“Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters”: A Paradigm From Ecclesiastes in Gower’s “Apollonius of Tyre”

  • Monica E. McAlpine
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the intricately structured final tale of John Gower’s Confessio amantis, the widowed Apollonius’s relationship to his daughter constitutes the heart of the story: his decision to foster her out, her seeming death, his consequent despair, and their eventual reunion. This chapter argues that Gower frames these events with others that introduce, validate by experience, and authoritatively confirm the virtues with which the hero confronts his adventures. The key elements in these frames are gifts, initially a shipload of wheat, and the stormy sea. The sea, here and more broadly in medieval art, has long been recognized as representing fortune, but the grain that Apollonius donates to Tharsis has received little attention.1 Brought together, these narrative elements suggest the “bread” and “waters” of a well-known passage from Ecclesiastes: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”2


Fourteenth Century Divine Intervention Final Tale Canterbury Tale Divine Origin 
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  1. 1.
    On the iconography of the sea and fortune, see V.A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (London: Edward Arnold, 1984), pp. 326–40. On the gift of wheat as an instance of liberality, seeGoogle Scholar
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  10. Larry Scanlon, “The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality,” in Re-Visioning Gower, ed. R.F. Yeager (Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 1998), pp. 93–127.Google Scholar
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    Kurt Olsson, in John Gower and the Structures of Conversion: A Reading of the “Confessio Amantis” (Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1992), pp. 216–24, is eloquent on this point.Google Scholar
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    See Patrick J. Gallacher, Love, the Word and Mercury: A Reading of John Gower’s “Confessio Amantis” (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), pp. 129–37.Google Scholar
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    On the “irresolution” of the prologue as evidence of Gower’s very Boethian doubt about Boethian doctrine, see Winthrop Wetherbee, “Latin Structure and Vernacular Space: Gower, Chaucer and the Boethian Tradition,” in Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange, ed. R.F. Yeager, English Literary Studies 51 (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria Press, 1991), pp. 18–23 [7–35].Google Scholar

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© Bonnie Wheeler 2006

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  • Monica E. McAlpine

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