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.

The Book of Sir John Mandeville and William Langland’s Piers Plowman: An Unlikely Pair?

When first “published” in the fourteenth-century, William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Mandeville-author’s The Book of Sir John Mandeville, each in their own right, went viral. As the number of extant manuscripts for both works suggests,[1] they took the English nation by storm in the early decades of their reception history, not as instantaneous explosions that quickly fizzle out like a modern day cat video, but as longstanding bestsellers that deeply influenced the course of England’s intellectual and social history. The organizers of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, for example, cite Piers in the famous Letters of John Ball.[2] A copy of Mandeville, scholars enjoy noting, was consulted by Christopher Columbus before his voyages, and the text served as a source of inspiration for many explorers in the so-called Age of Exploration. Indeed, great minds read, used, and cited these texts to various ends for centuries, but rarely, it seems, together. Except, that is, among their earliest readers, at least some of whom saw a natural affinity between them.

Given their coterminous popularity in late medieval England, it seems statistically probable that some, and quite possibly many, avid readers of Middle English would encounter, or at least know about both of these texts. While that surmise might sound less than startling, the idea of these two works occupying space in the same book often elicits surprise in conversations about my work. In fact, Piers and Mandeville circulated together in five known manuscript copies. The original discovery of that information by one of my own undergraduate professors, Anne Middleton, effects just such a response as she remarks that Piers’ “most frequent companion must be rather surprising” (105).[3] This discovery forms the basis of my book project, “Reading Beyond the Borders: Literary Geography and the shared reception of Piers Plowman and The Book of Sir John Mandeville,” in which I examine all five manuscripts in order to uncover this textual pairing’s early reception history. For, to the modern reader tied to culturally specific notions of genre and modern methodologies of reading, Piers and Mandeville can indeed appear to make little sense together. However, when read from the perspective of a medieval reader (to the extent that that is possible in 2017), these two works become much more obvious travel companions.

Sir John Mandeville leaving for his journey. This image comes from the only Piers-Mandeville manuscript with a cycle of illustrations. Piers, however, is not illustrated in this book. London, British Library MS Harley 3954, f.1r.

On the surface level, this pairing shares some key narrative features: their narrators, both English, go on pilgrimage with a didactic mission. David Benson also identifies their common purpose as vernacular forms of “public writing” meant to deliver Latinate, clerical learning to a wide lay and religious audience.[4] Dig deeper, and even more thematic connections emerge: both works explore what it means to be English within the large expanse of global Christendom. The very concept of nationhood itself comes under scrutiny as both narrators delve into the ethics of kingship and enter into dialogue with non-Christians.[5] Both works, moreover, present their own progressive and inclusive versions of universal history, apocalypticism, and salvation (with the egregious exception of Mandeville’s severe anti-Semitism). Likewise, because Piers, a dream vision, and Mandeville, a travel narrative, fold innumerable source texts into their own writing, neither one is confined by the constraints of their primary genres. These connections comprise a mere sampling of the many important issues raised when reading Piers and Mandeville in dialogue with each other, rather than as stand alone texts.

Interestingly, medieval scribes and readers themselves brought many of these concerns to my attention. For, in each of the five manuscripts, they repurpose their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing according to their own, often polemical, ends. By anthologizing, revising, annotating, editing, illustrating, rubricating, and otherwise designing every detail of their books, they published and/or read their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing in unique, individualized manuscript contexts. Additionally, the varied regional, vocational, and personal backgrounds of these readerships color their reader responses, especially in relation to the specific types of political and ecclesiastical corruption they each prioritize. Ultimately, what is perhaps more surprising than the pairing’s codicological companionship is the relevance of its audience’s responses to recent literary studies in the current age of globalization. These readers, in fact, follow the navigation of two English narrators across national and cultural boundaries, interrogating corrupt and stable governments, the value of public institutions, and the need for interfaith dialogue and cultural exchange.

Thus, rather than comprising two unrelated, isolated events in literary history, these two longstanding bestsellers, influencers of major historical events and movements, jointly stimulated the minds of their shared audiences. This book, therefore, demonstrates that these texts’ lasting impacts on social and intellectual history were not exclusive of each other, and neither was their relevance to the medieval readers who read them as ideal companion pieces.

Karrie Fuller
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

[1] There are nearly sixty manuscripts of Piers Plowman, and, internationally, around three hundred for The Book of Sir John Mandeville. The most popular Middle English version, known as the Defective text, numbers forty-four. A variation of this version is in each of the manuscripts examined for this project.

[2] For just one of many important studies on this topic, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[3] Anne Middleton, “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982), 101-123, 147-154.

[4] David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).

[5] There is a large body of literature on what the concept of “nation” [natio in Latin, “nacioun” in Middle English] meant in the Middle Ages. For an introduction to the subject, see Kathy Lavezzo’s edited volume, Imagining a Medieval English Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Working in the Archives – Manuscript Research at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, Rabat

One of the major manuscript collections in Morocco is currently the property of His Majesty, King Mohammad VI. The Khizana al-Hasaniyya or the Bibliothèque Royale as it is known, is housed in the royal palace in Rabat and directly attached to the royal residences. The Researcher Annex where most guests of the library work, is detached from the palace yet located within the palatial environs.

Due to the personal nature and physical location of this library, it is necessary for the aspiring researcher to observe security protocol and to put their best professional foot forward. Like many things in Morocco, the rules will not be explained in detail but everyone will act as though you know them. When in doubt, ask questions.

Basic Details

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya is part of the Qasr al-Malik or Palais Royale in Rabat and consists of the main manuscript library attached to the royal residences and the Researcher Annex. The Researcher Annex is opened from 9am-4pm Monday – Friday. Most work is done in the Researcher Annex, a new building completed sometime after 2014 and staffed with computers for manuscript consultation. Be advised that electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops are forbidden in the Researcher Annex, and all bags must be stored in the small cupboard in the corner of the Researcher Annex.

At the time of the visit, the Khizana al-Hasaniyya manuscript library was open only to those researchers with specific codicological research though it is possible for one of the librarians to give you a tour of the Khizana. The manuscripts they have on display are stunning, from early Qur’ans to musicology texts to a copy of Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima copied by one of his students and annotated in the margins by Ibn Khaldun himself.

Researcher cards can be obtained by contacting the director of the Khizania al-Hasaniyya, Dr. Ahmed Chouqui Binebine (a.binebine@gmail.com), and requesting a meeting with him to discuss your research. Dr. Binebine speaks Darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic), Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic or MSA) and French; if you do not speak these languages, it is best to arrange your meeting with the help of another scholar with current researcher privileges; that way, they can advocate on your behalf while translating as needed.

If you arrive in Morocco and you don’t have someone in country who can pull strings for you at the Hasaniyya, contact Dr. James Miller, the director of MACECE in Rabat.  He is used to helping Americans make connections with Moroccans and may know someone who can help.

Bring your passport and a copy of the passport face page and the page with your date of entry to Morocco or your Carte de Séjour, your research clearance and/or Lettre D’Attestation, and two passport sized photographs to your meeting. Unlike the BRNM, there is no fee associated with this card. It is unclear as to whether or not researcher cards are valid for a specific amount of time or if this time can be negotiated.

For the record, I was able to gain a researcher card valid for three months. This card is an index sized paper card written in Arabic and stamped with the official seal; you will need it for subsequent visits to the library.

During your meeting, you can also request a copy of the General Index for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya along with other catalogs relevant to your research.  This is invaluable as copies of the General Index are quite hard to come by in the United States (Emory and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have copies of the General Index).

The General Index of Manuscripts for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya. All entries are in Arabic.

While the General Index just lists the manuscripts alphabetically and with little information about the manuscript, the more in-depth catalogs, such as the catalogs on Ash’arite manuscripts and those concerned with Islamic law, are much more detailed.  You can request copies of these subject-specific indexes from Dr. Binebine.

Additional manuscript catalogs; text in Arabic.

Dr. Binebine and other librarians at the Khizana may also give you additional texts, such as their publications on codicology. Dr. Binebine’s 2015 book, Histoire des bibliotheques au Maroc, is worth having for any medievalist or manuscript specialist.

The dress code is business wear, with many Moroccan researchers wearing traditional Moroccan clothes such as djellabas. Looking like you have a valid reason to go to the royal palace will help convince the guards and employees that you are not some random tourist hoping to see the king.

For those spending the day or at least the lunch hour at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, there is a small arcade opposite the soccer field near the Researcher Annex where you can get a pizza (15 MAD) and fresh orange juice (10MAD) as well as a sandwich on occasion or snacks from the nearby hanout (kiosk). It is best to be discreet about drinking water in the Researcher Annex just to avoid any problems.

Getting There

The Qasr al-Mālik is a massive compound located at the end of the Avenue Mohammed V in downtown Rabat and is guarded around the clock. For your first visit, you will need to present your passport and tell the guard that you have an appointment with the director of the Khizana; the guard will then phone to confirm your visit. For subsequent visits, saying that you are a researcher (chercheur/chercheuse) at the library and presenting your researcher card is enough to get in, though it never hurts to have your passport and your Lettre D’Attestation in case someone asks for it.

Unlike European palaces, the Qasr al-Mālik is more akin to a city within a city, making it difficult for the first time visitor to get to where they are going. For the person going alone, it is best to take a petit taxi to the main gate, Bab Soufara, and then have the cab driver continue through the gate and take you directly to the Khizana.

NB: Make sure the driver takes you to the right spot; simply asking for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya might bring you to the Researcher Annex or it might bring you to the Khizana itself. The same is true when it comes to asking for directions inside the compound. If the cab driver wants to leave you at the gate, it is a 10-15 minute walk to the Researcher Annex from Bab Soufara.

Conducting Research

As previously mentioned, the physical manuscripts are largely off-limits to most researchers, meaning that the majority of manuscript work is now done digitally. To request a copy of the manuscript, you will need to fill out a small request form at the desk in the Researcher Annex and give it to the librarian sitting there; they will then call up the digital copies of the manuscript and load them on one of the computers lining the walls. When the files are ready, the librarian will call you over to the computer.

To request digital copies of the manuscripts, you will need to write directly to the director of the Khizana, Dr. Binebeine, and state what it is you want and why you need it. Do not email Dr. Binebine but present a printed and signed copy of your letter to the librarian at the Researcher Annex and ask them to give it to Dr. Binebine. The librarian will then convey your request and, if it is approved, a digital copy of the manuscript will be given to you within 24-48 hours.

Prior to 2013, digital copies were presented to researchers on CD but as of March 2017, a colleague was able to load the files directly onto a USB stick.

NB: One might be limited to the number of folia they are allowed to request per manuscript. Some have reported that they were only able to request 10 folia of a manuscript, while others said they were able to get 40-50 folia. As such, plan your requests and research accordingly.


The Khizana al-Hasaniyya runs on Arabic, especially Darija. The various manuscript indexes, from the General Index to the more thematic indexes of manuscripts, are in Arabic, along with the manuscript request forms. Researchers should have a solid command of the Arabic script and decent penmanship in order to correctly write out their requests.

Spoken French can get one by in a pinch, especially if one’s vocabulary related to manuscripts is not as strong in Darija or Fusha (MSA) as it is in French. For those researchers who are Caucasian or black, the staff may speak to you in somewhat broken French, assuming that you either come from France (if white) or one of the francophone African countries (if black).

The computers in the Researcher Annex all run Microsoft OS and are in French, not English. The screens are touch screens, meaning that you can pinch and zoom in on the images, as well as swipe back and forth. However, most of the other researchers in the Annex use the mouse so it’s probably best to follow their lead.

When it comes to writing a manuscript request letter, the letter must be in Arabic (MSA) or French. If you are unsure about the protocol or language within the letter, ask the librarian in the Researcher Annex if they have a copy of a request on file for you to use.


The Royal Palace is a trip for a medievalist not in the least because it is a functioning palace on the scale of medieval administrative cities.  Those who live on the palace grounds and who work there inherited the position from their family members, many of whom may have been part of the royal slave retinues just under two hundred years ago.  To see the Royal Palace in Rabat gives one a good appreciation for the scale of medieval administrative cities like Baghdad, Samarra, Qayrawan, Cairo, Fez, and Marrakech and for the way in which such palaces were cities in their own right.

For additional resources on the Hasaniyya as well as other manuscript libraries in Morocco, see J. Hendrickson and S. Adil, “A Guide to Arabic Manuscript Libraries in Morocco: Further Developments,” (2013)