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)

Manuscript

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.

Illustrating the Gawain Manuscript: New Scientific Evidence!

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f125r_129r
The temptation of Gawain; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x, f. 125r/129r; © The British Library

New scientific analysis may completely change our understanding of one of the most famous manuscripts for students of Middle English literature. British Library Cotton Nero A.x is the sole extant manuscript of the works of the so-called Gawain-poet, the anonymous author of Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These jewels of the Alliterative Revival are today some of the best-known medieval English works, but we would not have them at all if they did not survive in this single late fourteenth-century manuscript. Even better for students of Middle English literature is that this manuscript is illustrated, including scenes from all four texts. For years, scholars have offered only a poor critical assessment of the pictures, an assessment that a few more recent scholars have begun to reexamine. Are these really the crudely executed illustrations of an amateur artist?

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f82r_86r
Jonah is cast into the whale; Patience, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3), f. 82r/86r © The British Library

New discoveries, based on analysis of the pigments and ink, may change our understanding of the part these illustrations may have played in the original production of the manuscript. Maidie Hilmo, of the University of Victoria, has studied these illustrations extensively, most recently in a new overview of the pictures that she has written for eventual publication on the Cotton Nero A.x. Project, an international initiative of the University of Calgary to make digital images, transcriptions, and critical editions of the manuscript more widely available. She requested a scientific analysis of the pigments, and one of the most striking results  is that the same iron gall ink was used for both the text and the underdrawings of the images, as Paul Garside, the Senior Conservation Scientist at the British Library, has indicated. Is it possible this may mean the illustrations, or at least the underdrawings, were drawn around the same time the manuscript was originally written, possibly even by the scribe? There is no smoking gun, but it is true that iron gall ink was not what illuminators ordinarily used for their drawings – this ink was far more typically the medium of scribes, rather than manuscript artists, as indicated by Mark Clarke, an internationally acknowledged expert on medieval pigments.

Hilmo Royal 19 D.II, f.395
Jonah emerges from the whale, in an image showing several iconographic similarities to the one in Patience; Bible Historiale of John the Good, Paris, c. 1350;
British Library Royal MS 19 D.ii, f. 395r

Traditionally, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the relative timeframe of the copying of the manuscript’s text and the drawing and painting (not necessarily the same thing!) of the illustrations. Many earlier efforts at dating the illustrations suggested that they were made around 1400-1420, potentially some decades after the 1375-1400 copying of the text.1 This new analysis suggests such dating of the pictures may be off, and invites future scholars to reassess the dating of the various components of the illustrations in relation to the text. Hilmo considers Jennifer Lee’s argument that the heavy-handed painting may have been done by another hand, different from the artist of the underdrawings.2

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f126r_130r_EnhancedOutlines
Enhanced image of Gawain being welcomed back to court, showing the underdrawing, including some details, like those of Gawain’s leg armor, which have been somewhat obscured by the painting; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3), f. 126r/130r © The British Library

Hilmo invites the meditative reader to reconsider the function of the miniatures not only in illustrating individual poems but also in linking all four poems into a cohesive narrative reshaping and unifying them “into a larger interpretive, typological and iconographic framework.” Whether or not a thoughtful scribe was involved in this visual reconceptualization of the poems as a whole, this study encourages us to see fresh meanings in our successive encounters with Cotton Nero A.x.

For the full explanation of this new research, explore Hilmo’s overview and a draft of the complete article now available on the Chequered Board (she encourages responses).

Nicole Eddy
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

1. See A. I. Doyle, “The Manuscripts,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background: Seven Essays, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), 88–100; Sarah Horrall, “Notes on British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X,” Manuscripta 30 (1986): 191–98.
2. Jennifer A. Lee, “The Illuminating Critic: The Illustrator of Cotton Nero A.X,” Studies in Iconography 3 (1977): 17–45.

The Christ Knight

Most of us are familiar with the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but what about Jesus as a knight in shining armor, ready to do battle with a Black Knight called Satan or a fire-breathing dragon called Hell?  In the literature of the Middle Ages, Christ was represented as such a knight, ready to save the day.  Evidence of this can be found in Latin and Middle English sermons, religious lyrics, dramas, and hymns from the 13th to the 15th centuries.  In one hymn, Christ’s crown of thorns actually transforms into a battle helmet!

The knight on horseback as the Just Man armed with good virtues with his shield of faith; William Peraldus, Summa de vitiis, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century; BL Harley MS 3244, f. 28r.

Though the idea of the Christ Knight may seem strange, there is a biblical precedent.  Ephesians 6:13-16 describes the armor of God’s soldier:

Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.   And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…

The Christ Knight could be represented in two different ways.  He could be the courtly lover wooing his beloved lady and sacrificing his life for her in battle (a story about Christ’s love of the human soul), or he could be the fearless warrior who duels with the forces of evil, is crucified, and rises from the grave to free the souls imprisoned in Hell.

Christ harrowing Hell, detail of a miniature from the Speculum humanae salvationis, London, 1485-1509; BL Harley MS 2838, f. 33v.

One of the earliest examples of the Christ Knight as courtly lover comes from an English manuscript of 1215.  An anonymous author wrote the manuscript, Ancrene Riwle, whose purpose was to instruct three young ladies on religious and intellectual matters.  In it, he tells a story about a lady in a castle of clay, surrounded by enemies.  She is cold and unresponsive to the brave knight trying to woo her, yet he rides out to joust for her and dies on the battlefield, his body his shield, stretched out on the Cross.

Knight illustration from the Westminster Psalter, Westminster, second quarter of the 13th century; BL Royal MS 2.A.xxii, f. 220r.

Christ as a warrior was also a popular motif.  In a poem by William Herebert, written in 1333, Jesus is a young lord and valiant champion, not afraid of a good fight.  In the Christian epic poem, Piers Plowman, Christ wears his “humana natura” as a helmet and armor to save all of mankind.  Though he’s crucified on earth, he rises after death to storm the gates of Hell, described as a castle.  The devils in Hell are unprepared for the attack, because Christ had come “disguised” as a simple human being rather than a great king.  This disguise is payback to Satan for wearing the disguise of a snake to tempt Adam and Eve.  “Jousting” with Satan in the “armor” of human flesh, Christ frees the souls of the good people (such as Moses and Adam) who lived on earth before his birth.  Clearly, the Christ Knight was a powerful Medieval symbol.

James Cotton
PhD Candidate
Literature Program
University of Notre Dame