Friday, 6 August 2010

John Gower on War

Here is the beautifully decorated tomb of John Gower (c.1330-1408), which I came across by chance when I visited Southwark Cathedral this week.

Gower's head is resting, not very comfortably, on his three most important works: Vox Clamantis, Speculum Meditantis, and Confessio Amantis. As the first of these is in Latin, and the second (thought lost for many centuries) in French, Gower's reputation as one of the great Medieval English poets relies on the third: Confessio Amantis. Gower writes in the prologue to the poem that 'fewe men endite / In oure englysshe'. The fact that he chose to do so ensures that, along with his friend Geoffrey Chaucer, he has often been celebrated as a founding father of English poetry.

At 33,000 lines, the Confessio Amantis fully deserves the title of unread masterpiece. It does, however, contain an early account in English of the ethics of war, in the form of a discussion between 'fader' and 'sone' (Bk III, 2200ff). To the question, is it ever allowed to kill another human being, the 'fader' replies with a spirited defence of capital punishment, before moving on to the more problematic subject of war. A man may act in self-defence, he argues, to protect his 'contre', his 'hous' and his 'lond'. But the 'sone' continues to prompt: what about those people who seek 'dedly werres' for worldly ends? This amounts to the 'foule horrible vice / Of homicide', the 'fader' claims, and is explicitly outlawed by Moses. What is more, the birth of Christ coincided with the blessings of angels who brought peace 'to the men of wellwillinge'.

Warming to his theme, the 'fader' lists some of the evils of war, and goes on to explain that those who pursue war for earthly or for spiritual ends will not have their hoped-for 'mede' (reward). They are driven by sin. Quite what King Richard II, who was supposed to have commissioned the poem, or King Henry IV, to whom later editions were dedicated, made of this severe warning is, unfortunately, lost to time.

Bot dedly werre hath his covine
Of pestilence and of famine,
Of poverte and of alle wo,
Wherof this world we blamen so,
Which now the werre hath under fote,
Til god himself therof do bote.
For alle thing which god hath wroght
In Erthe, werre it bringth to nocht:
The cherche is brent, the priest is slain,
The wif, the maide is ek forlain,
The lawe is lore and god unserved:
I not what mede he hath deserved
That suche werres ledeth inne.
If that he do it forto winne,
Ferst to acompte his grete cost
Forth with the folk that he hath lost,
As to the wordes rekeninge
Ther schal he finde no winnynge;
And if he do it to pourchace
The hevene mede, of such a grace
I can noght speke, and natheles
Crist has comanded love and pes,
And who that worcheth the revers,
I trowe his mede is ful divers.
      (Bk III, 2267-2290)

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