Sir Gowther – Would it have shocked the audience?

This paper focuses on Sir Gowther in relation to Gowther’s heroic career and also discusses to what extent the Middle English romance corresponds with the expectations of romance that may be held by an audience. I argue that while Sir Gowther centres on the hero’s education and quest for identity it is surprising in that it alters the conventional Middle English romance tale of chivalric adventure, where the main protagonist is typically a questing knight, into a story of a hero, born a half-devil, who is transformed into a saintly figure by miraculous conversion.

Transformation from devil to saint-like figure

Sir Gowther is a moderately short, anonymous Middle English romance. Often cited as an adaptation of the late twelfth century French poem Robert the Devil, Robert le Diable, it tells the story of the life of Sir Gowther from birth to death.  Sir Gowther can be found in two manuscripts dating from the late-fifteenth century; that of the National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. and also the British Library Royal MS 17.B.43. In both manuscripts the romance is composed of twelve-line, tail rhyme stanzas; however both versions of Sir Gowther differ slightly from one another (Laskaya and Salisbury, 1995).

The British Library Royal manuscript, as it was perhaps meant for a more refined and cultured audience, fails to include the passage where the hero, prior to his conversion, along with his comrades commit a repugnant crime where they rape and loot a convent of nuns and subsequently burn the convent to the ground.  The manuscript found in the National Library of Scotland however, Laskaya and Salisbury (1995) state, is told in “a more vigorous and decidedly more explicit manner”.

Gowther’s heroic career corresponds with an audience’s expectation of medieval romance in that Sir Gowther, like many other romances, focuses on the hero’s education and quest for identity. Gowther’s heroic career begins when he sets out on a pursuit of moral recovery, a quest that centres on the sophisticated conversion from evil to good. However, Gowther’s struggles are much greater than those of the usual medieval romance protagonist (Richmond, 1975). I believe that Gowther cannot be characterised as a typical knight who embarks on a quest to perform a prescribed deed nor can he be depicted as a fallible human being who must reach the self-awareness and understanding that leads to transcendence. Gowther is the embodiment of evil as he is of demonic paternity, he is begotten by a “fowle fend” (4) and is described as “Marylyng’s halfe bruder” (98). The Minstrel’s invocation is much more specific than would have been expected by a medieval audience. The Minstrel asks God to “Shilde us from the fowle fende/ That is about mannys sowle to shende/ All tymes of the yere!” (4-6)

The relevance of the prayer becomes apparent when Gowther’s diabolical early life and unfathomable acts of violence are revealed. As an infant Gowther is responsible for the death of nine wet-nurses whom he suckles to death and as a young man he wilfully terrorises people, particularly those of religious orders. He and his comrades commit heinous crimes including the rape and looting of a convent of nuns where they subsequently burn the convent to the ground.  Gowther is depicted as the anti-Christ, beating down men and women of God. However, not only is he a figure of the anti-Christ but he is also anti-knight by harming those who, as a knight, he should be protecting. An old earl asks:

Syr, why dose thu soo?

We howpe thu come never of Cryston stryn,

Bot art sum fendys son, we weyn,

That werkus hus this woo.

Thu dose never gud, bot ey tho ylle –

We hope thu be full syb tho deyll. (207-211)

The accusation of demonic paternity leads Gowther to have a confrontation with his mother who confesses all to her son at the point of his sword. Gowther has however been christened (107) and on learning that his father was a Devil his immediate response is to pray and desire penance for his evil wrongdoing. Gowther states “Y wyll to Rome to tho apostyll, /

That he mey schryfe me and asoyll” (250-251).

Often medieval romances were associated with quests concerning religious faith and it is clear that this tail-line romance is representative of the crisis of the Christian soul in the Middle Ages where people were of the belief that the souls of those who committed sin and did not confess their immoral behaviour, and subsequently repent, would end up in hell (Johnston, 2011). Gowther embarks on his journey alone to receive absolution for his sins from the Pope. To secure his Christian identity he will undertake a quest to find his real father. Is he a son of the Devil? Is he a son of God? Gowther is granted an audience with the Pope and is given his penance:

Wherser thu travellys, be northe or soth,

Thu eyt no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe

Cum thy body within;

Ne no worde speke for evyll ne gud,

Or thu reyde tokyn have fro God,

That forgyfyn is thi syn. (295-300)

Gowther’s wild appearance and violent actions, according to Lasayak and Salisbury (1995), are associated with the familiar tradition of wild folks depicted quite often in the margins of medieval romance. Gowther’s previous behaviour as a violent anti-Christ becomes a metaphor for sin and his pursuit for his true identity could perhaps be viewed a metaphor for the Christian sinner’s quest for salvation through repentance.

Hopkins (1990) argues that Sir Gowther is a penitential romance and Gowther, once ignorant of his wrongdoing, becomes conscious of his sins having learned the truth of his paternity. It is Gowther’s remorse and guilt surrounding the violent acts he previously committed that lead him to repent and through penance he is brought closer to God. In the castle of the Emperor of Almayn, according to Cooper (2004), Gowther undergoes an extreme form of penance. He takes food only brought to him by dogs and he, like the Emperor’s daughter, becomes mute.

The Emperor of Germany’s daughter attracts the attention of a Sultan and when the Emperor refuses to allow the Sultan to marry his daughter a war is waged between them. When the Castle is besieged by Saracen invaders the former son of the Devil becomes a defender of Christianity. Gowther has now clearly become an agent of God and prays to Him for the accoutrements of a knight – a shield, a horse and armour- so that he can fight. Every day Gowther’s prayers are miraculously answered. For three days he battles, invincibly, alongside the Emperor’s army. He appears first as a black knight, then a red knight and on the final day a white knight which Laskaya and Salisbury (1995) note is perhaps a representation of Gowther’s purification process. Even in the midst of triumph Gowther tirelessly repents for his sins:

He had no thoght bot of is syn,

And how he myght is soule wyn

To tho blys that God con hym by. (538-540)

No worde speyke, withowt wene,

For dowtte of Godus wreke;

If all he hongurt, noght he dyd eytte

Bot what he myght fro tho howndus geyt;

He dyd as tho Pwope con hym teche. (608-612)

What is surprising and would perhaps shock a medieval audience about Sir Gowther is the sheer magnitude of the hero’s transformation from the figure of the anti-Christ, who committed atrocious acts of violence, to an exemplary Christian knight. From infancy and prior to his conversion, Gowther carries out his father’s will, his true father the Devil, acting monstrous and diabolical while showing no remorse for those around him. However, his devotion to his religion and willingness to repent for his sins are rewarded. After appearing to be dead having fallen from her tower, the Emperor’s daughter’s body becomes a locus of a miraculous event. She speaks; her first words are from God to Gowther:

“My lord of heyvon gretys the well,

And forgyffeus the thi syn yche a dell,

And grantys the tho blys;

And byddus the speyke on hardely,

Eyte and drynke and make mery;

Thu schallt be won of His.”

(lines 661-666)

The Pope observes that the conditions for Gowther’s redemption have been recognised and thus Gowther is liberated from his place beneath the table and the silent prison that was his body. There is a change also in Gowther’s paternity. He is no longer a son of the Devil but is now a son of God. The Pope states “Now art thu Goddus chyld; /The thar not dowt tho warlocke wyld, /Ther waryd mot He bee” (673-75).

The transformation from a child of the Devil to a child of God only increases Gowther’s sanctity and he continues to pursue a life of good. Having once been the cause of all destruction Gowther turns his attention to building abbeys. His charity is endless and even in death he continues to do good as miracles take place where he is buried. I argue that Gowther’s conversion from a Devil to a saint-like figure, or an actual saint as expressed solely in the Royal manuscript, could be an exaggerated portrayal of Christian belief in Redemption.

It is apparent that Gowther’s career resembles that of Lancelot or Guy to an extent and the tale in its most basic form corresponds with an audience’s expectation of romance; the hero begins a quest trying to establish a new, or in search of his true, identity. However it is Gowther’s paternity that makes the hero’s transformation so astonishing. He begins his life as a barbaric, violent and callous individual, a replicate of his father, carrying out the Devil’s work. The transition from such a beastly creature that conducts the work of the Devil to a saint-like figure that carries out the will of God is astounding and would probably have shocked an audience familiar with traditional medieval romance.


Cooper, H.  The English Romance in Time, Oxford University Press. 2004. Print.

Hopkins,  A. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romances. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1990. Print.

Johnston, R.A.  All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World, Greenwood Press. 2011. Print.

Laskaya, A. Salisbury, E. The Middle English Breton Lays. University of Rochester Archive.

Medieval Institute Publications. 1995. Web. December, 2012.

Richmond, V. B.  The Popularity of Middle English Romance. Bowling Green University Popular Press, US. 1975. Print.