… trewe men, þat tellen þo treuthe of prestehode.(A Wycliffite tract)
THE MATTER OF GOWER's religion has received virtuoso treatment recently from the Gowerian honored in this volume. This essay is an exploratory footnote to that discussion. I am concerned specifically with Gower's attitude toward priests, those individuals responsible for representing and delivering religion to medieval Christians. Gower's views concerning priests, and priesthood in general, emerge clearly, I wish to argue, if we compare his fictional priest, Genius in Confessio Amantis, with Chaucer's ideal Parson in the Canterbury Tales.
To my knowledge, only one other scholar has brought Genius and the Parson together for comparative analysis – Katherine Little, in her monograph, Confession and Resistance. For all her insights about the two characters, however, Little establishes a too strict dichotomy between them: Genius as a traditional, more or less orthodox priest, despite his dual allegiance to the Goddess of Love and the one true God; and the Parson as a radical, heterodox one, definitively rather than tentatively Lollard. Some of the force of this dichotomy derives from a stereotype with which Gowerians are familiar: of Gower as a more conservative poet of religion than the theologically adventurous Chaucer. But Gower and Chaucer's views regarding priests and the truth or essence of priesthood are similar and, within the constraints of late medieval doctrine, liberal – neither stridently orthodox nor outrageously heterodox. Each poet promotes, as an alternative both to a corrupt prelacy and to Wycliffism, a primitive Christian understanding of priesthood based in the Gospels: the proper pastoral care of souls (cura pastoralis) as modeled by the ministry of Christ and his apostles. During the Middle Ages, parochial duties were largely the responsibility of secular clergy, who are idealized by Gower and Chaucer in the figures of Genius and the Parson. The language the two poets use to describe these clerical protagonists suggests that they might have developed their ideas about ideal priests and priesthood, like other of their literary concerns, in conversation.
Gower and Chaucer are not professional or systematic ecclesiologists. Throughout the Middle Ages, theories of the Church and of priesthood were normally developed within a monastic intellectual milieu. Ecclesiology requires the use of analogies, extended comparisons that enable the mind to comprehend the unknowable by way of the known.