The Colors of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript: The Questions that Launched a Scientific Analysis

For this school year’s exciting inaugural post, Maidie Hilmo shares her request for a scientific analysis of the Pearl-Gawain manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x), containing the unique copy of the Middle English poems: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It shows the kind of questions that help gain access to the viewing of original manuscripts and can result in a technological investigation of specific details. Bringing together science and art history, Hilmo has uncovered evidence that “the scribe was also the draftsperson of the underdrawings. It appears that the painted layers of the miniatures were added by one or more colorists, while the large flourished initials beginning the text of the poems were executed by someone with a different pigment not used in the miniatures.” The results of this request to the British Library—comprising the detailed report on the pigments by Dr. Paul Garside and a set of enhanced images by Dr. Christina Duffy, the Imaging Scientist — will become available on the Cotton Nero A.x Project website and, selectively, in publications by Hilmo, including: “Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)?,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Book Society; and “Re-conceptualizing the Poems of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript,” forthcoming in Manuscript Studies. To learn more, check out her special project here on our site.

Reading Sir Gawain in the Digital Age

The advent of e-books has prompted discussion about the experience of reading and its relationship to a material text. Opponents of digital books speak fondly of holding a book in hand, the ability to feel the weight of the object and physically see yourself progress through the text. There is a sense of something lost when this object changes form, when paper becomes plastic, when clicking replaces page-turning, when your sense of place in the text is measured by percentage rather than pages.

Illumination from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v

Of course, changes in the way in which we materially experience reading have been going on far longer than the recent shift to digital media. The book versions of older texts are in many ways even more distant from their original form than digital books are to their print ancestors.

While some these changes are  obvious to the readers—the illuminations, the particular handwriting, the spacing of the text on the page—editors of print editions also make choices that are less apparent. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides an interesting example of how much print can transform a medieval manuscript, as seen in the editors alterations of the bob and wheel form. In this form, the stanza ends with two short lines (the bob) followed by four rhyming lines (the wheel):


The editors follow this form exactly, but as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, the placement of the bob is not as regular in Gawain as modern editions would lead us to believe. Instead, the bob is written in the margin, often not directly before the wheel. Compare the following:

Modern Edition (eds. Andrew and Waldron)

Bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed,
Ne non euel on nawþer þay wysten
Bot blysse.
Þay laʒed and layked longe;
At þe last scho con hym kysse,
Hir leue fayre con scho fonge,
And went hir waye, iwysse. (1551-1557)


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1521-1558. Note the placement of the bob “bot blysse” two lines above the bob. British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 111v

As Kerby-Fulton argues, this fluid placement of the bob changes our understanding of certain passages, since it can often be attached to several lines and still be grammatically correct. Andrew and Waldron translate the modern version of lines 1552-3 as “nor were they aware of anything but pleasure.” In the original text, however, the placement of the bob would render the line “But he defended him so fair that no fault seemed but pleasure.”

The placement of the bob obviously has some impact upon our understanding of the poem. But what about that illusive “reading experience”? The modern editions fundamentally change this as well. Imagine, for a minute, that you are a medieval reader. When you read the bob, do you hear it exactly where it is placed? Do you hear it where the modern editor would move it to? Or do you hear it after multiple lines? Perhaps your eye floats out to it on several occasions, placing it in multiple positions and playing with its flexible meanings. Gawain, after all, is a poem of playful language and deceit, and the poet is noted for his use of puns in Pearl.

No modern edition has been printed that maintains the manuscript’s irregular placement of the bob. The solution, then, is to turn back to the manuscript: to printed facsimiles, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to digital scans of the original pages.

Jane Wageman
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of California Press, 1982.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Cornell University Press, 2007.

Gawain’s Lying Laughter

The plot of Gawain and the Green Knight centers around agreements. Gawain’s search for the green chapel begins in an attempt to fulfil his vow to exchange blows with the Green Knight.

The Green Knight leaves, holding his decapitated head; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v.

The journey leads into a second set of agreements—in the three days that he stays with Bertilak (the green knight in disguise), he and Bertilak agree to exchange whatever winnings they gain by day when they meet again at night. Although Gawain successfully exchanges winnings two out of the three nights, kissing Bertilak for each kiss Bertilak’s wife gave him, he keeps a girdle that Lady Bertilak claims protects the wearer from blows: Þer is no haþel vnder heuen tohewe hym þat myȝt (1853).

Gawain’s girdle isn’t the only powerful girdle in medieval literature. Here St. Cuthbert’s girdle cures Aelfflaed. Bede, Prose Life of Cuthbert, Durham, last quarter of the 12th century; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 48v.

Thomas D. Hill argues that Gawain’s failure to exchange the girdle is only a venial sin. He bases this argument on Augustine and Aquinas. St. Augustine says that jokes are not lies because the speaker’s disposition and tone are joking. Hill then proposes that tone and disposition must also apply to Thomas Aquinas’s much later concept of jocose lies, or lies that are told for pleasure, which Aquinas categorizes as venial sins.

Hill’s article points out that each exchange of gifts and vow to exchange them on the next day drips with the language of games, joking and laughter (283). Since the agreement to exchange winnings was made for entertainment under mirthful conditions, he suggests that Gawain’s decision to keep the girdle is a venial sin—St. Augustine argues that jokes are not lies. However, Augustine’s jokes use extralinguistic cues like tone of voice and demeanour to communicate the truth non-verbally.

Bertilak preparing to return Gawain’s blow; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x f. 125v.

This doesn’t happen with Gawain and the girdle. At the exchange where he keeps the girdle, he is mirthful. The text calls him “Sir Gawayn þe gode, þat glad watz with alle” (1925), speaks of his joye, ‘joy’, and emphasizes that he and Bertilak “maden as mery as any men moȝten” (1953). Despite this display of gladness, joy and mirth, Gawain’s disposition does nothing to communicate that he has the girdle. In fact, it conceals his oath-breaking—Gawain blends into the mirthful atmosphere that Bertilak has established at each of the previous exchanges of winnings.

Lines 1935-1971 of Gawain, in which Gawain and Bertilak exchange winnings for the last time; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1400; British Library, Cotton MS Nero Axx f. 117r.

This is the opposite of St. Augustine’s jokes—Gawain’s non-verbal communication assists his deception of Bertilak.

Bertilak’s laughter, mirth, and games also conceal lies of omission. He withholds information that he can survive a beheading, that he is also the Green Knight, and that he’s asked his wife to tempt Gawain. Yet, he controls the atmosphere of each exchange. He challenges Gawain to a Crystmas gomen, a Christmas game, and appears in the midst of a feast (283). This decision also places the exchange of winnings in the Christmas season—he tells Gawain to come a year afterwards. While Bertilak portrays both oaths as entertainment, their apparent levity both masks and contrasts Bertilak’s darker intentions. Unlike Augustine’s jokes, the non-verbal communication and mirth of Gawain aids in deception rather than revealing the truth.

Rachel Hanks
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Univ of California Press, 1982.

Hill, Thomas D. “Gawain’s Jesting Lie: Towards an Interpretation of the Confessional Scene in Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studia Neophilologica 52, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 279–86. doi:10.1080/00393278008587778.

A medieval depiction of a feast; Speculum humanae salvationis, London, 1485-1509; British Library, Harley MS 2838, f.45r.