cambrensis, Matthew of Paris, and others took the belief seriously enough to consider its theological implications. Caesarius of Heisterbach posited the theory that demons collected crementum humanum, quod contra naturam funditur, and from this formed bodies for themselves, either male or female. Their offspring were therefore human. Thomas Aquinas comes to a similar conclusion, determining that demons stole the semen from mortal men and impregnated women with it (see note for line 17).

10 See J. A. MacCulloch, Medieval Faith & Fable, p. 56.

11 Another facet of this tradition derives from the exotic descriptions and illustrations of hybrid creatures in the Alexander Romances, Sir John Mandeville's Travels, Wonders of the East, and the letters from Alexander the Great to Aristotle. See Andrea Rossi-Reder, "Wonders of the Beast: Medieval Monsters and Xenophobes," Medieval Feminist Newsletter, No. 16 (Fall 1993), 24-27.

12 For an interesting discussion of marginal images see Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

13 See David A. Sprunger, "Wild Folk and Lunatics in Medieval Romance," in The Medieval World of Nature: A Book of Essays, ed. Joyce E. Salisbury (New York: Garland, 1933), pp. 145-63.

14 Penelope B. R. Doob, Nebuchadnezzar's Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

15 One such graphic example is St. Francis who is depicted iconographically as talking to birds, stripping naked in public, and engaging in various activities thought crazy by other people.

16 Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952): "We may suspect that the category of wildness had its corrollary in contemporary reality, even though the writers may have forced the facts into a pattern of their own. It was a habit in the Middle Ages to let many lunatics go free unless they were believed to be obsessed and subject to the exorcism appropriate to their case. Such insane persons were thus at liberty to follow their irrational urges and desires. If we are to believe the romances, they commonly chose to retire into the woods thus laying a barrier of distance between themselves and their fellow men" (p. 12).

17 Brocéliande Forest in Brittany was a frequent retreat for those experiencing the effects of love in these narratives. Its reputation as a place of enchantment no doubt encouraged the association between madness and a wooded locale.

18 See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 1973): "The madman's voyage is at once a rigorous division and an absolute Passage. In one sense, it simply develops, across a half-real, half-imaginary geography, the madman's liminal position on the horizon of medieval concern - a position symbolized and made real at the same time by the madman's privilege of being confined within the city gates: his exclusion must enclose him; if he cannot and must not have another prison than the threshold itself, he is kept at the point of passage" (p. 11).

19 Some scholars have argued that Gowther's falchion is associated with the Orient and has symbolic value particularly when it is used to kill the Sultan and his Saracen troops. See E. M. Bradstock, "The Penitential Pattern in Sir Gowther," Parergon 20 (April 1978), 3-10.

20 The four-part system includes: contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution.

21 See Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children Since the Thirteenth Century, trans. Martin Thom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). See also Dante, Inferno I, line 101. According to Charles Singleton, the Hound represents the temporal monarch Dante so fervently hoped would save the world.

22 Some scholars have noted a male Cinderella motif for this portion of the poem. Common to many medieval heroes, including some of Malory's knights, it requires a young man, assigned to domestic drudgery, to prove himself worthy of knighthood in some extraordinary way, i.e., by championing a lady, defeating a formidable enemy (giant or dragon), or proving his proficiency in battle. See Donald L. Hoffman, "Malory's 'Cinderella Knights' and the Notion of Adventure," Philological Quarterly 67 (1988), 145-56.

23 It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between actual life and fiction even in the Middle Ages. Laura A. Hibbard [Loomis] in Medieval Romance in England notes that Malory's patron, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, "during his governorship of Calais, under such names as the Chevalier Vert, for three days challenged French knights to a tourney" (p. 55).

24 See Jessie Laidlay Weston, The Three Days' Tournament: A Study in Romance and Folklore (London: D. Nutt, 1902).

25 Like Beowulf to Hrothgar, or Roland to Charlemagne, Gowther serves his lord without regard for his own life.

26 See Margaret Bradstock, "Sir Gowther: Secular Hagiography?," p. 40.
Sir Gowther is found in two late fifteenth-century manuscripts, British Library Royal MS 17.B.43 and National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. Both versions of the poem are in twelve-line tail rhyme stanzas and, though there are dialectic variations, scholars concur that both derive from the Northeast Midlands. [1] Stylistic differences between the two versions suggest, however, that the Royal MS is later and probably intended for a more cultured and refined audience. [2] One of the most striking differences is Royal's omission of the passage in which the preconversion hero, together with his cohorts, commits a heinous crime - the raping and pillaging of a convent of nuns. Perhaps the redactor of Royal determined this action to be too explicit for his refined audience. Whatever the reasons for the omission, there is additional internal evidence to suggest a gentler overall treatment of the story by the Royal scribe. The Advocates version, in contrast, tells the story in a more vigorous and decidedly more explicit manner, replete with graphic descriptions for the sake of truth (see line 189). Although their styles and approaches vary, both manuscript versions present Gowther's criminal acts in such a way that his rehabilitation, the subject of the narrative, is extraordinarily memorable.

The differences between the Royal and Advocates versions extend to the contents of the manuscripts themselves. While the Royal seems to emphasize a more visionary theme combining items such as Sir John Maundeville's Travels, William Staunton's Vision of St. Patrick's Purgatory, the Vision of Tundale and a short religious poem beginning "Com home agayne / com home agayne / Mi nowine swet hart," the Advocates does not. Rather Advocates, which contains John Lydgate's Stans Puer ad Mensam, a didactic work on table manners, [3] The Life of Our Lady, a hagiographical piece, which includes the birth and youth of Christ, and Sir Isumbras, a romance about a knight who suffers the loss of his family only to regain them in the end, seems to express an interest in domestic life, familial relationships, and a didactic shaping of personal conduct. That Sir Gowther complements both manuscript themes equally well indicates the poem's ability to conform to diverse categories, an adaptability evident again when scholars attempt to situate the poem within a definitive genre. Defined variously as a tale of trial and faith, a penitential romance, a hagiographical romance, secular hagiography, a Breton lay, and simply a "process" of romance, Sir Gowther resists singular designations, but rather complies to a variety of possibilities. [4]

The source narrative most often cited in relation to Sir Gowther is a French poem entitled Robert le Diable, a five-thousand line roman d'aventure composed in the late twelfth century. Extant in only two manuscripts the poem, based upon legend, nonetheless generated versions in diverse forms - chronicle, exemplum, miracle play, romance, lai, dit - as well as several languages - French, Latin, English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese - as it was disseminated across Europe during the course of the next few centuries. [5] Although most scholars accept the legend as Gowther's source, a literary genealogy that includes an eleventh-century Irish tale, a twelfth-century Breton lai (Tydorel), the Legend of Gregorius and the Life of St. Alexius, has been mapped out [6] Such source studies are useful to establish the complicated intertextuality connecting the poem to other places, times, and literary genres, but, because they are often one-to-one comparisons, they fail to illuminate the contribution of extraliterary factors. Like many other lays and romances, Sir Gowther derives much of its inspiration from a rich and vastly underappreciated folk tradition. Popular ideology, particularly as it is expressed in folk narrative and fairytale, often places enormous emphasis on familial relations and the politics of domestic life, as well as the concerns of the larger community.

The motif that initiates the poem and creates the narrative dilemma involves the paternity of the hero. Gowther's mother, unable to conceive a child with her husband, prays in desperation for a child:

Scho preyd to God and Maré mylde
Schuld gyffe hur grace to have a chyld,
   On what maner scho ne roghth.
In hur orchard apon a day
Ho meyt a mon, tho sothe to say,
   That hur of luffe besoghth.
As lyke hur lorde as he myght be,
He leyd hur down undur a tre,
    With hur is wyll he wroghtth.
   (lines 64-72)

she didn't care

She met a man; truth

his will
The Wish Child motif, as it is known by folklorists, calls for a woman to make a wish for a child while alone in an orchard or wooded area at a certain time of day. There she meets a stranger, a supernatural being in disguise, who becomes the agent of her pregnancy. Found in the apocryphal legend of St. Anne and reinscribed in the events of the Annunciation, the motif expresses the sanctity of a union between the divine and the mortal; the child born from such a union is destined to be extraordinary and exhibits a precocity of virtue and maturity beyond his/her years. Within the constellation of stories just mentioned examples are St. Anne, the Virgin Mary, and Christ himself. But in narratives in which the motif foreshadows an ominous event of some sort, i.e., a promise to the devil, it is referred to as the Devil's Contract. [7] One of the most famous instances of this type and relevant to Sir Gowther is that of Merlin, the famed counselor to King Arthur, whose circumstances of conception are similar to Gowther's: a lone woman is approached by a demon disguised as a handsome youth who seduces her and then announces the impending birth of a wondrous child. Merlin is precocious from the start and grows up to inspire a range of portrayals, some more positive than others. For many writers he is the preternatural prophet and trusted mentor of King Arthur; for others he is a wild man sired by a demon. Demonologists in the late Middle Ages considered him a figure for the Antichrist, prophesied in the Book of Revelation to signal the end of the world. [8] Given Gowther's "wylde" antics in the first half of the poem, his genealogical relation to the demonic Merlin seems to be born of necessity. Not only is Gowther conceived in a similar way, but an explicit relation is established between the two. Born of different mothers, they are sired by the same father:

This chyld within hur was no nodur,
Bot eyvon Marlyon halfe brodur
   For won fynd gatte hom bothe.
   (lines 97-99)
none other

one fiend begot them
The fraternal relation between Gowther and Merlin and their shared paternity with the fiend would most certainly presage disaster for a medieval audience. [9]

Gowther's demonic paternity is proven not only by his precocious growth and development,

In a twelmond more he wex
Then odur chyldur in seyvon or sex,
   (lines 145-46)
twelve months
    children of seven or six
but by his early dentition. As an infant he suckles nine wet nurses to death and when his mother attempts to take over the job he bites off her nipple. According to folk belief the presence of teeth at an early age functioned as proof of demonic paternity. Matthew Paris, for instance, records the existence of a child begotten by an incubus on a Hertfordshire woman, who, "at six months had teeth and was like a child of seven years old." [10] Such accelerated physical development in Gowther is accompanied by his uncontrollable aggression. In a short time his appetite for food assumes a predatory form - hunting becomes his favorite pastime - but not as practiced by other members of the aristocracy. Rather he becomes the raptor, a sharp-taloned, aggressive predator of the disempowered: religious women, a widow, a newlywed couple, hermits, and clerics, those supposed to be protected by knights and chivalric codes of honor. Dubbed a knight by his "father" the Duke in a fruitless attempt to control his behavior, Gowther disregards the precepts of chivalry and subverts the system that he has been entrusted to uphold.

Gowther's wild behavior and rough appearance associate him with a tradition of wild folks known throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Depicted frequently in medieval iconography, the margins of medieval romances, Books of Hours, misericords, and cathedral architecture, wild folk engaged in a variety of human activities - hunting, jousting, dancing, etc. Sometimes represented as hybrid, half-human creatures, [11] they could silently challenge or mock established social and religious institutions from their frozen marginal positions. [12] Inscribed with a range of representations that could and often did correlate to human potentiality - the perpetual struggle with destructive impulses such as anger, violence, and unbridled sexuality as well as the promise of achieving human perfection by divine grace - wild folk inspired both fear and hope. [13] Often wild folk became synonymous with insanity.

In a literary convention Penelope Doob calls the "unholy wild man," the bestial body functions as a metaphor for sin. [14] The Scriptural prototype is Nebuchadnezzar who, in the Book of Daniel, is transformed into a four-legged hybrid beast and exiled in the wild. Punished by God for persecuting the Hebrews, his madness acquires a moral component curable only by the satisfaction of his assigned penance. In contrast to this prototype of the "unholy wild man," which, for Doob includes Merlin, wild people could belong to an alternate category which Doob calls "holy wild men." In this group reside such luminaries as John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and numerous other Christian saints and ascetics, those who voluntarily removed themselves from human society, donned roughly cut animal skins, and retreated into the woods or wilderness to live a solitary life. Occasionally these holy wild folks assumed the position of the lowest in the social order - usually beggars or fools - and donned hairshirts or beggars' garb to signify their adoption of the holy life. Their motive was to establish a closer relation to God, reform themselves, and proclaim by word and example the possibility of redemption for all. Overcome by what Plato might call "divine madness" they were frequently perceived by others as fools for God. [15]

In secular literature wild folk and madmen are linked by puns on the Middle English term "wode" (wood, mad) and by their reputation for gravitating to wooded or wilderness areas. [16] In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, for instance, Merlin is portrayed as an insane wildman driven to the woods when his "fury" seizes him. [17] In Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, the hero is driven to the woods by a madness equated with lovesickness, and in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Lancelot and Tristan experience a similar fate. In the Middle English Sir Orfeo, the hero's grief-stricken wilderness sojourn is initiated by the abduction of his beloved Heurodis to the Otherworld. The causes of medieval madness, at least in its literary forms, are brought about by a loss of reason that, as Doob's categories suggest, could be positively or negatively construed. The Sir Gowther poet, as if defying categories, locates his hero on the threshold between sanity and insanity, the unholy and the holy, the sacred and the profane in a symbolic position that seems to subvert these traditional binary oppositions, creating a narrative dilemma that can only be resolved by a miracle. [18]

Although the attempts of the Duke to reverse Gowther's irrational behavior by baptizing and knighting him fail, Gowther's redemption remains possible because he retains his ability to reason. Activated by the observation of the old Earl, "We howpe [think] thu come never of Cryston stryn, / Bot art sum fendys son, we weyn" (lines 208-09), Gowther is startled into a course of action. Just as so many other young orphans of myth and legend he demands to know who his real father is. But Gowther's approach is far more violent and threatening than that of others; he holds his mother at knifepoint until she answers the question:

He seyd, "Dame, tell me in hye,
Who was my fadur, withowt lye,
   Or this schall thoro the glyde";
He sette his fachon to hur hart:
"Have done, yf thu lufe thi qwart!"                Speak; health
   (lines 220-24)
Accompanied by a threat with such a formidable weapon, the question becomes a verbal assault reminiscent of Gowther's earlier physical assault on his mother's body. Perhaps not so ironically the action here compels a quest for penance that will erase his demonic paternity, the essence of his identity to this point. But when ordered to give up his falchion by the Pope Gowther refuses. No ordinary sword carried by knights, it symbolizes his identity as a wild man. [19] As necessary to him as Orfeo's harp is to Sir Orfeo, the falchion, which is the weapon of so much destruction in the first half of the poem, functions as the instrument of Gowther's final rehabilitation and return to legitimate knighthood. With it he defeats the Saracen enemy, and, in this sense, overcomes the wild man in himself.

Penance is one part of a penitential system intended to discipline and punish the transgressor in a manner often commensurate with the sin. [20] Because Gowther has committed harmful speech acts as well as acts of physical violence his penance seems appropriate. His muteness addresses the injuries done by his mouth in speech and action. Like Nebuchadnezzar Gowther is punished by his inability to communicate with other people; separated from society he is forced to contemplate what he has done. Ordered to eat only the food brought to him by dogs Gowther experiences life at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In his newly humbled state, he is forced to rely upon creatures that would ordinarily rely upon him. The greyhounds that minister to Gowther in the wilderness too are mute, a quality that according to Albertus Magnus lends them a certain nobility among dogs; the legend of the Holy Greyhound accorded them a sanctity no other breed could claim. [21] Here their mute presence creates a nexus between the silent Gowther and the mute princess who aids in his final redemption. Gowther's sojourn in the wilderness, much like that of the grief-stricken Orfeo, is followed by a process of reintegration into human society. He does not immediately acquire the position of knight in the Emperor's court, but rather maintains his muteness, assumes the role of fool and positions himself under the table with the dogs.

The Emperor's mute daughter becomes crucial to the narrative at this point; it is she who attends to Gowther's needs watching over him and providing food for him at court; it is she who, in a mock eucharistic ceremony, washes the mouths of the greyhounds who then administer bread and wine to him. It is she who ultimately mediates between Gowther and God, she who signals the miracle that ends his penance. [22]

The war between the Sultan and the Emperor, sometimes referred to as the three-day tournament, is the narrative event that leads to Gowther's final expiation. [23] On three successive days he prays for the accoutrements of chivalry - armor, shield, and horse - so that he might better fight the enemy. On each day his prayers are miraculously answered, evidence that his voice, however silent to those around him, is being heard by God. On each day his colors change, from black, to red, to white representing what some scholars believe to be a purification process. [24] During each battle Gowther fights successfully, but returns afterward to his assigned place under the table and his role of Hobbe the Fool; his identity as the rescuing knight is unknown to all but the maiden. On the third, culminating day Gowther receives a shoulder wound, a symbolic injury which initiates the final transformative event. As the sympathetic mediatrix falls out of her tower to what seems to be sure death, hope for Gowther's redemption fades. [25] But her comatose body becomes the locus of a miracle that transforms both her and Gowther. When, after three days, the maiden finally awakens, resurrected from seeming death, her muted voice has been miraculously restored and she speaks Gowther's absolution:
Ho seyd, "My lord of heyvon gretys the well,               She
And forgyffeus the thi syn yche a dell                   every bit
   And grantys the tho blys;
And byddus the speyke on hardely,
Eyte and drynke and make mery;
   Thu schallt be won of his."
   (lines 661-66)
Gowther is liberated from his position under the table and the silent prison of his body. But most significantly Gowther's paternity is transferred from one father to another:
    "Now art thu Goddus chyld;
The thar not dowt tho warlocke wyld,        
    Ther waryd mot He bee."
    (lines 673-75)

You need not fear; devil
vanquished must
The remainder of the poem functions as satisfaction in its own right as Gowther's restoration is delineated: he marries the miraculous maiden, inherits the German Empire, and arranges the marriage of the old Earl to his mother. But most importantly he builds an abbey to atone for his devastating crime against the nuns. Herein lies an important difference between the Royal and Advocates MSS. Whereas Advocates retains Gowther's identity, Royal identifies him with Saint Guthlac, the founder of Croyland Abbey in England in the early eighth century. At least one scholar finds the correlation unconvincing arguing that Guthlac's life "does not provide as suitable an example of salvation from sin as Gowther does." [26] This may be true and there are undoubtedly political motives behind the omission that warrant further study. What is clear from the Advocates version presented here is that Gowther, madman and criminal, achieves personal salvation and becomes at his death the locus of miracles for the poor, the dissolute, and the insane.

Go To Sir Gowther
Select Bibliography


British Library Royal MS 17.B.43. Fols. 116a-131b.

National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. Fols. 11a-28a.

Critical Editions

Breul, Karl. Sir Gowther. Oppeln: E. Frank, 1886.

Novelli, Cornelius. Sir Gowther. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1963. [Offers side-by-side versions of Royal and Advocates MSS and includes textual and explanatory notes.]


Utterson, Edward Vernon, ed. Select Pieces of Early Popular Poetry. London: Longman, Hurst, Lees, Orme and Brown, 1817.

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Six Middle English Romances. London: Dent, 1973. Pp. 148-68.

Rumble, Thomas C., ed. The Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 179-204 [Uses the Royal MS.]

Related Studies

Bradstock, E. M. "The Penitential Pattern in Sir Gowther." Parergon 20 (1974), 3-10. [Explores interconnecting themes of heroic prowess and the penitential process.]

---."Sir Gowther: Secular Hagiography or Hagiographical Romance or Neither?" Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 59 (1983), 26-47. [Reviews problems of generic classification and concludes that 'secular hagiography' may be a useful term to apply to some narratives.]

Hopkins, Andrea. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romances. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 144-78. [Sees the penitential theme in the poem to be its generic determination.]

Marchalonis, Shirley. "Sir Gowther: The Process of a Romance." Chaucer Review 6 (1971/72), 14-29. [Demonstrates the process of transformation of a conversion story influenced by chivalric ethics.]

Ogle, M. B. "The Orchard Scene in Tydorel and Sir Gowther." Romanic Review 13 (1922), 37-43. [Comparative study.]

Ravenel, Florence Leftwich. "Tydorel and Sir Gowther." PMLA 20 (1905), 152-77. [Comparative study with the OF lay.]