Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Sir Gowther

God that art of myghtis most,
Fader and Sone and Holy Gost,
        That bought man on rode so dere;
Shilde us from the fowle fende
That is about mannys sowle to shende
        All tymes of the yere.
Symtyme the fende hadde postee
Forto dele with ladies free
        In liknesse of here fere;
So that he begat Merlyng and mo
And wrought ladies so mikil wo
        That ferly it is to here. (1-12)

Most mighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that saved mankind on the cross so dear, shield us from the foul fiend that is ready to destroy man’s soul all times of the year. Once the fiend had the power to couple with noble ladies in the image of their husband, so that he begat Merlin and others and brought ladies so much sorrow that it is amazing to hear.

It is a strange thing that a fiend could make women with child; they had no form, so they took on that of men; the clerks say how, though that won’t be discussed now, as Christ shields me from shame. But I will tell you of a great warlock and the sorrow he brought his mother with his wild works. May Jesus Christ, that blithe child, give joy to those who love to hear of marvels that have happened. I long sought a Breton lay and from it found a tale that is lovely to tell.

There was a duke in Austria who married a lady of unsurpassed beauty, bright like a lily with a complexion as rosy as briar blossoms. Knights of honor jousted on the first day of their wedding feast in honor of the duchess. The duke himself won ten steeds and brought down doughty men, cracking many a skull.1

The duke and duchess lived together happily for over ten years, but she had no children and their joy began to wane. The duke told her:

“I believe you must be somewhat barren, and it is best we part. I’m wasting my time on you, for our lands will be without an heir,” but he could not continue on account of his weeping.

The lady sighed and looked pale and unhappy because she could not conceive. She prayed to God and Mary that she could have a child, and didn’t care by what means. One day in her orchard she met a man who looked just like her husband, who sought her love and had his will with her under a tree.2 When he was finished, he quickly stood up, a shaggy fiend, and looked at her.

He said, “I have begotten a child on you who will be wild in his youth and mightily wield weapons.” She crossed herself and ran from him to her strongly built chamber. She told her husband that they would conceive a child that night who would be their heir:

“An angel came from heaven, who I believe was God’s messenger, and told me it would be tonight. Then our strife will end.” They went to bed eagerly that night and made love, and she carried the child begotten by the fiend until God relieved her of her burden.

The child within her was none other than Merlin’s half brother, for one fiend begat them both. He did nothing other than tempt young women to lie with him. Every day the duchess grew greater and at last delivered one who could do harm. The duke carried him to church, had him christened and called him Gowther, who would soon grow famous and violent. The duke comforted the duchess, and sent for the best wet-nurses in the country, wives of good knights. The baby suckled them to death and had soon slain three. The father sent for six more, and within twelve months nine noble wet-nurses were dead. The knights of the country gathered together and refused to send their wives to nurse Gowther. His mother met with misfortune when she tried to nurse him and he tore off her nipple; she fell backwards, called for a priest, and fled to her chamber. She was promptly healed by physicians but women dared not nurse the child, so he was fed rich food, as much as he wanted.

When he was fifteen years old, Gowther made a falchion3 of steel and iron that only he could bear, and he grew fierce and terrorized many folk. He grew more in one year than do other children in six or seven, and was able to ride. Though he was wicked in all kinds of ways, the duke did not chastise him but made him a knight, with a cold, broad sword. There was no one in the land who could withstand his blows. The duke died of sorrow, and his mother could not hide her care. Though she had great sorrow for him, she fled to a castle of lime and stone, which she made strong and stayed there. Her men were cruelly beset by Gowther, and when they met him by the way they cursed that his mother ever fed him, for he slew them with his falchion and cut their horses’ backs in two; they all dreaded such perils.

Now a duke of great renown, he beat down men of the Church wherever he met them. He attended no mass, matins, or friar’s preaching, I swear. He worked his father’s will any time and any place. He loved hunting best, in park, wood and forest, street and path, wherever he might find it. One day he went hunting and rode to a nunnery he saw by the highway. The prioress and her nuns met him in procession quickly, for they feared him. He and his men lay with them, then burned them in their church, and his name became known far and wide for such acts. He gave grief to all, young and old, who believed in Christ. He ruined maidens for marriage through rape, took wives against their will and killed their husbands. He forced friars to leap from cliffs and hung parsons on hooks and slew priests. He loved to burn hermits, he set fire to a poor widow, and caused much woe.

An old earl of the country went to the duke and asked why he did these things. “We believe you are not of Christian parentage, but are some fiend’s son that causes us this woe. You do only evil, never good, so we think you must be the devil’s kin.” Sir Gowther grew angry and threatened to hang and quarter the earl if he was lying. He set a guard on the earl and went to his mother’s castle as fast as he could ride. He set his falchion to her heart and demanded the truth:

“Dame, tell me quickly without lying, who was my father, or this blade will go through you. Tell me, if you value your life.”

She told him, “My lord, who died lately.”

“I believe you are lying,” said Gowther, tearfully.

“Son, I’ll tell you the truth. One day in our orchard a fiend, as like to my lord as could be, begat you there underneath a chestnut tree.” Then they both wept bitterly.

“Go to be shriven, mother, and I will go to Rome so that I can learn to change my way of life.” This thought came to him with such force that he cried “Mercy!” and prayed to God and Mary to save him from his father the fiend and to bring his soul to heaven.

Gowther went home and said to the earl, “You told me the truth. I will go to Rome for confession and absolution by the pope. Keep my castle and lands safe,” and he left the earl there as his trustee. Sir Gowther took no horse or men, but ran hurriedly to Rome. He took his falchion with him, but he would not lift it for good or ill; it always hung at his side. When he reached Rome, he waited long to see the pope and when he did, he knelt and asked humbly for confession and absolution, which he was granted. The pope asked where he came from, and Gowther told him:

“I am Duke of Austria, lord. By God on the throne, I was begotten there by a fiend and born of a gracious duchess; my father has few friends.”

“Have you been christened?” asked the pope.

He responded, “Yes, my name is Gowther.”

“I praise God you have come here, otherwise I would have traveled to Austria to admonish you, for you have destroyed Holy Church.”

“Holy Father, do not be aggrieved. I swear to obey your bidding and perform the penance you give me and never injure a Christian.”

“Lay down your falchion,” instructed the pope. “You will be confessed and absolved before I go.”

“No, holy father,” said Gowther. “I need to bear it, for I have very few friends.”

“Wherever you travel, by north or south, you may eat no food except that taken from a dog’s mouth, nor speak any word for evil or good until you receive a sign from God that your sin is forgiven.”

Gowther knelt before the pope and was absolved. He had no food in Rome except a bone from a dog’s mouth, and hastily went his way. It is told that he went into a far country and sat down on a hill, where a greyhound brought him a loaf before evening for three days. The dog didn’t come on the fourth day, so Gowther continued on, thinking thankfully of God.

He went to a nearby castle where an emperor lived and sat outside the gate, daring not to enter despite his strength. When the horns were blown upon the wall, knights gathered into the hall and the lord took his seat. Sir Gowther found no usher or porter at the gate, so he entered and went quickly through the crowd to the high table and sat down underneath. The steward came and threatened to beat him with a stick if he didn’t leave.

“What is that?” asked the emperor.

“My lord, one of the fairest men I’ve ever seen. Come and look at him,” the steward replied. The emperor quickly went to Gowther but could get no word from him. They let him sit and gave him food, which he would not take, and the emperor thought it might be in penance. When the emperor was seated and served, he sent some food to the mute man, who would not eat any. Then a spaniel came with a bone in his mouth, which Sir Gowther took and greedily gnawed. He would eat no other food except what he took from the dogs, even if it was chewed or spoiled.

The emperor and empress, knights and ladies at the high table sat and watched him; they gave the hounds food for Gowther, and he was comforted. Thus he was fed among the dogs, and in the evening led to a little room hidden with curtains. He came to the hall at noon; they called him “Hob, our fool,” and he yielded himself to God.

The emperor had a beautiful daughter, who was as mute as Gowther; she would have spoken if she could. She was lovely, courteous and generous. A messenger came one day to speak to the emperor:

“My lord greets you. The mighty sultan will wage war against you day and night, burn your noble castle, and slay your men unless you give him your fair and gracious daughter to wed.”

The emperor said, “I have but one daughter, who is mute as a stone. I will not, by Christ’s wounds, give her to a heathen hound, which would bring me sorrow. God may yet, through His might, return her speech.”

The messenger hurried back and repeated this to the sultan, which awakened much woe. The sultan took his army to battle the emperor; they met on the field, each with battalions. Sir Gowther quickly went to a chamber and prayed in his heart to God to send him armor, a shield and a spear, and a steed to help his lord in war. No sooner had he prayed than a coal black steed stood at the door, along with armor of the same color. He hung his shield on his shoulder, took his long spear, and rode through the gates, avoiding neither bog nor heath as he went after the emperor. No one knew him except the emperor’s daughter, who watched from her tower.

The emperor’s and the sultan’s bold battalions were assembled, but once Sir Gowther arrived, many heads were severed. He made steeds stagger and knights’ hearts flutter as blood and brains burst, and many a heathen lost his head and fell out of his saddle. He put the sultan to flight and chased him until night, and slew bold Saracens, then rode before the emperor. No one knew him but the bright maiden. He went to his chamber and unarmed himself, and his steed and armor disappeared; he knew not where they went. He found his lord dining, and he took his seat between two small dogs. The maiden took two fine greyhounds and washed their mouths with wine, and put a loaf in one and good meat in the other.4 Gowther eagerly took both and sat at ease, then went to his room.

In the morning a messenger brought the emperor a letter and said, “My lord is coming. Yesterday you slew his men, and today he is bringing more than ten thousand knights bearing spear and shield into the field to be avenged.” The emperor then said they must quickly arm for battle. God sent Sir Gowther a red steed and bright armor, and he followed through forest and fen to the battlefield. When the battalions were arrayed, as the story tells, Sir Gowther rode between them and made knights stumble and steeds tumble top over tail, and hewed helm and shield asunder. He felled their shining banner in the field, and cracked the black Saracens’ helmets in two. He proved he was brave.

“Lord God,” said the emperor, “who is that knight so valiant in battle, his steed and armor of red? He has come to help me and kills many heathens. We had another in black yesterday who did well, defeating the sultan and many Saracens. So will the knight yonder; his blows are heavy as lead. His falchion is made of stiff steel, which he wields well and never wastes a blow.” The emperor rode into battle, the brave knight with him, and they battered their foes, flesh and bone. The sultan fled into a forest with those of his host who had not been slain. Sir Gowther turned his bright bridle and rode before his lord, then returned to his chamber.

When he removed his armor, it and his steed disappeared as before. He went to the hall and found the emperor and his men dining. He sat down among the dogs, and the maiden fetched the greyhounds as though nothing had happened and fed Hob the Fool as she had the day before, then went to her room.

The emperor thanked God in heaven, who created the seven days and nights, for his victories, having defeated the sultan twice and slaying his best men except for those who fled with him: “Two adventurous knights came to us, one each day, and I don’t know where they came from. One was in red, one in black; had either of them not been there, we would have suffered great evil.” They played pipes and trumpets in the hall, and the knights and ladies danced to the music. Sir Gowther lay in his chamber; he had no wish to dance or play, for he was exhausted and bruised from battle. He thought only of his sin, and how he might win God’s bliss for his soul. The knights and ladies went to bed, as the romance tells.

A messenger came in the morning and said to the emperor, “Now it is war. My lord is coming with great power, and unless you give him your dear daughter he will attack you in your castle, batter you blood and bone, and leave not one of your bold barons alive.” The emperor refused and gathered his army; they leapt on their steeds with shield and spear. Gowther prayed for steed and armor; soon he had both, milky white, and rode off in good array. The lady watched him as she had the previous two times, and prayed for him. No man knew who he was, for he neither bragged nor boasted but quickly went after the host, following their path. The emperor was in the vanguard, and Gowther, distinguished of knights, rode before his lord. With great, loud strokes, great heathen lords were slain and their banners slung to the ground. The sultan’s banner was black, with three silver rampant lions: one decorated with red, another with gold, and the third with azure.5 His helmet was richly inlaid with carbuncles and diamonds in between. His battalion was well ordered and his banner broadly displayed, but they soon came to harm.

The good knight Sir Gowther, none more valiant, smote through steel helmets with every blow; he felled steed and man to the ground. The sultan’s foot soldiers quickly retreated, and many Christians and heathens were slaughtered on account of the sultan’s desire for the emperor’s daughter. Sir Gowther continued fighting, overtaking and sending steeds to their death; all that he hit with his falchion fell to the ground and neither rose nor looked for a doctor. But Gowther would not for anger or pain speak a word, for fear of God’s wrath. Even if hungry, he would eat nothing but what he might get from a dog’s mouth; he did as the pope instructed.

Bold Sir Gowther always rode with the emperor to protect him, and there was no Saracen that dared to come within his spear’s length or he would meet sure death from the swift blows of Gowther’s long, large falchion. That day Gowther thought of nothing but fighting, and the emperor fought with all his might but was quickly captured and led away with the sultan. Sir Gowther made the sultan give up his hostage, cut off the sultan’s head, rescued his lord, and praised God with a glad heart. A Saracen smote Gowther through his shoulder with a spear, which the maiden saw and made a moan. She swooned and fell out of her tower for sorrow, nearly breaking her neck. Two squires carried her inside, and she did not stir for two days, as though she were dead. The lord came home and set to dining, while Sir Gowther went to his room and removed his gear, then missed the lady. He went into the hall and took his food from dogs as usual.

The emperor was sorrowful over his daughter and sent earls and barons to Rome for the pope, who came soon for the maiden’s interment, and when cardinals heard the news they came to her burial to absolve her. But God sent her the grace to awaken, arise, and speak wise words to Sir Gowther:

“My lord of heaven greets you well and forgives all your sins and grants you bliss. He bids you to speak freely, eat, drink, and make merry; you shall be one of His.” She told her father that Gowther was the knight who fought for him those three days in battle. The pope, who had shriven Sir Gowther at Rome, recognized him, quickly kissed him, and told him he no longer needed to fear the devil.

Through the assent of the pope and emperor, Sir Gowther wed the maiden, a fair, courteous and noble lady, heir to all her father’s lands. The pope returned to Rome, leaving them with his blessing. After the wedding feast, Sir Gowther returned to Austria and made the old earl duke of the country and let him marry his mother, the duchess. Then he had an abbey built which he endowed forever and planned as his burial place. It was for Benedictine monks to study and sing mass for God’s sake, and he enclosed it within a strong wall. Although the pope had absolved him and God had forgiven his sins, he was still heartsick for having wickedly burned the nuns in their church and left their place so desolate. He built another abbey and convent therein for the learned, to pray until the world’s end for the souls of the nuns he had burned and for all Christians.

Sir Gowther then returned home, and by the time he arrived in Germany his father6 the emperor was dead, and Gowther became lord and emperor, the flower of Christian knights, and dreaded by Saracens. Whatever men asked him to do for God’s sake, he was always ready. He supported the poor in their need, and helped holy Church with all his might; thus he lived a better way of life.

He reigned many years as a powerful emperor, and when he died he was buried in the abbey he had built; there he, who suffered for God’s sake, lies in a gold shrine. His is a very holy body, well loved by the Christian people, and God has done miracles for his sake. Whoever seeks him with a free heart may be relieved of suffering, for so God has promised and has inspired him, once a cursed knight, with the Holy Ghost. He makes the blind see, the mute speak, the crooked straight, the mad sane, and many other miracles through the grace of God Almighty.

Thus Sir Gowther was first rich then poor, then rich again; born of a fiend, he ended in God’s grace. This is written on parchment, a good story from a Breton lay. Jesus Christ, God’s son, give us strength to dwell with him, the Lord that is greatest of might. Amen.

                                                         Explicit Sir Gowther


Sir Gowther demonstrates the wide range of Middle English romance as the poet places issues addressed by other authors in a different context. The author identifies his work as a Breton lai, but because of its religious overlay it is considered variously by scholars as homiletic or penitential romance, secular legend, secular hagiography, and pro-Church propaganda.7 Some find the mixture of secular and religious values incompatible, though an argument can be made for a successful interaction of the two, as the former can, and should, be guided by the latter.

The theme of knightly penance is not unique to Sir Gowther; other works fall into the same category with a focus on sin, penance, atonement and forgiveness, and repentant heroes appear in a number of romances but the works are usually more socially than religiously oriented. In her book The Sinful Knights, Andrea Hopkins studies penance in four poems she considers “penitential romance”: Sir Gowther, Guy of Warwick, Sir Ysumbras, and Roberd of Cisyle. She concludes that the penance the heroes perform differs greatly from the contemporary practice of private penance, which consisted of contrition, confession and satisfaction of penance on a regular basis. Penance generally consisted of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which could be performed unnoticed by others, rather than the severe penances seen in the romances. There were numerous manuals written for both clergy and parishioners, for instruction on the performance and habits that led to proper penance. Confession was made to the parish priest; extremely serious sins required a bishop’s absolution, and only six crimes, particularly against the Church, required the pope’s (Hopkins 64-65).

While the latter condition fits Sir Gowther, the rest of his penance, and that of other “sinful knights,” is of another type. Hopkins sees their experience closer to the “solemn penance” infrequently given during the early Church. It was a specialized form that involved public penance given for very serious, notorious offences, and could be imposed only once. As represented in the romances, it brought loss of social status and change of identity, and an emphasis on the penitent’s relationship with God (Hopkins 32). The romance heroes are first ignorant of their sin, suddenly recognize or are shown their guilt, and feel sorrow, contrition and a desire to make amends, which they achieve through penance. They then return to their former station, living a life of good works and piety (Hopkins 197). This dramatic, life-changing penitential experience is indeed different than the routine, meditative practices promulgated, though they are not incompatible; the poems are often found in manuscripts containing devotional works, again suggesting the fourteenth-century reader’s (or listener’s) desire for moral edification as well as entertainment.

Penitential romances may contain other romance themes, though they are generally secondary. Many of the themes seen in other works in this collection are found in Sir Gowther: poverty, trouthe, the rash oath, realignment of values, identity renewal, human valuation, social responsibility, and succession. And like those other heroes, he learns to use his prowess for good and is rewarded. However, while the others perfect their knighthood and humanity to benefit their society, Gowther also uses his powers to protect the Church; compared to his perversion of chivalry prior to his conversion, he thus becomes the exemplary knight under the feudal estate paradigm.

Regardless of its ubiquitous presence in medieval culture, it is generally agreed by historians that the three-estate system comprised of the clergy who pray, the knights who fight, and the peasants who work to support all never existed functionally in the complex, fluid social structure that responded to socioeconomic factors. Nevertheless, ideally one of the chief responsibilities of the knight was to protect the Church from both internal and external threat. The Saracens are commonly the enemy, so Gowther’s protection of the Christian emperor and vanquishing of the sultan is the perfect finale to his penance. Gowther is so exemplary that he approaches sainthood after his death, but like all who must learn through poverty, Gowther is rewarded materially for his successful renewal.

Patrimony is an obvious issue in Sir Gowther; he has a biological, nominal, and spiritual father and, often overlooked, a familial father, perhaps the most important as exemplar, protector and lord. Again, the question arises: what is the source of Gowther’s character? Are his evil deeds directed by the will of his fiendish father, or do they spring from the potential evil of fallen man? Is his conversion and successful transformation fueled by the gentility of his lineage, the example set by the emperor which constitutes his only social breeding, or his own inner resources?

Sir Gowther is found in two manuscripts, the Advocates and the Royal. While the two poems generally correspond, there are some significant differences in tone and content. The Royal version is less graphic in details of violence and more gentle overall, which leads some scholars to suggest that it was intended for a more sophisticated and refined audience. But there are also hints of differences in values between the two, as illustrated in the concluding stanzas which follow descriptions of miracles worked at Gowther’s shrine. One retraces Gowther’s history in terms of material wealth and parentage, while the other leaves the audience on a more personal, spiritual note.

Thus Sir Gowther recovered his care
That first was rich and then bare,
        and afterwards was rich again.
And begotten of a shaggy fiend.
Grace he had to make that end
        That God was of him glad.
This is written in parchment,
A story both good and fine.
        Out of a lay of Brittany.
Jesus Christ, God’s son,
Give us might with him to dwell.
        That lord that is most of might. Amen
                                Explicit Sir Gowther
                                        Advocates (739-50)
This tale is written in parchment,
A story good and fine,
In the first lay of Brittany;
Now God that is of might the most,
Father, and Son and Holy Ghost.
Of our souls be glad!
All that have heard this talking—
Poor, rich, old and young—
Blessed may they be;
God give them grace when they shall end,
To heaven’s bliss their souls send
With angels bright of hue.
                                Amen, pur charite
                                        Explicit Vita Sancti
                                                Royal (685-96)

The poem is dated ca. 1400. The edition used for Sir Gowther is Six Middle English Romances. Ed. and introd. Maldwyn Mills. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973, based on the Advocates 9.3 MS. Additional lines and emendations are from The Breton Lays in Middle English. Ed. Thomas C. Rumble. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1965, based on the Royal MS.


1 Ostensibly, jousting was a training ground for knights to develop their martial skills. Tournaments obviously provided entertainment for spectators, but also allowed knights to increase their financial state by winning property and capturing horses and gear from defeated combatants, as well as their reputation, a prideful act that was not agreeable to some moralists but part of the courtly culture.

2 Orchards and trees are conventional places for encountering supernatural beings, as in Sir Launfal and Sir Orfeo.

3 A curved sword, possibly of oriental origin.

4 In the Royal manuscript, the maiden sends him food earlier, before she knows he is in the battle, and they silently love each other.

5 This describes the symbolic heraldic devices on the sultan’s banner. A rampant lion stands on his left hind foot with his forepaw raised in the air.

6 In the Royal: “His wyfis fader” (“His wife’s father”; 663).

7 For a discussion of Sir Gowther as secular romance, see Dinah Hazell, "Sexuality, Love and Loyalty: Sir Gowther as Secular Romance."

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