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)

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.

Welcome to Medieval Manuscript Studies!

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Words within words! A woman, inhabiting the large first initial of the Latin word “verba” (“words”), holds up a book
Office of the Dead, Oxford, c. 1220-1240; British Library Arundel MS 157, f. 134r

In fall of 2014, University of Notre Dame graduate students had the opportunity to explore the world of medieval manuscripts under the guidance of Professor Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and postdoctoral fellow Nicole Eddy.  Manuscript Studies is an exciting and quickly growing field, fueled in part by the explosion of digital resources for this study: libraries and archives around the world are digitizing their collections, making it easier than ever before for students, scholars, and the general public to get a close-up view of medieval Europe’s heritage of book history.  Not only that, but the study of manuscripts — books literally “written by hand,” each one unique — can give a deeper perspective on questions that excite us today.  In a world of e-readers and audiobooks, what does it mean to say we have “read” a “book”?  How do the physical materials of books affect our understanding of the text?  How, we ask, did earlier readers approach the works we study today, and what can their readings teach us? And what can we learn from things outside the text block, the pictures and marginal notes that were the Middle Ages’ answer to today’s hyperlinks or comment fields?

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Medieval writing was a double-fisted endeavor: scribes wrote with a pen in one hand and a knife in the other, to “erase” (literally “razor out”) their mistakes
Mandeville’s Travels, Bohemia, first quarter of the 15th century; British Library Additional MS 24189, f. 4r

In this blog students will, over the coming months, share the fruits of their researches, spotlighting some of the fascinating finds they have made in manuscripts around the world.  We will have a number of topic threads on subjects we hope will be of interest to a wide range of readers: “Medieval and Early Modern Poetics: Theory and Practice,” “Mysteries of Medieval Codicology,” “Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern,” and “Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.” We hope you enjoy exploring these beautiful and captivating books as much as we have.

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

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Where the wild things are in a medieval book is the margins! And even this animal-human hybrid grotesque enjoys a good book
Book of Hours, France, c. 1430-c. 1440; British Library Harley MS 2900, f. 85r