Having a Fit about Fitts: The Manuscript Structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For many students, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will likely be the first medieval text they are assigned to read. Frequently included in popular anthologies such as the Norton, Sir Gawain is a story that even non-medievalists such as myself are likely to have some degree of familiarity with. However, despite the poem’s familiarity Sir Gawain still holds a number of surprises in store for scholars and readers. In particular, I wish to discuss here what have come to be known as the four “fitts” the poem is commonly divided into.

The text of Sir Gawain survives physically in just a single manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x.) in the possession of the British Library. The poem was rediscovered in the 1830s by Sir Frederic Madden, the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library and one of the foremost English scholars of his day. Madden edited and published the first edition of the poem, Syr Gawayne, in 1839. Here Madden inaugurated the tradition of dividing the text into four parts, or “fitts” as he termed them. This division has subsequently been unquestioningly received by most subsequent editors of the poem. In 1947, Laurita Lyttleton Hill became one of the first scholars to question the palaeographical justifications for Madden’s four-part division, writing, “One can only suppose that in the hundred years and more since Sir Frederic Madden’s ‘Syr Gawayne,’ tradition has solidified the published form of the poem into a mold that no one cares to disturb.”[1]

In the introduction to their 1925 scholarly edition of the poem J.R.R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon note that “The four main divisions of the poem are indicated by large ornamental coloured capitals. Smaller coloured capitals without ornament occur at the beginning of lines 619, 1421, 1893, 2259.”[2] In her scholarship Hill dug deeper into these paleogeographic descriptions, casting doubt on whether Tolkien and Gordon’s descriptions of the capitals as “large” or “small” were entirely accurate, and on whether the degrees of the capitals’ ornamentation stands up to scrutiny as a justification for the divisions.


Ultimately, Hill advocated for a nine-part division recognizing all of the manuscript’s capitals as places of division. Hill ended her argument with the emphatic claim, “It has become evident, however, that there is no absolute four-fold division of Gawain. Such a division exists only in printed tradition and cannot be supported by any attentive examination of Cotton Nero A.x. or of the poem itself.” I have included at the end of this post Hill’s diagram showing at what points in the narrative the capitals recognized in her nine-fold division occur in contrast to Madden’s. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes of the nine potential divisions, “One could make several observations: first, the divisions closely parallel the spirit of the medieval narrative summaries marking progress through romances—these tend to mark knightly clashes, deaths, and miraculous events. Second, perhaps more profoundly, the medieval divisions mark moments of soul searching.”[3] Although the four-fitt division creates a recognizable narrative structure for modern readers, it perhaps does so at the expense of the potentially richer alternative of attempting to recover these earlier conceptions of narrative progression.

Most subsequent editions since Hill’s article up to the present day have maintained Madden’s four-part division; however, an enriching scholarly conversation has taken up the debate surrounding the question of the four-fitt division’s paleographic merits. Unfortunately, this debate has been largely absent from the paratextual materials of many modern editions, such as Simon Armitage’s popular translation (which has since been taken up and used by the Norton). Many of these editions do not attempt to justify or explain their decision to retain Madden’s four-part division; due to the significant nature of Madden’s intervention it seems like an error to avoid addressing this decision, as many of the poem’s readers will, as a result, remain unaware about the poem’s structural uncertainty. I hope that recent scholarly endeavors such as the Cotton Nero A.x. Project, which seeks to increase access to the manuscript by digitizing it, will help to resuscitate this scholarly debate and perhaps even inspire new editions of Sir Gawainthat adhere more closely to the manuscript’s structure.

DivisionScribal InitialMadden’s DivisionCorrelation with the Poem
ISPart IThe beheading test, part 1; the new year, the blow received, lines 1-490.
IITPart IIThe year passes before the annual combat; the knight is armed: lines 491-618.
IIITN/AThe pentangle, the character of Gawain; the journey; Christmas Eve Gawain’s prayer for guidance; Lines 619-762.
IVNN/AThe sudden appearance of the perilous castle; Gawain’s reception; Christmas festivities; the exchange winnings proposed and accepted; Lines 763-1125.
VFPart IIIThe huntsman host; the deer hunt; temptation 1; lines 1126-1420.
VISN/AThe huntsman host; the boar hunt; temptation 2; the fox hunt; temptation 3; the magic girdle; Lines 1421-1892.
VIINN/AThe fox hunt concluded; Gawain asks for a guide; he bids goodbye to those in the castle: lines 1893-1997.
VIIINPart IVNew Year; the journey resumed; the ford perilous; the Green Knight appears: lines 1998-2258.
IXTN/AThe beheading test part 2; the blow returned; the connection of Morgan la Faye with the plot; Gawain returns to Arthur’s court: lines 2259-2530.
Source: Hill, Laurita Lyttleton. “Madden's Divisions of Sir Gawain and the `Large Initial Capitals' of Cotton Nero A.X..” Speculum, 21, 1, 1946, pp 70-71.

Joshua Wright
PhD student, English
University of Notre Dame

[1] Laurita Lyttleton Hill, “Madden’s Divisions of Sir Gawain and the `Large Initial Capitals’ of Cotton Nero A.X..” (21:1), 67.
[2] V. Gordon and J.R.R. Tolkien, editors, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. VIII.
[3] Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Madie Hilmo, and Linda Olson, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts. 59.

Teaching Latin with English

When you first learned how to read and write, you probably did so in your native language. As natural as this seems, medieval teachers did things differently. Throughout most of the Middle ages, grammar meant Latin grammar; literate, able to read Latin. Ælfric’s Grammar (written ca. 992-1002), marks an important break with previous pedagogy.  In the first sentence Ælfric proclaims the revolutionary nature of his project: “I’ve worked to translate these excerpts from Priscian for you boys into your own language” (he does so in Latin, ironically enough). For the first time, then, a European vernacular was used to teach grammar.

Ælfric’s source is the Excerptiones de Prisciano, a judicious culling containing “almost all the important and interesting components” (David W. Porter, ed., Exerptiones de Prisciano, Woodridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002) from the Latin grammarian (fl. 500) whose textbook was a virtual best-seller in medieval Europe. The Excerptiones survives in only two complete manuscripts: London, British Library MS Add. 32246 and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Nouv. Acq. Lat. 586. The former (pictured below), written in the first half of the eleventh century, is particularly noteworthy for the Latin-English glossaries that often crowd its margins (when there isn’t a random peasant’s head there instead).

London, British Library MS Add. 32246; fol. 24v.

It thus offers us a fascinating view of how medieval students in England could negotiate between Latin and their native tongue. The glosses in Add. 32246 were intended to help students cope with difficult Latin words by giving English definitions. They’re no less useful today, only now, when our collective knowledge of Latin greatly surpasses our knowledge of Old English, for the exact opposite reason: using Latin to improve our understanding of Old English. For scholars of Old English, who most often determine the shades of meaning of a word based on its usage in a very small corpus, the glossaries provide priceless linguistic information.

London, British Library MS Add. 32246; fol. 2v.

This particular folio contains a list of farming tools, as indicated by the majuscule heading in the top left corner: “DE INSTRVM(EN)TIS AGRICOLARV(M).” The format is simple with a period separating the Latin word on the left from its English equivalent. On the next line, we can see that Dentale (a plowshare’s beam) is cipp and Fimus (manure) is dung. At times two Latin synonyms are provided for one English word, or vice-versa. Thus, on the fourth line in the left margin Aculeus (spur) is translated as stiels. ł (an abbreviation for vel, “or”) gadisen. While the glosses aren’t directly related to the text, which at this point treats “the relationship of letters” (DE AFFINITATE LITTERARUM) and “consonants” (DE CONSONANTIBUS), it reflects a preoccupation similar to Ælfric’s, i.e. combining Latin grammar and English vocabulary aids .

At the top of folio 5r, we find another set of glosses written in a different hand. These glosses, sorted by letter (this page features “B”) but not in alphabetical order, define exceedingly obscure Latin words through more common ones.

London, British Library MS Add. 32246, fol. 5r.

Thus, at the top we see Boeties i. greci (“Boeotians, i.e., Greeks”), and on the line below, a Balano i. herba fullonu(m) qua uestis purgatus (“Balano, i.e., a fullonum herb that cleans clothes”). On the right margin, our other scribe has continued his Latin-English glossary of agricultural terms, now imitating the alphabetical order of the Latin-Latin list.

Garrett Jansen
University of Notre Dame

Lordship, Violence, and other Shenanigans in the Morgan Picture Bible

One of the best sources for a good understanding of the ways lordship was enacted in the medieval period is to take a good look at manuscript illustrations. Historians have used the Morgan Bible, commissioned in the 1240s by Louis IX, to reconstruct the material culture of thirteenth-century France, but even more useful is the access the manuscript gives us to rituals of power in the period. The first image includes King’s Saul’s anointment as king of Israel.  It is identical to the form that a thirteenth-century coronation ritual would take.

The Morgan Bible is useful as an exemplar of manuscript transmission. Below, one gets a clear look at the Latin biblical quotations at the top and bottom, as well as the Persian and Judeo-Persian inscriptions added during the manuscript’s seventeenth-century tenure at the court of Shah Abbas, King of Persia. This is even more remarkable when one realizes that the Bible originally had no text, each script was added later as the manuscript traveled.

Saul and the Army of Israel battle the Amalekites, Saul is anointed King by Samuel. Morgan MS M.638 (fol. 23v) http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/46

It’s easy to tell right away that this is a royal manuscript. Red, blue, and green inks serve to correct or decorate texts of all kinds, but the palate range  of this project and the detail of the depictions could only be funded by royal patrons. The image of Goliath below gives a stark depiction of thirteenth-century arms, and if you look closely, you can see the stone embedded in Goliath’s head!

David faces Goliath and Beheads him with his own sword! Morgan MS M.638 (fol. 28v)– http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/56

Although recent work on the nobility of the High Middle Ages argues convincingly that aristocrats were far more literate than previously thought, one wonders if the Old Testament was chosen largely so the court could enjoy lavish illustrations of horrific violence. (Paul, 2013, 2006 Clanchy, 1978)

It is simple to identify characters in the Morgan Bible. King Saul is consistently drawn in orange and Jonathan is always dressed in grey while armed. David’s wardrobe changes consistently throughout, perhaps to emphasize his passage from shepherd boy to king in Israel. Below, he has adopted the clothes of a thirteenth century courtly youth and lord.

Jonathan warns David of Saul’s treachery, David doesn’t look too surprised… Morgan MS M.638 (fol. 30r) http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/59

Good lords always take counsel from their friends, even if your friend happens to be the son of the man who consistently tries to kill you!

Below is an illustration of the Israelites’ final battle with the Amalekites. Usually only the Israelites wear the large great helms worn by higher-status men at arms. If one looks closely, the scribe has inscribed ‘IOYOUSE’ onto the sword of a Philistine. Song of Roland, anyone?

Jonathan Sapp
University of Notre Dame


Nicholas Paul, To Follow in Their Footsteps: The Crusades and Family Memory in the High Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013)

Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307, 3rd. edn. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

Jonathan and King Saul meet their deaths in a final battle against the Amalekites. Morgan MS M.638 (fol. 34v) http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/68#