Coxe MS. 13
John Gower, Confessio Amantis, third recension, in Middle English and Latin

[England, 15th century, c.1468-9?]


33,000 LINES OF MIDDLE ENGLISH VERSE, WRITTEN FOR A MAYOR OF CHESTER

 John Gower, Confessio Amantis
Click here to see a flat image of these pages


 

John Gower (d.1408) was a contemporary and close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, with whose poetry his own has often been favourably compared (notably by C.S. Lewis). The Confessio Amantis (Lover's Confession) is a 33,000-line poem in Middle English, written as a series of stories within the framework of a confession by a Lover, who thinks he is near death, to the chaplain of the goddess Venus. The longest and most famous of these stories is Apollonius of Tyre, from which Shakespeare seems to have taken inspiration for Pericles.

The decoration of the first large initial at the beginning of the text includes the name 'John Dedwod' and a drawing of a piece of tree branch or trunk ('dead wood', a rebus of John's surname). The text was written by two scribes, one of whose spellings betrays a Derbyshire origin, the other Staffordshire, suggesting that the volume was written in the north-west. This is confirmed by a list of Mayors and Sheriffs of Chester from 1469 onwards, added to the flyleaves. The original patron of the manuscript must therefore have been the John Dedwood who was Mayor of Chester in 1468-9, or perhaps the man of the same name (his son?) who was Mayor in 1483-4.

[Click here to read a transcription of the text on the flyleaves, including the sherrifs' and mayors' names, kindly provided by Sonja Drimmer]

The manuscript is an interesting example of the sort of book that might be owned by the literate bourgeoisie in 15th-century non-metropolitan England: it is a literary work which would be read primarily for pleasure rather than moral or religious instruction. The manuscript was relatively inexpensive to produce (it is on paper rather than parchment, with minimal decoration, and in a relatively swift-to-write type of handwriting), yet the cost of materials and scribal labour would not have been insignificant. Within a decade or so of the production of this manuscript William Caxton set up his printing press at Westminster and printed Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in 1476, changing book-culture in England forever.

Bequeathed to the College by Richard Warner of Woodford Row, Essex, in 1775 (cf. MSS. 9 and 15).

Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Peter Kidd