Containing an unknown ms.

de confessione amantis.

London, In Fletestrete by Thomas Berthelette, the. XII. daie of Marche. 1554.


Folio. ff. [vi], CXCI, [i]. *, A-2I. Black letter in two sizes, some Roman, double column. Title within charming woodcut border (McKerrow & Ferguson 26), historiated and grotesque woodcut initials, full-page manuscript in contemporary hand on recto of final blank (the last blank has been moved, probably when the binding was restored, and placed between the fly and pastedown), contemporary autograph ‘Aymoth Gawyne … . Book” on verso of last blank, “A John Stamforth After Me” in C16th hand on rear fly, verso, with “Simon Gawin” in near contemporary hand alongside, contemporary autograph on title “… .. Josfph his book so that …. hanged on a …”, “Draycott House Wilts” above in C19th hand above, bookplates of Robert Walsingham Martin and Robert S Pirie on front pastedown. Light age yellowing, small worm trail to blank upper margin of quire Aa, title page a little thumbed in blank lower outer corner, the odd thumb mark on the first few leaves, the very rare spot or mark. A fine copy, crisp and clean, printed on thick paper with good margins, in excellent contemporary London calf over wooden boards, covers triple blind ruled to a panel design, central panel with a fine blind-stamped roll of alternate heads in medallions, acanthus leaves, and winged cherubs, [Oldham, plate XLVII, HM. a (7) 776], inner panel with a central lozenge with blind roll of acanthus leaves, spine with four double blind ruled raised bands, remains of clasps, brass catches, expertly rebacked with original spine laid down, paste-downs and endleaves from a contemporary an edition of Erasmus’ Colloquia.

An extraordinary and most important copy of Gower’s ‘de confessione amantis’ containing a hitherto unknown manuscript translation into English, in prose, in a contemporary hand, of a complete story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, the first known translation of this tale in English, and a fine copy in a beautiful contemporary English binding.

One of the most important works of fourteenth-century English literature; the first edition was printed by Caxton in 1483, Berthelet published the second in 1532 and this is his second, the third edition overall. The type and the composition differs from the 1532, but there are no textual variations of significance. The Confessio Amantis is a 33,000-line Middle English poem by John Gower, which uses the confession made by an ageing lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems. According to its prologue, it was composed at the request of Richard II. It stands with the works of Chaucer, Langland, and the Pearl poet as one of the great works of late 14th-century English literature. The Index of Middle English Verse shows that in the era before the printing press it was one of the most-often copied manuscripts (59 copies) along with Canterbury Tales (72 copies) and Piers Plowman (63 copies). Shakespeare drew upon Gower for the plot of Pericles, the story coming from the eighth book of the Confessio. In the opening lines of the ‘Chorus’ Shakespeare acknowledged his debt: “to sing a song that old was sung, from ashes ancient Gower is come”. No further edition of the Confessio appeared (i.e. after 1554) in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The final blank, (it shares the same watermark as the rest of the work) contains a hitherto unknown manuscript translation into English prose, in a contemporary hand, of a complete story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. The translation is titled; “Melchiseris a Jew noth a tale of three rings so escaped a great danger ppared for him By Saladine.” This is the story of the three ring Parable which occurs in Decameron on day one, tale three, as told by Filomena. This appears to precede any other known translation of this tale; the first printed edition was in 1620. The translation here seems to be a fair copy as there are no corrections or mistakes, though no indication of author or the source is given. The story translated is that of Melchizedek the Jewish money lender and Saladin, who laid a trap for him in order to get him to lend him money. Saladin asks Melchizedek a question: Which is the authentic law, Jewish, Saracen (Muslim) or Christian? Melchizedek realises he is trapped, so he answers with a story about a man who bequeaths a precious ring to one of his sons, which is passed down through generations until one of the descendants has three sons, and can’t decide who should receive it. So he gets a jeweller to make two more rings identical the first one. But after the father’s death they find that the rings are so alike, they can’t decide who should inherit which ring. Melchizedek concludes that these three religions follow the same pattern, and to this day, no one can say which one’s the true law. Saladin sees that Melchizedek is wise, befriends him and showers him with gifts. The translation given here is very faithful to Boccaccio’s tale but differs from the 1620 edition.

The conjunction of this translation of a work by Boccaccio on a work by Gower is most intriguing as the two share close formal similarities. Gower is usually studied alongside other tale collections with similar structures, such as the Decameron, and particularly Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with which the Confessio has several stories in common. Gower’s friendship with Chaucer is well documented. When Chaucer was sent as a diplomat to Italy in 1378, Gower was one of the men to whom he gave power of attorney over his affairs in England. The two poets also paid one another compliments in their verse: Chaucer dedicated his Troilus and Criseyde in part to “moral Gower”, and Gower reciprocated by placing a speech in praise of Chaucer in the mouth of Venus at the end of the Confessio Amantis.

The water mark shows the paper this work is printed on comes from Osnabrück or Bruges, Briquet III 11380. The paper for the unused sheets of Erasmus’ Coloquia used as the pastedown and endleaves have a very similar watermark, a gloved hand with star (three fingers), though we have not been able to identify it. Nor have we been able to identify the edition of Erasmus it was from. It is worth noting that all of Erasmus’ works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Paul IV, who acceded to the Papacy in 1555. It is possible that this edition was printed but not distributed because of the prohibition against his works, and that a portion of the edition simply remained in sheets, which were used as scrap, of which this is a small survival.

A fine and important copy.

STC 12144. ESTC S120946. Pforzheimer, 422.


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