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  • Gower’S French Audience:The Mirour De L’Omme

In many ways, the Mirour de l'Omme is the great puzzle of Gower's collected works. Like the Cinkante Balades, it exists in a single manuscript: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library Additional MS 3035. Unlike the Cinkante Balades, however, which appears in a manuscript marked in such a way as to suggest at least a possible preparation (although probably not composition) for Henry IV, the Mirour's lone copy bears no hint of originary impulses.1 Moreover, CUL Addit. MS 3035 is defective, having lost four leaves at the beginning, amounting to perhaps forty-seven stanzas, and at the end, so that (despite the hopeful-sounding guess of "some leaves" by Gower's best editor, G. C. Macaulay) it is in fact impossible to know precisely how far short of Gower's full poem our only text may be.2 As a result, whatever indication about his intended readers Gower might have provided in a dedication or colophon is lost to us as well.

I. The Text and Courtly Readers

In determining the Mirour de l'Omme's audience, there is the problem of the date—or perhaps better put, the dates and process—of composition. Macaulay, who identified CUL Addit. MS 3035 as Gower's long-lost Mirour in 1895, held to the years 1376–79, primarily on the basis of a reference to the Great Schism of 1378 (MO 18825 ff.).3 John Fisher, pointing out an apparent allusion to the Good Parliament of 1376 (MO 22297 ff.), as well as the lack of acknowledgment of the death of Edward III or the accession of Richard II in 1377, has suggested that the attack on the Great Schism "was a later interpolation." For Fisher, "all the dates indicate is that Gower was at work on the poem before 1376 until after 1378."4 I myself, while agreeing with Macaulay and Fisher about a terminus ad quem of roughly 1379, offered the tentative opinion, in a study published several years ago, that the Mirour may have been started earlier than has otherwise been proposed (that is, before 1360), laid aside [End Page 111] with Edward's renunciation at Bretigny of claims to the French crown, and then taken up again following the resumption of hostilities, when Edward renewed his claim in 1368. My argument at the time was based on Gower's choice of Anglo-Norman for the Mirour—it being the language he anticipated would become the lingua franca of an enlarged insular-continental empire united under English control. The intended readers for the Mirour were, I then assumed, Edward III and influential members of his essentially French-speaking aristocratic inner circle.5

This view I now believe requires some revision. It does, I remain convinced, very likely accommodate Gower's first intent to write a poem for the instructional betterment of king and court, at a moment when he had reason to believe advice about social reform might influence changes predictably to take place in an expanded jurisdiction, when the French and English peoples were consolidated under a single crown. It does not, however, take account of Gower's subsequent residence at St. Mary Overes priory in Southwark (where he actually must have finished the Mirour) nor does it take account of the likely influence of the Austin canons on the ultimate shaping of the poem. These details will be considered in due course.

The extant opening of the Mirour suggests that Gower's purpose was to qualify the two preeminent suppositions held commonly by the chivalric class, whose focus was and had been so thoroughly on courtliness and conquest for several decades: namely, the high value placed on romantic enterprises, whether of the heart or of worldly power obtained by the sword. Hence, the curious address in the first lines of the Mirour, as we have them—to "every lover who seems so desirous of Sin, whose love is false" ("chascun amant, / Qui tant perestes desirant / Du pecché, don't l'amour est fals"), and to "foolish loving people" ("amourouse sote gent") who yearn after "whatever [the] heart desires of the world, for [their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4204
Print ISSN
0009-2002
Pages
pp. 111-137
Launched on MUSE
2006-08-30
Open Access
No
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