Alchemical Language: Latin and the Vernacular in the Poetry of Thomas Norton and John Gower

  • David Hadbawnik
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the late medieval and early modern period, alchemical poetry, with its frequent recourse to Latin and other classical languages through which texts were transmitted, became a key contributor to the process of developing a vernacular poetic language in England. Poets from both periods deployed the pose of the “alchemical master,” guarding the professional secret while also offering to reveal it to select readers. In the works of John Gower and alchemist-poet Thomas Norton, Latin offered a way to ward off ignorant readers while challenging others to pursue the secret through language games and code-switching. Both Norton and Gower, in different ways, suggest that careful readers can work through the vernacular to discover deep hermetic truths. This chapter considers selections from Norton’s The Ordinal of Alchemy and Gower’s Confessio Amantis (alongside images from manuscripts) to explore the ways Latin was used and visually represented in relation to the vernacular by these poets, with some comparison of Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of alchemy in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.”


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Hadbawnik
    • 1
  1. 1.American University of KuwaitSalmiyaKuwait

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