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.

The Unfinished Book and Medieval Updating

A website updates, a book doesn’t.

This is one of the many ways to dichotomize two of today’s major competing media. However, such a categorical binary has not always been the case, and in the medieval world books were rarely ‘published’ in the way we’ve come to understand. Take for example the manuscript British Library Harley 1758.

Folio 45
Folio 45v

It was produced sometime between 1450 and 1500 and contains a copy of the Canterbury Tales, including the spurious Tale of Gamelyn. It seems to have been written by three distinct scribes and then corrected by a supervisor of sorts. While finely decorated and illuminated, there are notable gaps throughout the manuscript. Such gaps were clearly intentional at some stage in the process and similar blank spaces can be found in other manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The gaps in Harley 1758 (found on folios 45v, 102, 127 and 200) all fall between the end of one character’s tale and the beginning of another’s. The reason behind such premeditated gaps seems to be an intention to fill them with a portrait of the upcoming speaker. For example, on folio 102, the gap in the manuscript comes between the rubricated sentences Here endith the gode wifes tale of Bathe and Here begynneth the prolog of the ffrere.

Folio 102
Folio 102r

Presumably, then, the plan was to place a portrait of the Friar to fill in this gap. Similarly, on folio 200, we find a gap beginning at the top of the manuscript and ending with the sentence Here begy[n]neth the prolog of the ffrankeleyne.

Folio 200
Folio 200r

In this manuscript, portraits of the Cook, Friar, Manciple, and Franklin, were all clearly intended but have been left out in the process of manufacturing. The modern mind, strongly rooted in the print culture of the last few centuries, immediately wants to call this an ‘incomplete’ manuscript. By the simplistic standards set out above for a book, this work is clearly missing pieces intended for inclusion and therefore cannot be called ‘finished’ or ‘published’ in the sense we think of today. However, in a time with limited writing materials and a high cost of production for a single manuscript, books were an evolving entity and constantly updating in purpose and function. Moreover, as stated above, books like Harley 1758 were the product of numerous workers, all of whom had to be paid. In scenarios such as these, the eventual owners of the book funding its production might have simply run out of money. Even still, the book was ‘published’ despite its missing pieces, and its gaps cleverly used for other purposes in later times.

Folio 127
Folio 127r

Folio 127 of the work has been carefully reused to record the birth dates of the children of Edmund Foxe of Ludford, a 16th century clerk. This type of genealogical information is commonly found in medieval manuscripts, since, as stated above, the preciousness of such items made them valuables in medieval and early modern times.

The gaps in Harley 1758 give us insight into medieval and early modern usage of books and thoughts on the concept of publication. It is clear that the print-age dichotomy of finished and unfinished breaks down for medieval books, and perhaps their status is more akin to modern notions of website updates.

Axton Crolley
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Alien manuscript. . . or ancient writing system

Commentarii notarum tironianarum (f. 1-42v). Psalmi notis tironianis scripti (f. 43-57).
; Bn lat. 190, f. 44r

Medieval manuscripts pose many intriguing writing systems. Some, like Yale University’s Voynich Manuscript have foiled even the best attempts to unravel them. Others, like this strange looking text from the Bibliothèque nationale de France may seem to have come from another galaxy, but it can actually be identified from its rubric letters XXII PSALM[US] D[AVI]D, the twenty-second Psalm! (Psalm twenty-three in modern bibles)

Although it looks like the lost script of ancient aliens, this strange writing system is actually a medieval form of abbreviated writing known as Tironian Notae. Tradition ascribes the invention of these strange squiggles to the Roman Senator Cicero’s freedman and secretary, Tiro. Tiro, so it is claimed, developed this way of writing to help him take down his employer’s verbose dictation more quickly. This system of shorthand is attested in the ancient world, but was adapted and used extensively among the esoteric intellectuals at the courts of Charlemagne and his Frankish successors. Large numbers of manuscripts written partially or sometimes entirely in Tironian notes survive from this period (roughly 750-900 CE). Carolingian court scholars and bureaucrats seem to have been attracted to this writing system’s facility for writing everyday documents, but entire books were composed in it. They even adapted the script by adding new symbols to quickly write Christian words like “Prophet” or “Holy Spirit.”

Commentarii notarum tironianarum
; Bn lat. 8779, f. 47r

Very few everyday records have survived in Tironian script. One type of texts that do survive, however, are textbooks used to teach the Tironian system to new scribes. Large texts like the Psalter above written entirely in Tironian Notae gave students the opportunity to practice deciphering the script, while dictionaries and word lists like the one below presented the vocabulary in groups based on shared roots. A careful examination of one set of words below demonstrates the way the Tironian shorthand was based on variations to a common root. The set of four symbols shown below stood for the Latin words:

Commentarii notarum tironianarum


Although knowledge and use of Tironian shorthand disappeared rapidly during the decline of Carolingian court culture in the tenth century, aspects of the system were preserved in part by incorporation into the standard long-hand forms of writing Latin. The Tyronian note looking like ‘7’ was frequently employed in normal Latin writing to represent the word ‘et’ (‘and’). In England especially, Tironian ‘7’ was so popular for writing the Latin word for the conjunction that scribes even used it for the native English word meaning the same in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts.

Although the vitality and importance of this ancient writing system were quickly forgotten, books like this Paris manuscript are tangible reminders that what we might consider the “dark ages” was actually a time of sophisticated learning and culture which preserved and extended a form of literacy so sophisticated it looks alien to us.

Benjamin Wright
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of our ongoing series on the Mysteries of Medieval Codicology.