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Cinkante Balades: Introduction


1 See Warton, History of English Poetry, sect. xix (especially p. 333).

2 Gower, Complete Works, 1:lxxii.

3 Warton initially offered the first view, that of youthful composition, and it is the line taken by Fisher as well (John Gower: Moral Philosopher, pp. 73–74); Kittredge promoted the second, of lifelong labor (see Date of Chaucer’s Troilus, p. 76); Macaulay — although he hedges his bets a trifle (“it seems certain that at least some of the balades were composed with a view to the court of Henry IV,” Gower, Complete Works, 1:lxxiiinn — appears to favor 1399, as does Itô (John Gower, the Medieval Poet, pp. 158–59).

4 In Gower’s case, this assumed autobiography has extended for some readers to the first-person narrator in the Mirour de l’Omme (lines 27340–41) whose confession of youthful follies includes writing love poetry (“les fols ditz d’amours”) which he sang while dancing (“en chantant je carolloie”). Warton seems to have imagined these to be Gower’s references to his extant balades — but practically speaking the suggestion is risible for several reasons, not the least of which is the complete unsingability of Gower’s balades.

5 On Petrarch’s extensive adding and reordering, with consequent difficulties for dating individual poems, see Wilkins, Petrarch’s Later Years, especially pp. 258–60.

6 See Yeager, “John Gower’s Audience,” pp. 89–91.

7 See the edition, and especially the introduction, of Raynaud, Les Cent Ballades.

8 On young Henry’s presence at the St. Inglevert tourney, and his movements thereafter, see Kirby, Henry IV of England, especially pp. 28–34.

9 On Oton de Graunson, see Braddy, Chaucer and the French Poet; on Christine de Pizan, see Willard, Christine de Pizan.

10 On the gift, see Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher, pp. 25–26.

11 On the dedication to Henry “Derbeie Comes” see Nicholson, “Dedications of Gower’s Confessio Amantis”; on the possibility that Gaunt’s family had an early copy, or a copy-in-progress, of the Confessio when they embarked for Castille in 1386, see Yeager, “Gower’s Lancastrian Affinity.”

12 Note, however, that Itô has argued for conscious linkages between balades, based on lineal echoes, e.g., in XII, XIII and XIV, respectively, “the third lines of the envoys resemble one another: ‘Q’a moi, qui sui del tout soubtz vostre cure’; ‘Si porte ades le jolif mal sanz cure’; ‘Par quoi soubtz vostre grace jeo languis’. And it is likely that the last was a mixture of the first two.” See his chapter “Cinkante Balades: A Garland for a New King” in John Gower, the Medieval Poet,pp. 156-80, especially p. 166.

13 Gower, Complete Works, 1:lxxiv.

The title by which these poems are known descends from Thomas Warton, who in the eighteenth century discovered Gower’s sequence and first published four of “the Cinkante Balades or fifty French Sonnets” he found in a manuscript then belonging to Earl Gower (a relation in name only).1 Warton himself seems to have obtained this number, and hence his title, from the damaged heading preceding Balade I: “Si apres sont escrites en françois Cinkante balades, quelles . . . d fait, dont les . . . ment desporter” (“Here following are written in French fifty balades, which . . . made, in order to entertain the . . .”). In fact, the “Cinkante” balades in London, British Library, MS Additional 59495 amount to what would have been fifty-four, including two dedicating the rest to Henry IV (the second of which is defective), two both numbered “IIII,” one assumes by mistake, and a final balade addressed to the Virgin. The latter, while fully within the window of style and amorous language estab­lished by the sequence, seems nonetheless to have been intended as a coda, in that it directs love at last toward heaven and away from earthly concerns. Despite the various additions, there can be little doubt, for reasons discussed below, that Gower deliberately chose to announce that his sequence included fifty balades. Warton’s title, in other words, is thus more apt than he imagined.

The Structure and Subject of the Cinkante Balades

Gower’s Cinkante Balades approaches love and its assorted quandaries from several directions. As does Petrarch in the Rime, Gower offers a narrative of an (ultimately unsuc­cessful) love affair as seen en pastiche through the eyes of a first-person lover whose poems to and about his lady explore the range of his feelings. As in the Livre de Cent Ballades, questions of loyalty and temptation arise, to be dealt with variously; and, as in Christine de Pizan’s Cent Ballades d’Amant et de Dame, the lady has her say (XLI–XLIV), responding in her own voice to the lover, rejecting his suit, and eventually turning toward another lover, who greets her (XLV) and she accepts him (XLVI). Seasonally topical balades (e.g., March in XIII, May in XV, winter and Christmas in XXXII and XXXIII, St. Valentine’s Day in XXXIV and XXXV, May again in XXXVI and XXXVII) allow us to patch together a chronology of the affair (it seems to last two years or a bit less); poems about separation and return (e.g., XXV, XXIX), brought about by slanderous gossip, generate misunderstanding initially but devolve into reconciliation; iconic characters from the Roman de la Rose (e.g., Danger, Cupid), chivalric romance (e.g., Lancelot, Tristan, Partenope), and Boethian traditions (Lady Fortune) make central contributions to the poetic vocabulary. As one might expect from Gower, classical figures (e.g., Ulysses, Alceone and Ceix, Hector, Hercules) make their entrances and exits as well.

These elements Gower has clustered variously in line with what seems to have been a structural plan. At least as presented in our sole witness, British Library, MS Additional 59495, he apparently wanted to mark off the first four balades, which a marginal note explains “are made especially for those who wait on their loves in expectation of marriage” (“sont fait especialement pour ceaux q’attendont lours amours par droite mariage”), from the remainder, dedicated in a second marginal note, “for everyone, according to the properties and conditions of Lovers who are diversely serving subjects to the fortune of love” (“a tout le monde, selonc les propretés et les condicions des Amantz, qui sont diversement travailez en la fortune d’amour”). Macaulay called attention to this division early on; and under further scrutiny, a subtle pattern is discernible on a larger scale into which the bifurcation, marked in the manuscript, can fit. Clearly the lover’s narrative (V–XLVII) is intended as a kind of tutelary drama, his feelings and poetic language providing exemplary lessons in the sensations, art, and uncontrollable outcomes of an affair. This second section, by far the greatest, is followed by two (or possibly three) others. Balades XLVIII–L seem to abandon the fiction, progressively stepping away from drama into philosophical speculation. Although hardly similar in appearance when placed side-by-side, these three balades establish a kind of structural balance, or parallel, with I–IV, those identified as being for love stories leading to marriage. The voice of XLVIII–L is, nevertheless, new to the sequence, characterized no longer in imaginary first person but now turned authorial and definitive about the inter­relationship of legitimate love with honor, reason, and the higher purposes of God. It is, in fact, a recognizably “Gowerian” voice, one discernible throughout his works, and it prepares us for what may or may not be a fourth posture in the final balade. Thus when the “I” returns to claim both voice and sentiment in LI, that it should bring closure to the sequence by redirecting love away from mortal women toward the “Virgin and mother” (“Virgine et miere”) as the vessel most replete and deserving, most able and eager to respond selflessly to love in kind, the move to supramundane distance and profound amorous commitment on a heavenly plane comes as scant surprise. It is, in a sense, Gower’s “Troilus moment” — but significantly unburdened, in its affirmation and hopefulness, by Troilus’ bitter laughter back and downward from the eighth sphere. Even more closely, then, LI recalls the tenth and final section of the Mirour de l’Omme, in which the poet seemingly in propria persona invokes the love and pardon of the “doulce Miere la Vierge gloriouse” (“the sweet mother the glorious Virgin”). The two compared highlight Gower’s strategy in the Cinkante Balades: very likely, so that for his careful readers there should be no revelatio post mortem regarding love — always his primary subject, work after work — he took up the French challenge (always the nationalist, even in humility!) of the Livre de Cent Ballades, transforming it and making it his own.


Macaulay pointed out in 1899 that “the date at which the Cinkante Balades were com­posed cannot be determined with certainty,” and no evidence has surfaced since to alter his statement concretely.2 Various theories have been offered over the years by various hands, and these for purposes of discussion can be gathered into three groups: (1) the Cinkante Balades were the work of Gower the young man; (2) they were all written at various times throughout his long life; (3) they were written when Henry IV acceded to the throne in 1399 or immediately after, as a special gift for the new monarch.3 Each of these rests upon certain assumptions, and each is therefore vulnerable to significant objections. The argument for juvenilia, for example, accepts as a given that all first-person statements must be autobio­graphical.4 The “jeo” of the Cinkante Balades is, thus, Gower himself, and since (the assumption continues) only a man in the grip of passion could be so moved — and passion being the exclusive province of the young — the poems are, ergo, the work of Gower’s youth. This may be so, of course, but perhaps in the postmodern present little more need be said by way of response than to note that, were the Cinkante Balades truth instead of fiction, it would mark an all-time first for literature.

More attractive on the surface, certainly, is the second claim, that the sequence represents a gathering of poems written over a lifetime. Not only did this seem reasonable to George Lyman Kittredge in 1909, who first offered the notion that Gower composed the balades over the course of his long life, but also more credible, because for Kittredge it had somewhere behind it the presence of Petrarch notching up the Rime sparse year by year. Notions of Petrarch’s self-revelation in the Rime, however — for note, this theory presumes autobiography too — by now have shifted a good deal as scholars have traced how Petrarch edited and reordered the poems to shape his larger project, writing new pieces “after the fact” as narrative gaps occurred.5 Post-hoc arrangement of any sort is itself a creative act, and necessarily, in addition to occluding the identity of “Laura,” it transforms even “real” events into fiction. Moreover, we know today to look toward Machaut and Deschamps — supreme fictionists — as guiding inspiration for Gower’s balades.

The third argument, too, that the Cinkante Balades were composed ca. 1399–1400 to celebrate Henry IV’s coronation, should give us pause on grounds of likelihood and veracity, in at least equal measure. Essentially the supposition stands or falls upon the belief that the love-narrative told by the Cinkante Balades proper, the dedicatory two balades to Henry, and the concluding rime royal stanza lauding England’s good fortune at his accession were written of a piece. However, nothing either in the poems themselves or in the extant evidentiary records of Gower’s life establishes or requires, even tangentially, their co-terminal composition. And yet, upon reflection, the yoking together of a laudatory political hommage and the amorous fiction of the sequence seems to demand justification, either in the work or in biography. If all of the poems we today call the Cinkante Balades were written to celebrate Henry’s accession, what made Gower think that love would especially have delighted the usurper as by force and duplicity he seized the crown and power in 1399? Rather better, one supposes, is to recognize that this argument for dating confuses the writing of the Cinkante Balades with the preparation of the manuscript from which we know them, a manuscript that British Library, MS Additional 59495 replicates and that, in its more elaborate presentation version, very likely did commemorate Henry’s coronation, if not with the composition of all of its parts, then certainly in their collection and assemblage.

To uncouple the Cinkante Balades proper, perhaps including LI, the paean to the Virgin, from the two dedicatory balades to Henry and the concluding rime royal stanza to England under his new rule is to open the way to consider moments other than the coronation for the writing of the sequence. As I have argued elsewhere, one such likely moment is 1391–93, when the nobility on both sides of the Channel were yet under the sway of the Livre de Cent Ballades.6 A collection of a hundred balades as the title implies, the Cent Ballades were the joint effort of the crème de la crème of chivalric France.7 Begun by Jean de Saint-Pierre, seneschal d’Eu, in the late 1380s, the Livre is a love-debate in two parts. The first fifty poems comprise a dialogue between a young knight and an old, variously about the ways of war and love. Together they agree that love and loyalty are more or less interchangeable terms. In the second fifty, however, the young knight is distracted by a woman, La Guignarde (“she who desires”), who tells him that loyal lovers are fools, in essence because false ones have more fun. The young knight appeals to the wisdom of others, eliciting answers from Philippe d’Artois, count of Eu, the younger Boucicaut, and Jean de Cresécque. An open request is made in a separate balade to lovers generally to help resolve the issue. By 1390, thirteen of France’s most celebrated had written in response, for present purposes significantly including Guillaume de Tignonville, a friend of Deschamps and Christine de Pizan, and François d’Auberchicourt, whose father Eustache had fought with the Black Prince in Spain, and whose relation Jean, a longtime Lancastrian retainer and confidant of John of Gaunt, probably was known to Chaucer and Gower. In 1390, when young Henry, then earl of Derby, was jousting at the tournament of St. Inglevert in Normandy with his French compeers, including virtually all of the poets of the Cent Ballades and most of the prominent respondents, the Livre was the rage of Paris, and a topic doubtless of much talk (and friendly competition) during the many festivities which marked the premier French-English armigeral exercise of the later truce.8

For a brief period, writing in response to the Cent Ballades possessed a certain cachet: it suggested an inner circle, not only of poetic talent but also of social, aesthetic, and nationalistic arrival. Hence the Savoyard Oton de Graunson, poet, influential friend of Chaucer (who called Graunson “flour of hem that make in Fraunce” in the Complaint of Venus, lines 75–76) as well as John of Gaunt (and Gower?), directly links his own balades ca. 1391 in defense of lovers’ loyalty to the Cent Ballades; and Christine de Pizan, newly widowed and needing a career to support herself and her children, at the same time wrote her own sequence, Cent Ballades d’Amant et de Dame, apparently in order to establish herself as a credible poet, worthy of patronage.9 Until 1393 at least, it would hardly be an exaggeration to imagine on both sides of the Channel other writers measuring themselves by the Livre de Cent Ballades.

That by 1391 Chaucer and Gower were familiar with the reputation of the collection (if not indeed with the full Livre itself), and its significance as a benchmark of poetic prowess, while difficult to demonstrate, is thus nonetheless extremely likely. That Henry of Derby, however, knew the Livre de Cent Ballades and its poets at St. Inglevert in 1390, and that he probably admired both, seems beyond doubt — as does the obvious influence of the popular French collection on the title, language, and matter of Gower’s Cinkante Balades. A plausible scenario for the composition of Gower’s sequence, then, would involve Gower’s awareness of Henry’s interest in the competitive drama surrounding the Livre de Cent Ballades, at its peak in 1391; his wish to please a Lancastrian patron; and his lifelong effort to establish his poetic reputation. That Gower, like Oton de Graunson, Christine de Pizan, and the various noble French respondents, should have accepted the challenge of the Livre de Cent Ballades in 1390–93 appeals to a clearer logic than does the assumption of Henry’s coronation as a prompting occasion for love balades. That at this time he presented the Cinkante Balades as a separate, unified work to Henry, then earl of Derby, and that Henry was pleased, cannot be proven, but the gift from Henry to Gower of a collar of S’s and Lancastrian swans in 1393 is perhaps suggestive.10 Usually this gift is credited to Gower’s giving Henry a copy of the Confessio Amantis, but for this there is no evidence — and in any case such a present might not have struck Henry as sufficiently new to prompt reward, since a Confessio in some form was possibly in the hands of Gaunt and his children by 1386–87.11 Moreover, Henry’s prior familiarity with (and presumed fondness for) the Cinkante Balades would explain their inclusion in British Library, MS Additional 59495, the contents of which were certainly assembled, but not necessarily written, as an accession present. So viewed, the appeal of the pieces we know from British Library, MS Additional 59495 — in addition to whatever magnificence the original presentation copy must have had — would be the convenient gathering between two covers of Gower’s poems written explicitly to or for Henry up to, and on, the coronation. On balance, then, the best probable date for the composition of the Cinkante Balades is 1391–93.


The Cinkante Balades is still known only in a single manuscript, now in the possession of the British Library.

• T: London, British Library, MS Additional 59495 (formerly MS Trentham Hall), fols. 11v–33. [This manuscript also contains “To King Henry IV In Praise of Peace,” “Rex celi deus,” “Ecce patet tensus,” Traitié selonc les auctours pour les amantz marietz, and “Henrici quarti.”]


Six stanza patterns exist in the Cinkante Balades, two of them dominant: the two dedicatory poems to Henry included, twenty-four have three stanzas of seven lines, each rhyming ABABBCC (“rime royal”) with an envoy BCBC (dedicatory I, III, IIII, *IIII, VI–VIII, X, XI, XIII, XXVII, XXVIII, XXX, XXXIII, XXXV–XXXVIII, XLIV–XLIX); seventeen have three stanzas of eight lines, each rhyming ABABBCBC with an envoy BCBC (I, II, V, XII, XV, XVI, XXIII, XXV, XXVI, XXIX, XXXI, XXXIV, XL–XLIII, L); seven have three stanzas of eight lines, each rhyming ABABBABA with an envoy BABA (XVII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIIII, XXIX); three have three stanzas of seven lines, each rhyming BABABAA with an envoy BABA (XIV, XVIII, XLV); one (dedicatory II) has four stanzas of eight lines, each rhyming ABABBCBC with an envoy BCBC; one (IX) has five stanzas of eight lines, each rhyming ABABBABA, with envoy BABA; one has three stanzas of seven lines, each rhyming ABABBCC, but lacking an envoy; and one (LI) has three stanzas each rhyming ABABBCBC, but in place of an envoy proper has an added stanza in rime royal addressed to “gentile Engleterre,” under the new reign of Henry IV. This was, perhaps, intended as an envoy to the sequence as a whole, or (more likely) written later when, as the contents of British Library, MS Additional 59495 suggest, the works it contains were collected and arranged for presenta­tion as an unique group to Henry after the usurpation. (See “Dating,” above.) Although, presumably by necessity even in French, Gower repeats rhyming triads in the Cinkante Balades more often than in the Traitié, he seems nonetheless to have paid pointed attention here at least to their sequence: that is, only occasionally do triads containing the same rhymes occur in proximity to each other, e.g., when the “A” rhyme of XXXIX is replicated as the “B” rhyme of XL.12 In general in the Cinkante Balades as in the Traitié, Gower’s rhymes are pure, with but a few fudges here and there, e.g., rhymes on “-entz” and “-ens” in I, or on “-ra,” “-a,” and “-ça” in II. The practice implicates both a closeness of sound in Gower’s dialect, and/or rhyming by sight.

Certainly the latter — visual as well as aural rhyming — seems supported by Gower’s metrical habits in the balades and in the Mirour de l’Omme. As Macaulay has noted,
The balade form is of course taken from Continental models, and the metre of the verse is syllabically correct like that of the Mirour. As was observed however about the octosyllabic line of the Mirour, so it may be said of the ten-syllable verse here, that the rhythm is not exactly like that of the French verse of the Continent. The effect is due . . . to the attempt to combine the English accentual with the French syllabic measure.13
hearing his numbers, a conclusion not surprising about a bookish poet writing in a second, learned language. Gower’s apology for his French in the final stanza of Traitié XVIII is interesting in this regard: “Et si jeo n’ai de François la faconde, / Pardonetz moi qe jeo de ceo forsvoie: / Jeo sui Englois, si quier par tiele voie / Estre excusé” (“And if I do not have eloquence in French, / Pardon me when I go astray with it: / I am English — thus I seek in such a way / To be excused”). While on one level pro forma, in the manner of most humility topoi, and concerned with language facility generally, on another it may also acknowledge his recog­nition of his own metrical ausländigkeit.

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