John Gower's principal work in Latin concerned, in part, the peasant revolt of 1381, the most famous uprising of the Middle Ages in England.
In 1337 Edward III had involved the country in a war with France that was to last for over a century. Taxes were heaped on the peasantry to pay for the war and this came to a head with new poll tax, the third since the death of Edward.
The waves of plague, starting in 1348, decimated the population, resulting in a shortage of labour. So the workers who had survived demanded more wages for their work. This was countered by a law in 1351, the Statute of Labourers, limiting wage rises, which provoked workers to revolt. Some landlords also tried to turn workers back into serfs to avoid paying working wages. Among the supporters were Lollards, the movement inspired by John Wycliffe, translator of the Bible into English.
The rebels stormed the Tower of London where the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Lord Treasurer, advocates of the poll tax, had taken refuge. They were executed by the mob.
However, the rebellion only lasted a month and was suffocated by the new king, Richard II, first though negotiation by agreeing to abolish serfdom, then by deception and repression. However, the poll tax was abandoned, the new labour law on wages wasn't enforced strictly and the serfs were able to buy their freedom and work as independent farmers.
John Gower, a friend of Chaucer, penned Vox Clamantis ("the voice of one crying out") a Latin poem of 10,265 lines between 1330 and 1408. Scholars have proposed that Vox Clamantis was composed before 1381 and that the first book Visio Anglie was added afterwards. The reason adduced by scholarship is that the uprising challenged Gower's moral project in the previous book and that Visio stands as a response to this challenge.
The first book, of the seven in Vox Clamantis, Visio Anglie (A Vision of England), is a dream describing the peasants' rebellion of 1381. It can be divided into several sections:
This is a traditional prologue which states the author, subject and purpose. The author is named through a cryptogram. The subject and purpose are described in this quote:
"For I shall write nothing in order that I might be praised, and my performance does not intend that I should have a care for my future reputation. I shall enter the recent misfortunes that my country has exhibited, for it is a worthy labor to report the deeds of one's native land."
- Chapter 1
The opening is a description of a Spring day, similar to that of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The dream begins at darkness which, in the biblical tradition, is when bad news arrives.
- Beast Vision (Chapters 2-12)
The peasants in the uprising are described as rebellious animals: asses, oxen, swine, dogs, cats, foxes, birds, flies and frogs. They reject their usual roles, such as pulling the plough, and are portrayed as hungry terrorists. They are often drawn from classical or biblical literature like the bulls from Minos or the Egyptian plagues. They are the beasts into which Circe transformed Ulysses' companions.
Gower takes sides in the revolt by showing only the rebellion peasants as animals, not the free men. The uprising is portrayed as an insurrection against the divine and natural order. The activists are demons and are condemned to hell.
- Troy Vision (Chapters 13–15)
Gower uses the legend of England's founding by Brutus of Troy, a mythical descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas. The Trojan figures represent three well-known contemporaries involved in quelling the revolt: Hecuba as the Queen Mother; Prism as King Richard II; Helenus as the Archbishop of Canterbury). The author's suggestion is that New Troy (England) might have the same fate as historic Troy. The beheading of the Archbishop by the rebels is described in detail.
- Ship Vision (Chapter 16-20)
The ship is a metaphor for the Tower of London where the royalists had gone for refuge. The prayer is modelled on an invocation to Neptune at the outset of a voyage. Ovid's Metamorphoses is the prototype for the description of the storms at sea. The ship is adrift but arrives at harbour. In the end the dreamer meets an old man who is highly critical of lawlessness in England. The dreamer hopes for peace but a divine voice advises him stoically to accept constant conflict since the Christian soul can never be at rest in this world.
Epilogue (Chapter 21)
On awakening the dreamer gives thanks to God and the Virgin. The oxen have returned to their yokes, but more uprisings are predicted.
Authority and class are shown in Visio Anglie through food, appearance and behaviour. Basing himself on manuals of courtesy Gower classified people's characters and social value through their physical looks and actions, establishing a social hierarchy. The aim was to affirm and maintain the social order of 14th. century England, which was under threat from the loss of ecclesiastical power, the ravages of the plague and the demise of the feudal system. The revolting peasants were viewed as a threat to the establishment. Having conquered the masses, the poem's conclusion was that further disenfranchisement and control were required by the ruling classes to maintain order.
Gower positions himself as a moralist attempting to clarify, advise and teach in Visio Anglie, interpreting events as "signa". It is composed in Latin and so addressed to the highly literate class whose sins and moral decadence Gower blamed for the peasant revolt. For this he advises some sort of penitence.
In contrast stand the revolting peasants, transformed into braying, mooing, grunting, barking, howling, and screeching animals, obedient to a jackdaw. This depiction materialises their separation frpm human reason and also assigns them a low status in society. Gower saw the peasants as unjustified in their cause. In the following books, Vox Clamantis, he portrays the peasant action as the work of the Anti-Christ and a sign of evil prevailing over virtue.
According to Gower, the peasants are incapable of ethical decisions since they:
"are monstrous on account of their inability to properly absorb, and relate to, past and present experience . . . to weigh the ramifications of their actions."
In the poem the unenfrachised are presented as ineffectual as agents of political change. The real rulers, the aristocracy, have allowed chaos to reign through their own moral laxity. Society functions through its ethical code and so the govering classes must be educated and forced to live correctly in order to ensure a stable society. This is the theme developed in the rest of Vox Clamantis.
In the poem the world is perceived through the empirical viewpoint of the senses. Gower's approach to description is through sensory experience. The language is based on emotional and physical experiences. These sensory perceptions imprint on the dreamer's mind.
On the other hand the revolting peasants have the opposite models of knowledge. They are monsters who inhabit a world devoid of history, where experience is of no importance. Despite its fantastical setting the poem evokes a realistic sense of history, according to the poet, which is a reminder to the English nobility of how society works at the deepest level.